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Talking to young people about their mental health

Adolescence is a time of growth and change. It is normal for young people to have mood swings, struggle with impulse control, begin to take more risks and experience changes in friendship groups and interests.

These changes make it difficult for parents, carers and professionals to understand what is within the range of normal adolescent development and what might be more concerning. Anxiety and depression are commonly experienced by young people and adolescence is also a time when other mental health issues begin to emerge. Many adults with mental health issues experience the onset of their illness in adolescence.

These links will provide you with more information about other mental health issues young people may be experiencing:

Practice prompt

Part of a young person’s risk-taking behaviour may include experimenting with drugs and alcohol. Some adolescents may start to use alcohol and other drugs as a way of managing their mood. There can be links between some substances, such as cannabis and ICE, and anxiety, depression and psychosis.

Conversation tips when talking to young people

Conversations with young people about their mental health can be challenging, especially if you do not know where to start. Consider the advice below.

Invest the time to talk. It is unlikely a young person is willing to talk on a first visit. Build a relationship of trust with them. Do not rush the young person.

Find the right time and place to talk. Avoid visiting the young person at school or interrupting their lesson times. Think about where they will be most comfortable. Try not to meet at the office, especially if this represents a sad or traumatic time for them. Some young people find it easier to talk with minimal eye contact, so consider going for a walk with them, or sitting next to them instead of opposite them. Lots of parents of teens will say that the car is the best place to have a deep conversation with their child!

Be aware of body language. Some young people might be hypersensitive or reactive to anything they perceive as threatening. Be aware of personal space. If the young person reacts to something you do, notice this and be aware of how this may relate to their experiences.

Just start the conversation. If you are worried about a young person, ask them about it. Be clear about Child Safety’s role and what the worries are.

Validate feelings and experiences. Validate their experiences, do not minimise them and help them to name their feelings. It can be very powerful for a teen to be listened to by an adult, without us trying to ‘fix’ or ‘minimise’ or to cheer them up. 

Sit calmly and breathe. If a young person is upset, angry or disconnected by the conversation, be patient and take time.

Be aware of reactions. If practitioners respond with shock, judgement and anger, a young person is unlikely to keep talking or talk again in the future. Think about what can be done that is the most helpful for the young person at that moment.

Listen more, talk less. Use open-ended questions instead of questions that will give a yes or no answer. Try to sit with silence also, and avoid the temptation to fill the space with words and more questions. Allow time and space for the young person to think and respond.

Avoid the temptation to give advice or lecture. Do not jump in immediately with advice. Ask questions and try not to overwhelm the young person.

Talk openly about mental health. Talk about how other young people might experience the same issues. Tell them about ways they can feel better, such as getting support, diet, exercise, sleep, and connecting with peers, family and the community, and taking medications (if they have been recommended this by a doctor). Bring hope and optimism to these conversations.

Talk about ways to get help. Ask the young person what they think. Give suggestions and listen to what they need to get help. For example, ‘One place to start would be to go and see your doctor and let them know how you are feeling. Can I help to make you an appointment? Is there someone you would like to go with you to an appointment?’

Explain what might happen. Give them as much information as they need to know, depending on their developmental stage or worries about what will happen. For example, ‘Your doctor may help you make a mental health plan. This is written down and lists all the things you think might help, such as going to see a counsellor. It includes numbers you can call if you feel you’re having a really bad time. The doctor may also suggest prescribing medication to help you.’

Notice and build on strengths. Most young people will want to maintain connection to important people in their lives, and to their hobbies and interests. These play a protective role for young people. Help draw up a plan for the week so they can remain connected to who and what is important to them.

Tell the young person they are not alone. Let them know support is available for whatever they need.

Get more advice about talking to young people from Beyond Blue.

Note

The strange reality of life with severe OCD is a Richard Fiedler interview with Lily Bailey, who talks about what it was like for her to experience Obsessive Compulsive Disorder as a young person. Learn from Lily about how children and young people may try to hide their thoughts and behaviours from others, and how being helped to understand an illness can support recovery.

Talking to an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child about mental health

It’s important to plan how to work with an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander child. Seek advice and consultation from the young person's family, Cultural Practice Advisors or Regional Practice Leaders. Ask them what they think you need to know to best work with the child.

Remember that most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities might prefer to define mental health as social and emotional wellbeing. This lens will help to put the child’s experience in the context of loss of land, family and identity as a result of colonisation and oppression. It will also help to harness the strengths of the community, and the role they can play in the healing.

Engaging an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander Young Person

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