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How to engage in conversations to help kids feel safer and more secure

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in five adolescents ages 13-18 have or will have a mental health disorder. The latest Pennsylvania Youth Survey (PAYS) data for students grades 6-12 shows that one in six students have seriously considered suicide, one in eight have a plan to die by suicide, and one in 10 have attempted suicide.

At a time when 29 percent of our students feel sad or depressed most days, according to PAYS, and suicide rates are rising across the nation, we must find ways to promote open and honest communication between youth and adults.

Being proactive and engaging in meaningful, sometimes difficult conversations can help young people feel safer and more secure. Reaching out to youth reinforces that there are adults who are supportive and willing to talk when times get tough.

Knowing how to reach out or what to say can seem overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. Here are some tips to help get you started.

  • Listen. Active listening is a technique parents and caregivers can use to encourage and build connection. Listen mindfully to what the child is saying. Repeat what you’ve heard to demonstrate understanding and support. Use active listening to explore the feelings and emotions a child is experiencing and help them think through issues and solve problems on their own.
  • Be curious and open. Young people often are happy to talk about what is going on in their life, if given the space. Let the young person guide the conversation. Try not to solve their problems, but instead work with them to brainstorm ideas and solutions. Allow the young person to speak openly and freely, ask open ended questions to learn more and guide the conversation.
  • Practice respect. Young people often have different feelings, values and experiences from the adults in their lives. To strengthen bonds and encourage further conversations, show respect for their viewpoints. If your child doesn’t want to talk about something at the moment, and it’s not a crisis, leave the door open for further conversation. Example, “I hear you saying that you don’t want to talk about X right now. I’ll check in with you about it later. When you are ready to talk, I’m ready to listen.”
  • Get advice from experts. It’s OK to not know all the answers. If you’re stuck, overwhelmed or unsure, you can seek professional help. There are many trained professionals who can offer advice and support to you and your loved one during a time of need.

Kids need the support of parents, caregivers and the community at all stages of life. That support must be rooted in the values of connection, communication and respect. Practicing the strategies above can help make even the toughest parenting moments more manageable.

To discuss additional current mental health trends and strategies for providing support to young people, please join the Straight Talk session on Tuesday, Jan. 15, from 7-8:30 p.m. at Mount Nittany Middle School.

Marisa Vicere is the president of Jana Marie Foundation Ali Turley is the program specialist.
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