Mar 9, 2021


Interviewer: You've noticed a change in your teenager's mood. They're angry, moody, defiant, irritable, and in addition, their school performance or maybe interest in other activity is significantly decreased. You're worried about depression. Is it okay to talk to them about it, or could it cause more harm than good?

Dr. Thomas Conover is a psychologist at University of Utah Health, and what is your advice for parents about how to talk to their teens about these tough topics? Or should they even talk to them about them?

Dr. Conover: Communication is a real key. It certainly is protective and helpful for parents to communicate and inquire with their teen as to what's going on and how they're feeling. And that's something that I think most parents strive for but may struggle with. How do I talk to my teen? What do I talk to my teen about? Is it okay to ask? I would advance to say that it's always okay to ask your child about how they're doing. You seem really sad lately. Is there something bothering you? Is there any way I can help?

Interviewer: No. I mean you probably have to dig a little bit sometimes, huh?

Dr. Conover: You may. I think that there's value in setting an example and leaving the door open by saying those two things. In terms of setting an example, certainly communicating openly oneself is important. Right? So I've talked about various areas of function that a parent might look at for a teen child and use to try to evaluate how serious a problem that they're suspecting maybe. But a parent can show that those things are important themself. Right? A parent can demonstrate that being engage with social activity and self-care and physical activity, you know, which boosts mood, all of those things are important. So a parent may set the stage in their own family by doing those things.

It's always okay to ask your child about how you're they're doing. And even though a lot of times teens may seem outwardly like they don't want someone to ask, I think most of the time people who are struggling even in a small way do want someone to ask. I think it's helpful not to badger. I think if you're met with that initial no on a first inquiry, it's good for a parent to perhaps say, "Well, okay. You know, I hear that you're saying that there's nothing about it that you want to talk about. But just know that I'd be happy to talk to you if you do . . . if you change your mind about that, if you do want to talk about."

I think that's a tough one. It's a tough balance to strike, because I think if a parent is a concerned at all about their child and they try to make that initial ask, first off that's a hard thing to do. You know, you might be thinking about it all day or all week and then, finally on Friday you say, "Oh, we're sitting at dinner and my kid's actually home with me. I'm going to ask." And then, the first thing that they snap back with this, "No. Everything's fine." And the parent might feel kind of rejected by that and, you know, they might respond by shutting down. Right? Going like, "Oh, well, okay. I guess I shouldn't have asked."

I wouldn't advocate for that black and white of a response, nor would I advocate for a parent then saying, "Well, no, I know something must be wrong. I've been watching you all this time, and you just aren't acting yourself. You need to talk to me right now." You know, in most cases, that's not going to be the best approach either. It's, I think, always appropriate to ask and it's always appropriate to maybe give a little space and a little time for the teen to be able to absorb the question and respond. Now, that would be with the exception of a true emergency, and those emergencies do include threats or acts of self-harm or threats or acts of a suicidal nature or serious aggression.

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