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How to talk to your teen about mental health

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You don't have to go it alone. Use these five tips to get started.

For some families, talking about mental health may be an everyday occurrence. For other families, it may be a new topic, and it may feel a little awkward at first. But the more you do it, the more comfortable it will feel — for you and your loved ones. And it's important to try. Nearly 60% of teens say the pandemic has affected their mental health.1

We've got some strategies that can help you get the conversation started. 

Need help getting your teen to open up? Check out Optum's conversation starter toolkit for resources to help you talk to your teen about the hard stuff.

Five tips before you talk 

1. Remember what being a teen is like. Teenagers are going through a time of change. They may be getting their first job, learning to drive, hanging out with friends more and spending less time with parents.2 That’s all a normal part of development.

At the same time, their brain is still developing. The parts that control impulses and help them make decisions aren’t fully formed.3

Social media may also have an impact on teens’ lives. It can make them feel anxious about whether others approve of them, overwhelmed by constant notifications and worried that they’re missing out.4

Frequent Instagram use for young women is also correlated with body dissatisfaction as well as anxiety, depression and low self-esteem.5

2. Watch for cues. Teens may bring up mental health topics on their own. They might mention what a friend is going through or how they’re feeling themselves. It’s important to listen, so you don’t miss these opportunities. If you're looking for ways to engage your teen — and get more than one-word answers — our downloadable conversations starters can help. 

3. Respect differences. There’s a good chance you and the teen or young adult in your life will have different opinions about political, social or other topics. While it may be tough, try to stay calm and respect their different views.

This can help you build trust and make them more open to talking with you.2 Instead of lecturing, help your teen plan how to make healthy choices about alcohol and drugs, relationships and other topics they’ll face.2,6 

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4. Learn about mental health. Many people have personal experience with depression, anxiety or other mental health concerns. But for some people, these topics are new. If you aren’t familiar with these conditions, educate yourself before you bring them up. Also, know what signs to watch for.

Signs that a person may be dealing with a mental health issue and need help include:7

  • Feeling sad or withdrawn for more than a couple of weeks
  • Having severe mood swings
  • Worrying a lot
  • Getting into fights with others

5. Don't avoid tough topics. If you think someone may be having suicidal thoughts, ask. If the answer is yes, seek professional help including contacting emergency services. Talking about suicide will not cause it.2

Also, don’t shy away from bringing up traumatic events that you may have experienced, together or alone. But watch to see what they’re comfortable with.

While some young people want to talk, others may not feel comfortable talking about traumatic situations — or at least not right away. Don’t pressure them.8

If you or someone you know has thoughts about suicide, seek help right away. To talk with a trained counselor, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline anytime at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) or call 988.

If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 911 — or go to the closest emergency room.


  1. Global Shapers Community et al. COVID-19 Youth Survey: Report. Published Nov. 9, 2020. Accessed Sept. 27, 2021.
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Teenagers (15–17 years of age). Last reviewed February 22, 2021. Accessed September 27, 2021.
  3. National Institutes of Health. Parenting teens: Guiding kids through turbulent years. June 2019. Accessed Sept. 27, 2021.
  4. Steele RG, Hall JA, Christofferson JL. Conceptualizing digital stress in adolescents and young adults: Toward the development of an empirically based model. Clin Child Fam Psychol Rev. 2020 Mar;23(1):15–26.
  5. Sherlock M, Wagstaff DL. Exploring the relationship between frequency of Instagram use, exposure to idealized images and psychological well-being in women. Psychol Pop Media Cult. 2019;8(4):482–490.
  6. American Psychological Association. Communicating with teens during COVID. March 8, 2021. Accessed Sept. 27, 2021.
  7. MentalHealth.gov. For parents and caregivers. Last updated March 22, 2019. Accessed Sept. 27, 2021.
  8. National Institute of Mental Health. Helping children and adolescents cope with disasters and other traumatic events: What parents, rescue workers and the community can do. Accessed Sept. 27, 2021.

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Optum does not recommend or endorse any treatment or medications, specific or otherwise. The information provided is for educational purposes only and is not meant to provide medical advice or otherwise replace professional advice. Consult with your clinician, physician or mental health care provider for specific health care needs, treatment or medications. Certain treatments may not be included in your insurance benefits. Check with your health plan regarding your coverage of services.

If you are experiencing thoughts of suicide or if this is urgent and an emergency, call 911 or 1-800-suicide (784-2433) or 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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