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How To Talk — And Listen — To A Teen With Mental Health Struggles

Nebolsine, the therapist in Falls Church, Va., adds that depression manifests itself in talk that is PPP — personal, pervasive and permanent. Personal, meaning they’re internalizing whatever’s going wrong and experiencing it as a personal flaw. Pervasive, meaning the bad feelings cross many areas of their lives from school to socializing. And permanent, like E., who told us, “Everything is hard because there’s no end to it.”

Validating and modeling

The biggest tool in the toolbox of a parent is being able to model,” says Dr. Booth Watkins. “So being able to model resilience, being able to model self-compassion, being able to model mindfulness.” Of course, this means parents need their own support system and self-care practices in place if they want to help their children thrive.

Modeling self-compassion includes what Dr. Booth Watkins calls “the best friend test.” “Would you tell your best friend, ‘that was stupid’?” Probably not, she says, and we should ask our teens not to talk to themselves that way either.

Modeling resilience doesn’t mean belittling or downplaying our children’s concerns. Dr. Booth Watkins says we need to validate and empathize with their feelings about missing a birthday party or a baseball season, even if it seems small in the grand scheme of things. Only then can you move to trying to creatively problem-solve with them.

Getting help

After having one of these conversations, you might want to seek out help from a professional. Teletherapy has made therapy more accessible during the pandemic. Here are some resources and ideas:

  • Google for “sliding scale therapy” in your location to find clinicians who accept lower fees based on patients’ income.
  • Check with a local graduate school to see if they have student therapists available. Check in with your teen’s school for resources.
  • Open Path Collective is a nonprofit committed to affordable therapy
  • Teencounseling.com is an online platform for teens created by the company BetterHelp. (BetterHelp is an NPR sponsor. A full list of NPR podcast sponsors is available here.)

With help from a therapist and medication, E. pulled her grades up from F’s to C’s. And she was excited to return to school in person this month.


The podcast version of this episode was produced by Audrey Nguyen.

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