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Can We Talk?

Vital Conversations for Parents and Teens

When children become teenagers, communication suddenly includes lots of eye-rolling, slammed doors, and dramatic closing arguments such as “You just don’t understand me!” So how do you open the lines of communication with your teen? Here are three conversations that may help.

by Sierra Sanchez, MSSW | Contributor

Conversation #1: Engage your teen with “no agenda” conversations

A rapid-fire string of questions aimed at a task, instruction, admonishment, or criticism can make teens feel that every conversation with parents has an agenda.

We need to cultivate the art of talking with our teens, not at them.  Try using open-ended questions to encourage real conversation. If you ask questions that can be answered with a simple “yes,” “no,” “fine,” or “I don’t know,” you’ll have a pretty short conversation. Instead, ask for an opinion, a description, or an account of their day. Express genuine interest in hearing more details. Respond positively to encourage elaboration. This encourages them to be honest and open about how they feel.  It’s a friendly exchange with no underlying agenda.

No-agenda conversations build rapport, establish trust, and help teens feel comfortable talking with parents about any topic.  This will come in handy if you ever need to have a more in-depth conversation about things like their emotional health.

Conversation #2: Check in with a “TAG” talk

With one in four teens exhibiting symptoms of depression or anxiety, it’s important to be able to talk openly about mental health. As a parent, you are likely the first person to notice changes in your teen’s behavior, mood, sleep, or appetite—and to talk with them about it.

If your teen is in emotional or psychological distress, you may need to ask more pointed questions to determine the severity of the problem. The simple acronym TAG can help: Take it seriously, Ask questions, and Get help.

Take it seriously.

Listen. Don’t judge. Don’t act shocked or angry.  Let the teen know that you care and he or she is not alone.  Depression and other mental health disorders can be treated.  No matter how awful the problems seem, they can be worked out.

Ask questions.

• Open the conversation:  Say, “I’m concerned about you. What’s going on?”  Be specific.  Paraphrase what you hear and repeat it back to them.

• Dig deeper.  How long have you been feeling this way? Have you felt so bad that you’ve thought of harming yourself? Are you thinking about ending your life? Do you have a plan?

• Ask if you can help. Will you let me help you?  Will you promise not to harm yourself until we’ve found some help?

Get help.

• If the situation is not life-threatening, encourage your teen to talk to a mental health professional and offer to go along for support.

• If the situation is life-threatening, call 911 or a crisis help line, or go to the nearest emergency room. Do not leave your teen alone until help is available. Take away anything that could be harmful.

• Save the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number in your cell phone: 1-800-273-TALK (8255). It’s available 24/7.

Talking openly about it is the first step to getting help. It also provides an opportunity to talk with your teen about how to stay mentally well and how to watch for signs of depression in their friends.

Conversation #3: Know the right things to say when a teen is struggling

Let’s be honest, all of us probably say the wrong thing sometimes. Making these simple changes in the words you use can make your teen feel that you understand and care. Teens just want to feel supported, accepted, and loved.

What Hurts

It’s all in your head.

We all go through times like this.

You have so much to live for—why do you want to die?

What do you want me to do? I can’t change your situation.

Just snap out of it. Look on the bright side.

You’ll be fine. Stop worrying.

Here’s my advice…

What helps

I know you have a real illness and that’s what causes these thoughts and feelings.

I may not be able to understand exactly how you feel, but I care about you and want to help.

You are important to me. Your life is important to me.

Tell me what I can do now to help you.

You might not believe it now, but the way you’re feeling will change.

You are not alone in this. I’m here for you.

Talk to me. I’m listening.

These are the first steps toward opening lines of communication with your teenager. Every teen is different, but parents can help guide them by establishing open, honest, and caring communication. The more effort and practice you put into it, the more instinctive and spontaneous your communication skills will become.

Resources: www.DBSAlliance.org

Editor’s Note: Sierra Sanchez is the Senior Program Coordinator at Grant Halliburton Foundation, a Dallas nonprofit organization committed to teen and young adult mental health and suicide prevention. granthalliburton.com


Know the signs: 

• Changes in appetite, weight, sleep, or mood

• A sense of hopelessness, helplessness, feelings of guilt or worthlessness

• Persistent sadness and withdrawal from friends, family and/or activities

• Irritability, restlessness, agitation, loss of energy, and difficulty concentrating

• Risky behaviors including self-injury, running away, substance abuse and sexual promiscuity

Take these steps:

• Offer help and support

• Listen without lecturing; invite them to plan an intervention with you

• Validate feelings

• Avoid pushing and asking too many questions, but trust your instincts

• If the situation seems serious, seek professional help



National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:


A 24-hour crisis hotline that will help you connect with mental health resources in your area. 



Here For Texas

A searchable database of mental health providers, organizations, resources and information related to youth mental health in North Texas. HereForTexas.com

The Grant Halliburton Foundation

More information on teen mental health, peer support groups for parents, and resources.


Okay to Say™

A community-based movement initiated by the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute to increase public awareness about how mental health issues affect us. okaytosay.org

National Institute of Mental Health  nimh.nih.gov 

National Alliance on Mental Illness NAMI.org 



The Five Love Languages of Teens  by Gary Chapman

How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish

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