Parents, Here's How to Talk to Your Teen About Self Care

Talking to your teen about self care can be difficult, so we spoke with leading experts on teen psychology to find out the best way parents can approach their teens to talk--and what skills they recommend you try!

dR. Carole Lieberman, M.D.

As a Beverly Hills psychiatrist, treating children, teens and families, I am always helping patients incorporate self care into their daily life. And as an author, I help everyone learn how to cope with the stress of modern times, such as in my book, Lions and Tigers and Terrorists, Oh My! How to Protect Your Child in a Time of Terror.

The more you have had honest and open conversations throughout their life, the easier it will be to talk to your teen now. It may be challenging to overcome their defensiveness and fear of criticism, but they will respond well to your sincere expressions of love and concern for them.

Don’t be afraid to ask them about their feelings, including whether they feel angry or sad and what is making them feel that way. You can tell them that you sometimes feel that way, too, and you have found ways to make yourself feel better by practicing ‘self care’, which means taking time out to take care of yourself.

Suggest things like taking walks, getting a massage, reading a good book, doing exercise or cooking your favorite dish - and offer to do these kinds of things with them. Though some teens like to pretend that they’re cool and don’t need anyone, there’s no better self care for a teen than getting attention from mom or dad and having fun with them.

DR. Gayani DeSilva, MD

I am a Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist caring for the severely mentally ill I San Bernadino County, California. I primarily supervise Psychiatry trainees and medical students as they learn how to care for children and adults who need mental health treatment. I have worked in numerous settings from school based clinics, to juvenile prisons, to community clinics, inpatient units and private practice.

There are many challenges facing parents today. Their teens are growing up in the social media age, faced with peer pressure that parents have not experienced. Teens have online and in-person relationships and friendships. Marijuana is legalized in many states and impacts teens’ perspectives about substance use. Then there are the usual teen developmental milestone’s of separating and individuating. How do parents help their teens manage these challenges? Some of it requires parents to learn with their teens. If they can approach each challenge with confidence that together they will figure it out, it will leave the teen feeling like they have more “buy in” because they are in alliance with their parents. I advocate for lots of honest, vulnerable, collaborative communication. Work through challenges together.

First, parents need to prioritize self-care for themselves. This gives teens a tangible example of how important self-care is. I believe that self-care is the foundation, the safety net, that allows for one to take risks and grow.
Second, parents can take an encouraging stance to self-care. Not making commands or giving directions, but instead to approach the discussion as a sharing of their experiences practicing self-care. For instance, I talk to my son and will say. “I am so glad I went to yoga today. It was kinda hard today and I nearly didn’t make it the whole 90mins, but I stuck it out and now I feel strong and happy. Let’s get going in our day. “
Third, ask teens what they need. Take the stance of being interested in their experiences, ideas and needs.

1. Offer to share self-care experiences. Invite your teen to yoga, a walk, stand-up paddle boarding, the spa, taking breaks, breathing fresh air, going to bed on time, eating healthy snacks, etc..
2. Take care of your own mental health. Don’t keep the fact that you see a therapist a secret.
3. Start a practice of doing something each day that is self-care oriented and sharing time to communicate. For instance, make a nutritious meal together, read the same book at the same time, sit in nature together, take short walks after meals together
4. Ask your teen how they feel. A simple, “how are you feeling today” can start a meaningful conversation and bring attention to their well-being.
5. Be curious if their moods or behavior changes. Ask them about what’s going on. Ask them if they’d like to see a therapist or doctor.
6. Be non-reactive, but interested.
7. Maintain routines such as a regular bedtime and eating nutritious meals.
8. Walking the talk is most effective with teens. Don’t tell them to focus on self-care if you don’t. You have to do it too, and teens will naturally follow. Start early, before they are teens. 

Dr. Sharon Saline, Psy.D

I am a clinical psychologist and author of What Your ADHD Child Wishes You Knew: Working Together to Empower Kids for Success in School and Life. I specialize in working with kids, young adults and families living with ADHD, learning disabilities and mental health issues.  

There are a few challenges that parents face when talking with or trying to help their teens. Parents quickly move into problem-solving mode which usually doesn’t work for teens. They want to feel heard and met where they are but often parents tell them how to be different, how they ‘should be’. Sometimes parents are too reactive to their teens: afraid of what they’re hearing or angry when their ideas are rejected. When they become upset, it’s like throwing kindling on the fire of their kids’ issues. The conversation now involves two people whose emotions are running the show instead of only one.

Talking to a teen about self care has to start with compassion: accepting your child for who they are and acknowledging the efforts you see them making. Teens are very quick to become defensive and dismissive. Using phrases such as “I notice” or “It seems like” is an effective way to communicate your observations without pushing them away. Then follow up with questions that encourage their participation in solving the problem: “What are your ideas about?” or “How can I support you in doing things differently?” Routines are helpful as long as they’re written down and posted somewhere. Otherwise, the parent becomes a reminder machine. It may seem juvenile to a teen but until that routine is firmly ensconced in their brains, having it written down is key.

Parents can help their kids by first and foremost setting a positive example of self-care and attention to wellbeing. Being available to listen non-judgmentally and use reflective listening tools is extremely helpful for promoting honest, heartfelt discussions. Bedtime is usually a good time to connect with a teen and often when they want to chat. That can be tough for tired parents so set a limit around how long you’ll talk with them and prop open your eyes as best you can. Car rides are another natural, comfortable time to check in. Perhaps agree in advance to discuss 2 good things and 1 challenging thing about your days. Setting boundaries around screen time not only promotes mental health. Finally, if you are arguing a lot with your teen or if they are showing atypical levels of anxiety, stress, isolation or negative moods, then seeking family or individual counseling them would be important. If they are resistant to going alone, then start with family work on improving your communication.

​Dr. Catherine Jackson

I’m Dr. Catherine Jackson, a Licensed Clinical and Board Certified Neurotherapist and Coach. I provide mental health services with a focus on brain health and holistic wellness to children and families.

Finding appropriate resources and figuring out what their options are. Some parents think medication is the only way to improve mental health. There are many more options, including neurotherapy, psychotherapy and even holistic techniques..

The best way to teach kids of any age is by example. Children learn from parents,good or bad. Parents who want to talk to their kids about self-care will find this talk easier to do when they provide personal examples from their own self-care activities.

Practices families should try include: Working out, healthy eating and/or deep breathing are three things I incorporate in treatment with nearly all the families I work with. However, having regular family time without the use of electronics is great since social media and constantly being bombarded with messages increases stress. 

​Lynn Zakeri, LCSW

My name is Lynn Zakeri and I am a LCSW in private practice in the Chicago area. I see teens and adults, and am also a parent to two teens.

This is a vague area for a lot of parents because many have their own struggles with anxiety and sadness. How do we tell kids to do as we say, not as we do? If mom is sad and in bed, why does child have to be at school on time? If dad is drinking to relieve stress, why should child relieve stress in a healthier manner (sports, exercise, friends)? Parents need to help themselves and educate themselves and then believe in the methods so that their children can believe in the strategies too.

When you first say self-care I think of hygiene issues and this can be a zero-emotion conversation. We all have a responsibility to be hygienic, and this is how we do it. 

I tell all my clients and my family that in my clinical opinion there is a hierarchy of necessary strategies to employ. First and most crucial is sleep. I have never met a well-rested person who is spiraling to a point of no return. Yes, well-rested people have ups and downs because... they are human! but in general regular quality sleep does wonders for mental health. Second is nutrition. What you put in your body can energize you and make you feel good. Make healthy choices. This includes substance use. Last is exercise. Feeling strong and healthy as a mindset also does a lot for mental health.

Talking talking talking talking and talking infused with double the amounts of listening.  Ask questions and be an excellent listener in response. When our teens feel understood and validated by parents they are much more inclined to take our wise advice.

​Briana Hollis, MSSA, CDCA, LSW

My name is Briana and I'm a licensed social worker. I've been working in the crisis intervention space and with teens for almost 5 years.

The biggest challenge that parents face when trying to help their teens take care of their mental health is simple unawareness that their teen is struggling. Many teens are not willing to telling their parents about how they are feeling. This fear is not always because the parent might do or say something negative, but it is out of love and concern. Teens often love their parents very much and don't want them to worry.

One of the best things that a parent can do is just to start the conversation. They should ask their teen about how they are feeling mentally and emotionally. They should directly about suicidal ideation. Many parents are afraid to ask because they feel that they will put that idea in their head. It won't. Many of the young people I've talked to express relief when they have been asked directly about suicidal ideation. Ask them what things make them happy and actually listen. When you find out what these things are, engage with them in those activities or allow them the space to do them.

One method that parents can use to help their teens to start to practice self-care is teaching them how to set boundaries with other people and with themselves. Teens often experience an immense amount of pressure from others and need to learn how to say no to certain experiences..

Another great technique is called grounding. It helps individuals to focus on the here and now instead of what they are anxious about. There are many ways to do this, such as focusing on your senses or naming things of the same color in a room. 

​Amba Brown

I'm Amba Brown, a Positive Psychology Author of various youth wellbeing books and the writer of Finding Your Path - A guide to Starting High School With A Smile; supporting teens in their transition to high school. I've also been interviewed and featured on Huffington Post, TEDx, and Reader’s Digest.

The most common challenge parents face today is the overwhelming amount of concerns for their teen, including the age old issues of bullying and body image, to the various new issues surrounding technology and social media.

While communicating self care tactics to teens is critical, how we do this is even more important. Having open conversations with your teen about their experiences, modeling healthy lifestyle habits (exercise, diet and sleep) and encouraging them to engage in positive coping strategies, such as breathing exercises during times of stress, are some simple strategies parents can undertake.

My number one tip for improving mental health is making self-care fun for teens! Think up ways you can make these practices an enjoyable activity. If we can teach them that when we do good, we feel good, then living a mindful and healthy life becomes what they want to be doing, not what they should be doing.

​Jacob Kountz MFT Trainee

I am a Marriage and Family Therapist Trainee and a Clinic Manager of a CSU Bakersfield in California. I possess experience in parent-child relationships, couple communication skills, interpersonal skills and self-care techniques for teenagers that deal with anxiety and depression. I currently run a mental health blog which I plan to expand into a private practice one day in my city.

Challenges with this are a dime a dozen. It's normal for parents to scratch their heads when thinking "Where do I begin with my teen and mental health needs?" Much of this challenge begins within ourselves as adults. Some parents have their own mental health to work on and feel less equipped to help their own teen. Others may feel their teen is resilient enough and doesn't require extra help. While some may be in the middle and worry how to even begin to talk about such a stigmatized subject.. You are not alone.

Parents can approach their teenager from a curious stance. For example, if you're concerned about your teenagers stress levels regarding school, try this: "Hey (insert name), I've noticed you haven't been eating lately when you get home and go straight to your homework. It seems like you might be in a panic. Am I getting any of this right?" Sure, it may sound a bit robotic at first, but this is a way for parents to check in without teenagers feeling judged or backed into a corner. Keep assumptions off the table and stay curious.

A great place to start as a parent is taking the modelling approach. In other words, monkey see monkey do. Teenagers are always watching and are fairly aware of their surroundings within the household. Parents can begin to model good mental health habits (e.g., deep breathing, mindfulness, affirmations) and positive relational habits with their spouse such as taking turns communicating needs and showcasing understanding versus being right. Soon enough, teenagers will pick up a thing or two from what they see from parents on a daily basis.

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