parent talking to teen

Child Health | 5 months ago

Connecting the Dots: How to Have Meaningful Check-Ins with your Teen

Emotional check-ins are an important way for parents to support the mental health of their children. But cracking into the thoughts and feelings of a teenager can feel impossible. Hannah Bivens, nurse practitioner at Atrium Health Levine Children's Cabarrus Pediatrics, shares some effective ways parents can engage in check-ins that will help foster a strong parent-teen relationship.

It is no secret that cracking into the thoughts and feelings of a teenager can make breaking out of an escape room seem like a breeze. Yet, emotional check-ins are an important way for parents to support the mental health of their children. Hannah Bivens, nurse practitioner at Atrium Health Levine Children's Cabarrus Pediatrics, says parent and teen communication about mental health enables parents to get a sense of what is going well, identify and address problems, and teach strategies for coping with stress and difficult circumstances.

As teenagers undergo various physical, emotional and social changes, Bivens says it's essential for parents to have regular check-ins to provide a supportive space for open communication, which can foster a strong parent-teen relationship.

If you are struggling to start these conversations with your teen, you’re not alone. Bivens shares some effective ways parents can engage in check-ins with their teens to promote mental well-being.

Establish a safe space

Creating a safe and non-judgmental space is paramount for meaningful conversations. Ensure your teen feels comfortable expressing their thoughts, opinions and emotions without fear of criticism. This lays the foundation for a trusting relationship, fostering an atmosphere where your teen feels heard and understood.

“Teenagers are in a complex stage of life where they are physically growing but are also developing mentally and socially,” Bivens says. “They are learning about their independence and need a safe environment at home where they can ask questions.”

Bivens says parents are in a great position to provide direction and positive reinforcement to their adolescents’ highly impressionable minds. But some teens may feel uncomfortable if they feel like they are being bombarded with new questions. Try cutting down on the “annoying parent” factor by taking a cue from your child about how much talk they can handle. Parents should approach their adolescents with an open mind and listen. If teenagers feel heard, they are more likely to listen.

“It can be so tricky, but it is important to have conversations with your adolescents routinely,” Bivens says. “This makes it easier to address these delicate discussions when they arise and allows everyone to be more comfortable.”

Finding the “right” time

While teenagers are gaining independence at this stage in life, they are not adults yet and need frequent guidance. Bivens says routinely checking in with your teenager allows them to feel supported.

“When they have a problem or issue in the future, they are more likely to reach out to you than to someone else who may not provide the best advice, such as a friend,” Bivens says. “Not every conversation with your adolescent needs to be about difficult issues. It is important to regularly ask your teenager how they are doing.”

The best time for a check-in varies for teens and families. Think about the flow of your days to determine what might work. Try to pick a time when you are alone and not distracted with other activities. Whether it's a weekly dinner, a weekend walk, or a designated time before bed, having a consistent routine helps normalize communication and provides a reliable opportunity for your teen to share what's on their mind.

If you seem to be striking out, consider asking your child what times feel better for talking. At the very least, you may learn when not to ask!

Short is sweet

Not every check-in has to be a deep-dive. Sprinkle in some opportunities for your teen to provide brief updates so they don't feel pressured to share a lot of detail or engage in a full-on conversation. A quick catch-up can often give you enough information, especially if they are done frequently and don’t feel “out of the blue.”

“Frequent, shorter conversations can lead to deeper, more insightful discussions,” Bivens says. “This allows trust to be built over time, and teenagers are more likely to approach their parents when challenging issues arise.”

Of course, if you feel your child is struggling or at risk of developing a problem, be more persistent for the sake of their safety and well-being.

Ask open-ended questions

Instead of asking yes/no questions, try open-ended ones that invite your teen to share more about their experiences. Questions like, "Did you have a good day?" can be expanded to, "Can you tell me about a highlight or challenge you faced today?" This encourages thoughtful responses and demonstrates your genuine interest in their lives.

When you have a concern about your child, try using concrete examples of what you observe and ask about their behavior. Taking a gentle, curious approach may feel less confrontational and may elicit a better response. Approaching the conversation in this way may also help your teen to be more aware of and learn to reflect on their own behavior.

Don’t give up

The act of asking questions communicates your support, and this alone makes a difference. It is also OK to ask how you could better communicate. This strategy is not always successful, but you may be surprised by the answers you receive. Remember that your effort means something, and over time it will hopefully result in improved communication.

“By nature, teenagers are complex and will have difficult situations arise as they navigate school, friendships, and extracurriculars,” Bivens says. “It is important that parents provide a stable environment at home that fosters a sense of safety.”

The teenage years can be challenging, and emotions may run high. It's crucial to remain calm and patient, even in the face of disagreement. Avoid reacting impulsively, and instead, strive to understand the root of the issue.

“If your teenager is opening up to you, this means they trust you and are seeking your guidance and/or support,” Bivens says. “Keeping an open mind while also maintaining your composure will ensure these tough conversations go smoothly. Take a few deep breaths or count to three prior to responding, and remember this is not easy for you either.

Success is relative

“Progress” will look different depending on the child and their circumstances. Although your teen likely will not share everything with you, any communication is a step in the right direction. This is true even if it means asking you for additional support, like assistance connecting with a teacher or therapist.

However difficult it can feel, finding a way to communicate with your teen is critical to supporting them during this tumultuous developmental period. In checking in with them, you are saying that you care. That message never stops being important and will always make a difference (even if they don’t say it at the time).

For more ways to help your teen thrive, find an Atrium Health Levine Children’s pediatrician near you.