5 questions: Checking in with kids about their mental health

If you’re raising a family, it can sometimes feel like the hectic days far outnumber the calm ones. From school obligations to extra-curricular activities to social events, the days fill up fast.

But parents are also often told to be checking in on their kids’ mental health. How do you fit that in? And what’s the best way to approach it? We asked SSM Health psychologist Dr. Robert Peyton five questions to help you out.

1. How often should parents check in?

Unfortunately, there is no clear research on exactly how often parents should check in with their kids. However, we do know that the more involved parents are in their children’s lives, the more beneficial it is. This is true for young children, where we see better academic success, lower stress and fewer outbursts in general. It is also true for teenagers, where risky behaviors, suicide, and anxiety and depressive symptoms are lower.

2. Is there a number of conversations per week parents should strive for?

Quality trumps quantity, so dozens of conversations about sports and TV shows are less valuable than a single conversation about friends and pressures of life. But if you are not having regular conversations about light things, there may be no easy way to start talking about more important topics.

Ask yourself these things:

Who are your child’s closest friends and what do they like to do together?
What are their favorite shows and other leisure activities?
Where are they at with their relationships?
What are the things your child finds the hardest in their day-to-day life and what are things they like or are proud of?
Would your child definitely know that if they came to you for help in a really bad situation, that you would be there for them?

If you don’t know the answers to those questions already, you probably want to increase the communication with your child.

3. When is a good time to talk?

Anytime you can have a solid one-on-one conversation is potentially good. In the car is great, if you have some time, but it may take a while before your child is even willing to open up. While a five-minute car ride is probably not ideal, it is infinitely better than nothing. If they do start to open up, you just need to be willing to sit in park and give them a chance to finish.

Dinner conversations have classically been the place for families to talk, and some research shows that families who have meals together regularly have fewer mental health challenges. For some children the dinner table feels too public. With siblings around, they may not necessarily feel like it is a safe place to share personal concerns.

Talking during an activity is often a good way to do things — while you are working together, playing a game together, fishing, running, etc.

You can also always go into their room and talk to them directly if you have that relationship. Find the style and place that works best for you, and be ready to change that as your children age if it isn’t working anymore.

4. How do you not make it seem like a therapy session?

Having something that you are doing at the time usually helps a lot. Especially with most boys, talking directly feels too intense. Most adult men wouldn’t even consider just sitting down and talking about their feelings and stresses together. They can open up while playing a game or working on a project or hobby. The same is true for teenagers.

For almost all people, disclosing something about yourself is likely to lead them to disclose to you as well. This doesn’t always work, but it usually helps. Be mindful though, if you disclose something, your child then knows it. Think about what your child may say or do with that information first — they may not be as discrete with it as you would like.

5. What questions should be asked?

The best answer to this is always to read your child and see where they are at. You may be able to ask things very directly at the right time, like after you have just had a good activity together. Reading people is not the easiest thing to do. Teenagers are often the masters of shutting down open-ended questions, so be prepared to ask several, and to be more pointed.

How are you doing? What’s been going on lately? These open-ended questions are good, but may get “fine” and “nothing” as single-word responses. You may have to follow up with, “Oh good, are you still hanging out with ___ ?” and other more direct questions.

As you talk, reading their body language will help you see if there is anything to be concerned about, and if your questions are bothering them. Teenagers often see through half-hearted attempts quickly, and even in our busy modern life you may just have to set some time aside for them. If they treat you poorly, please don’t give up. It can be a tough road, but having your child really know that you are in their corner is worth it.