The evening air was pregnant with silence. As the family gathered together for their daily dinner, the sound of clattering plates and clanging cutlery filled the air. Yet there was an uneasiness to the superficial dinner conversation among the parents and the children, with 14-year-old Jeremy* uttering little more than grunts in response to the various questions posed by his mother.
His 8-year-old brother, Jonathan*, was in a world of his own, as he jabbered non-stop about the happenings at school. All this while the father sat in relative silence, seemingly more interested in his phone than in the goings-on at the dinner table. And when dinner was done, Jeremy swiftly cleared his plate and retreated to his room, where he would stay for the rest of the night, opening the door only the next day as he left for school.
Jeremy’s mother told me this story when she sought counselling help for her son. She shared that the COVID-19 pandemic had taken a toll on her son, and that Jeremy was now a different child from when he was in primary school. It was almost as if the boy had decided to stop talking at the start of his secondary two year, going straight to his room after he came back from school, and coming out only to eat dinner or use the bathroom. Jeremy’s mother was worried that her son was going through a mental health crisis and sought my help regarding how to talk to him about her concerns.
Mental health has been a growing concern for parents given the continued pandemic-related restrictions. A recent study by the Institute of Mental Health indicated that about 13% of respondents suffered from anxiety and depression, and that mental health issues have likely increased since the start of the pandemic.
Given this backdrop, when and how can we broach such topics with our children, and what do we do if our teenager refuses to engage in all forms of conversation?
As you cultivate the habit of asking your child about emotions from an early age, it helps to lay the groundwork for future conversations in the teenage years.
When do we talk to our children about mental health?
Mental health is one aspect of wellness. Just as we are concerned about the physical health of our children from the moment they are born, it is also important to be aware of, and manage our kids’ mental health concerns as early as possible. For instance, we can ascertain that a baby is anxious if he or she is crying non-stop for a reason apart from hunger and physical discomfort.
During the preschooler stage, your child’s speech development grows in leaps and bounds. During this time, we can ask them questions about their own emotions, as well as the feelings of other people around them.
To start with, we can use simple words such as “happy”, “sad”, or “hurt” to help them identify their emotions, then move on to more descriptive terms such as “frustrated” or “defensive”. As you cultivate the habit of asking your child about his or her emotions from an early age, it helps to lay the groundwork for future conversations about feelings and mental health in the teenage years.
How do we broach the mental health topic?
When we talk to our children about their mental health, it is important for us to set the atmosphere for meaningful conversations. Long car journeys or bus rides could provide natural opportunities for you to ask your child what is on their mind and simply follow along by listening attentively and responding to their concerns in an empathic manner.
It would also be helpful to create special occasions to talk about specific mental health concerns. One way is to take your child out for a meal or dessert, and spend that time catching up on your child’s interests or talking about any mental health concerns you may have.
Here is an acronym ‘O.S.C.A.R’ to help you remember these conversational tips:
- Observe - Start with sharing the behaviours that you’ve observed, for example, “I notice that you’ve been cooping yourself up in your room for extended periods of time recently. Is there anything that’s on your mind?”
- Share - You could share with your child your own struggles with stress or anxiety in your growing-up years.
- Be Curious – Adopt a curious and open mindset about the anxieties or fears faced by your child. Ask questions to clarify but refrain from dismissing your child’s concerns or scolding them for thinking in a certain way.
- Advice - If they are open to receiving advice, you may also provide some handles or brainstorm with your child on how they can face up to their challenges.
- Reassure – Most of all, assure your child you are supportive of them and that you do not think less of them because of this mental health challenge. Encourage them to come to you for help or link them up with another trusted adult.
The situation improved after Jeremy’s father started playing soccer with him regularly, and after his mother started bringing him for 1-on-1 meals.
What if your child refuses to talk?
But what if your teenager is more like Jeremy and decides to shut themselves in the room, refusing to talk about anything with you?
In such a situation, you may first need to understand why your child has chosen to retreat. Some teens may want to spend more time with their friends online, either playing games or chatting with them. For others, it could be the perception that family is no longer a safe space for them. It is important to find out what is making your teenager retreat, and address the root issues wherever possible.
Thankfully Jeremy’s mother realised that her son was upset with the family for two reasons. Firstly, Jeremy felt that his father didn’t seem to care about him. He also felt his mum paid more attention to his brother than to him.
The situation improved after Jeremy’s father started playing soccer with him regularly, and after his mother started bringing him for 1-on-1 meals. In both instances, the parents had to first change the way they treated Jeremy. Because they took the first step, Jeremy then realised that his parents actually cared for him. Eventually, he responded to their actions and re-opened the door of his life to them once again.
*All names and identifying features have been changed to protect the anonymity of the persons involved.
Mark Lim is Consultant & Counsellor at The Social Factor, a consultancy and counselling agency which conducts training on life skills such as parenting, mental wellness and special needs. He and his wife Sue co-write a parenting blog Parenting on Purpose, where they chronicle the life lessons from parenting two young boys aged 11 and 9.
© 2021 Focus on the Family Singapore. All rights reserved.
Life can be overwhelming. Having a listening ear can bring relief, help you feel supported, and improve relationships. Make an appointment with a counsellor today.
Join us for our upcoming Raising Future-Ready Kids: Suicide Prevention & Mental Health webinar and learn how to recognise signs of anxiety, depression and mental health challenges, know what to do in the event your child experiences a mental health crisis, and have critical conversations about life and death.
Share this article with someone you care for today, and you might encourage them in their journey. Share instantly on WhatsApp Mobile or on Telegram.