A shocking new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirms what many parents already suspect: Teenage girls are in crisis. So how can you reach a teenager?
A 2021 survey of more than 17,000 high school students found that 30 percent of the girls had considered suicide — a rate that’s double that of boys — and almost 60 percent higher than 10 years ago. Besides the unprecedented rise in suicidal behavior, the report shared other grim findings on substance misuse, depression and other mental health woes.
There IS Some Good News
Most parents receive news like this with a sinking feeling and a sense of dread.
The good news is that we aren’t helpless, says national recovery advocate David Magee, author of the upcoming book Things Have Changed: What Every Parent (And Educator) Should Know About the Student Mental Health and Substance Abuse Crisis (Matt Holt; August 2023). Because the crisis is so current, Magee is ready to share what his work and research has shown him now. Despite the message you may be getting from news reports — not to mention your teen’s closed door, perpetual silence and sullen stares — your teenage girls are reachable.
“I’ve engaged with some 20,000 middle and high school students throughout the country in the past year,” says Magee, host of The Mayo Lab Podcast. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been talking about my own depression or my daughter’s eating disorder and looked out into the audience to see girls just wiping away flowing tears,” he says.
“Also, they are the ones lining up to talk to me the most,” he adds. “It just breaks my heart, but it also warms my heart because they are reachable. A critical key is to be there with them and for them — really see them and hear them.”
None of this is to suggest boys are not struggling, too. They certainly are. Magee’s own son died of an accidental drug overdose in 2013. Magee learned the hard way that boys need just as much parental attention, empathy and understanding as girls do. The question is, regardless of gender, how do you reach your teens? Magee offers six few tips:
How to Reach a Teenager
1. Reaching Your Teens
First, get the lay of the land. (Educate yourself.) Young people face a cauldron of pressures their parents can’t relate to. That’s why Magee joined with the University of Mississippi’s Thomas Hayes Mayo Lab to create The Mayo Lab Podcast. This weekly program — available on all podcast platforms — brings together top thought leaders in various arenas (mental health, drug misuse prevention and parenting) so parents can access them in one place.
“The idea is to offer research-based insights and guidance to equip parents to start a different conversation in their kid’s lives,” says Magee. “If we don’t know the realities our kids face, we can’t talk about them in a meaningful way.”
2. Hold regular conversations to normalize feelings.
Make it a priority to engage with your teens over meals and activities. Broach conversations on subjects you might suspect they are dealing with — bullying, eating disorders, substance misuse — and don’t be afraid to state the blunt facts. However, remember the goal here is to engage your teens on what they may be feeling, not to lecture, “catch” or shame.
“Your teens may seem to prefer sitting in silence, but don’t let them,” says Magee. “Too often parents just follow their teen’s lead because it feels too uncomfortable to force the conversation or — as is very often the case — because we don’t know what to say.”
3. Ask open-ended questions.
(This is critical.) Many parents preach or hold one-sided conversations with their kids. Resist this urge. Instead, ask questions focused on how they feel, rather than thrusting your angst and fear upon them. For example: “How did you feel when your friends were out together Friday night while you were at home with us?” or, “How did it feel when the names were posted for making the team and yours was omitted?”
“Studies show young people need to be seen and heard to become whole,” says Magee. “Open-ended questions open your teen’s mind and yours. Their responses hold the capacity to inform and surprise and even deeply delight.”
4. Listen closely and you may hear clues.
(The word “anxiety” is one.) Magee calls anxiety the “safe word” for today’s generation. While they may not admit to substance misuse or depression, they will often claim anxiety. This is your cue to continue asking open-ended questions, like, “When are you most likely to feel anxiety? How would you describe what your anxiety feels like? What do you think would make you feel better?”
5. Resist the urge to tell them how they should feel.
Your instinct may be to say things like, “You have so many friends!” or, “You’ve got that big game coming up — there’s so much to be happy about!” While you may do this with pure intentions, it is not helpful, says Magee. If you really want to know your child, you must do less telling and more listening. Often, telling your teen how they feel is a reflection of our own desires to shape them into who or what we think they should be, rather than helping them explore what brings them joy.
6. Share relatable stories when appropriate.
“I am a huge believer in using storytelling to help people grasp a message in a real and heartfelt way,” says Magee.
“When parents tell teens about their own struggles with substance misuse, for example, it can be incredibly powerful. They probably recognize it anyway,” he says.
Obviously, Magee says, none of this is easy. In fact, it’s the sheer complexity of the mental health and substance misuse epidemic and all its moving parts that led to the creation of the William Magee Institute for Student Wellbeing at the University of Mississippi. But one thing is undeniable: Holding conversations should be a top priority for parents with quiet, withdrawn teens, says Magee.
“Engaging with your teens this way is just as important as putting food on the table,” he says. “You wouldn’t think of not nourishing your child’s physical health with regular meals. The same goes for nourishing their mental health. These conversations, along with ensuring that teens get plenty of sleep and exercise and limit their time on social media, go a long way toward changing their reality.”