By David Magee
A shocking new report by the CDC confirms what many parents already suspected: Teenage girls are in crisis. 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 ten years ago. Besides the unprecedented rise in suicidal behavior, the report shared other grim findings on sexual violence, substance misuse, depression, and other mental health woes.
Most parents receive news like this with a sinking feeling and a sense of dread. It’s not that we’re surprised; after the COVID years and the flood of stories on drug addiction, broken mental health, and the relentlessness of social media, how could we be? It’s that we feel so helpless to do anything about it.The good news is that, actually, we aren’t helpless. Despite the message you may be getting from all-grim news reports—not to mention your teen’s closed door, perpetual silence, and sullen stares—our girls are reachable.
I’ve engaged with some 20,000 middle and high school students throughout the country in the past year. 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.
Also, they are the ones lining up to talk to me the most. 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—indeed, my son tragically died of an accidental drug overdose in 2013—and they need just as much parental attention, empathy, and understanding as girls do. The question is, regardless of gender, how do you reach your teens? Here are a few tips:
My book title, Things Have Changed, says it all: Things really have changed. Young people face a cauldron of pressures their parents can’t relate to. That’s why I 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 starting February 28—will bring together the best 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 not just parents but also educators and students to start a different conversation in their own lives. If we don’t know the realities our children face, we can’t talk about them in a meaningful way.
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 them.
Your teens may seem to prefer sitting in silence, but don’t let them. Too often parents just follow their children’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.
Too many parents preach or hold one-sided conversations with our children. 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 family?” 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. Open-ended questions open your child’s mind and yours. Their responses hold the capacity to inform and surprise and even deeply delight.
I call 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?”
As parents, our 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 we may do this with pure intentions, it is not helpful. If we really want to know our child, we must do less telling and more listening. Often, telling our children 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.
I am a huge believer in using storytelling to help people grasp a message in a real and heartfelt way. When parents tell teens about their own struggles with substance misuse, for example, it can be incredibly powerful. They probably recognize it anyway. Likewise, you might tell stories of others who have had success in treatment or recovery, like friends or family members who don’t mind being used as an example.
Obviously, 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. (It takes a whole institute to even begin getting our hands around these issues.)
But one thing is undeniable: Holding conversations like the ones described above should be a top priority for parents.
Engaging with your teens this way is just as important as putting food on the table. 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.
David Magee is the best-selling author of Things Have Changed: What Every Parent (and Educator) Should Know About the Student Mental Health and Substance Misuse Crisis and Dear William: A Father’s Memoir of Addiction, Recovery, Love, and Loss—a Publisher’s Weekly bestseller, named a Best Book of the South, and featured on CBS Mornings—and other nonfiction books. A changemaker in student and family mental health and substance misuse, he’s the creator and director of operations of the William Magee Institute for Student Wellbeing at the University of Mississippi and a frequent K–12 and university educational and motivational speaker, helping students and parents find and keep their joy. He’s also a national recovery advisor for the Integrative Life Network. Learn more at www.daviddmagee.com.