Unsung Heroes: Empowering Parents to Support Youth – A Professional’s Guide

Imagine getting both of your teens to agree to join you and your partner for a family night out this weekend. You promise ice cream and something that’s “not lame” in exchange for their presence and good attitudes. 

When Saturday evening arrives, you all head out for BBQ and a movie in the park. (That’s pretty cool, right?!) The food is delicious, the weather is perfect, screen time is minimal, and it feels so good to simply have fun with your kids.

For many parents and caregivers of teens, joyfully and peacefully connecting as a family like this can seem out of reach. During challenging seasons of parenting, communication might feel exhausting, frustrating, or even nonexistent. Yet, it is always worth the effort. Formal research and lived experience both remind us that the role of the parent is essential to positive, healthy youth development and overall well being. 

Working with youth and their families requires a multidisciplinary approach, involving not only the dedicated professionals in the field but also informed and empowered parents and caregivers. In this blog, we share valuable insights and resources for professionals striving to equip parents in supporting youth – from the younger years through early adulthood. 

The Science that Supports the Influence of Parents

Mother and daughter bond over cellphone

When we say “parents,” we mean all of the adults who are providing support and who teens would identify as part of their family. We intuitively understand that the role of the parent is important in the life of a child. Let’s unpack the research behind the influence of parents in the development of youth, and in particular, in mitigating youth risk behaviors and risk factors.

Communicating With Youth: Be Open, Honest, & Non-Judgmental  

Practicing open and honest communication with a non-judgmental attitude not only improves the parent-youth relationships but also improves health outcomes for youth. 

Risk behaviors, like substance abuse or early-onset of sexual activity, can be complex issues to navigate with a youth. It can be challenging for both parents and their teen to be vulnerable about sensitive topics, especially when there isn’t always a black-and-white line as to right-and-wrong in their eyes. 

Effective, evidence-based communication strategies like those in motivational interviewing (MI) help to foster a spirit of trust and mutual respect between parents and youth. This openness and non-judgemental atmosphere in turn leads to youth being more willing to receive education/resources from their parents to make informed decisions. Open dialogue ultimately reduces the likelihood of youth engaging in risk behaviors by providing them with a supportive framework for making responsible choices.

Care for the Caregiver: Proactively Support Parents to Support Youth 

Professionals in child and adolescent health have been researching and reporting on declining youth mental health for years. (Most of us are referring to it as a ‘crisis’ now). The 2021 YRBSS, found that “nearly all indicators of poor mental health and suicidal thoughts and behaviors increased from 2011 to 2021. The percentage of students who experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, seriously considered attempting suicide, made a suicide plan, and attempted suicide increased.”

As a professional who works with youth, you already knew that. 😉

However, often missing from the conversation about prevention, early identification, and effective intervention for youth mental health challenges is the strong link between the mental health of youth and other risk factors. 

Professionals, pass along these 3 tips to parents of youth: 

  1. Practice active listening when talking with your youth. Approach conversations with openness and curiosity rather than critical attitudes. MI techniques aren’t only for professionals to utilize with their clients or patients. The essence of MI, a set of evidence-based communication strategies, is to create an atmosphere of trust through open-ended questions, affirmations, reflective listening, and summarizing. 

    Learning how to ask open-ended questions and affirm the teen’s responses through reflection equips parents to broach virtually any topic. Finally, parents and teens can actually talk about phone use, grades, getting their rooms cleaned, and a myriad of other tricky topics. When parents consistently choose to honor the developmental needs and communication styles of their teens – while maintaining appropriate boundaries as the parents – they can connect in a way that turns the tables: 

    Instead of the parent begging for breadcrumbs of their teen’s inner thoughts and feelings, the teen is coming to them with their questions and stories.

    Learning effective communication is at the heart of building and maintaining the strong relationships that we hinted at in the opening story about BBQ and Top Golf.
  1. Educate yourself about the basic signs and symptoms of both anxiety and depression and how they may present in youth
  1. Model healthy coping skills and help youth identify and develop their own coping skills. Practice healthy stress-management strategies, like prioritizing good sleep, balanced nutrition, and a moderated use of technology. Within reason, try to be honest about mental health challenges to help reduce the stigma and shame. For example, a statement like this one can help normalize the ways in which mental health challenges can affect our daily functioning, “I’ve been feeling kind of down lately and don’t have a lot of energy when I get to the end of the day. What do you think about making dinner together?”

Cultivating Intentional Family Time

Family enjoys time together over dinner

What’s for dinner? – the question that never fails to surface every day around 5 o’clock.

Whether families are sitting down together to enjoy a home-cooked meal or takeout from their favorite local fast food restaurant, the goal is for families to eat together. Of course this won’t always be possible – school and work schedules vary … and life happens! But, to the extent that parents can prioritize family time at the dinner table, they should. Having high-quality intentional time with people who love them will do wonders for mental health! 

In fact, the short- and long-term health benefits are astounding, says Anne Fishel, Executive Director of the Family Dinner Project. In an interview with Harvard’s Jill Anderson, Fishel shares that “regular family dinners are associated with lower rates of depression and anxiety, substance abuse, eating disorders, tobacco use, and early teenage pregnancy, and higher rates of resilience and self esteem.” 

Family dinners are one way to cultivate intentional time together between parents and teens. It isn’t the only way. Whether it’s attending their sports practices, being the carpool mom or dad, waking up earlier to have coffee chats, or anything else that works for a family – again, the bigger picture is to try to ensure there is time carved out to talk.

Moderating Technology Use

Some parents are inclined to see the challenges they experience with connecting with their youth on the presence of technology and/or social media use. To be sure, youth social media usage is a problem that we haven’t figured out yet. According to the data from the Surgeon General’s Advisory, about a third of teens say they use social media “almost constantly” and when those daily hours sum to 3 or more, the risk of mental health nearly doubles. So yes, we have to talk about technology. But, instead of being fear-mongered into banning technology altogether or taking an extreme helicopter-parenting approach and running the risk of isolating youth further, let’s consider how to moderate technology use – both for ourselves and our youth. The U.S. Surgeon General Advisory group offers excellent tips for parents and caregivers to moderate technology use and model healthier tech habits, like creating a family media plan, utilizing tech-free zones in the house, and working alongside other parents to establish shared norms and practices. 

Finding GOOD Resources for Parents  

Imagine working alongside parents who felt empowered and equipped in being able to truly connect with their tween, teen, or young adult. No more feeling like they’re talking past each other or speaking different languages. Some of the best resources for parents exist as technology-delivered micro-learning opportunities to improve communication and cultivate collaboration. 

Possibilities for Change delivers practical, evidence-based tools and workshops to help professionals effectively identify and reduce youth risks and save lives. Professionals can’t (shouldn’t!) work in silos, though. Incorporate parents and caregivers is an essential part of any intervention plan. Check out our latest Teen Speak skill-building resources that have been curated specifically for parents of youth, including:

  • Micro learning modules
  • Online courses
  • Workshops
  • Research-backed articles
  • And more – 

Professionals across the globe can feel confident sharing these resources with parents of tweens, teens, and young adults. They’re accessible, digestible, and loved by professionals and parents alike. We know how challenging it can be to translate the communication and behavioral change strategies into easy-to-use, practical information for parents. Teen Speak bridges this gap and helps parents build even stronger relationships with their teens.

“Teen Speak workshops have been a great resource for us to offer parents. And it’s actually made our other program outreach that much more effective.” – Teen Speak Educator

💡Attend our upcoming webinar on October 17th at 3:00 PM ET

💡Schedule a call with a member of our team 

💡Explore our parent skill-building resources