How To Help Your Parents

How To Help Your Parents Talk About Mental Health

Take it slow. Yep. Even slower than that.

Gary John Norman, Adene Sanchez, valentinrussanov/Getty Images

Picture this: You’re calling your dad on Sunday to talk about… therapy. True, for some (lucky!) people this might actually be an easy conversation, but for many millennials, talking to their parents about mental health concerns feels akin to wandering into a minefield.

However, there are plenty of reasons that you might want to do it, anyway. One in 5 Americans will be 65 years or older by 2030, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — and the CDC gauges that 1 in 4 of those adults likely has some mental health issue. And yet recent research suggests that few older adults are likely to seek the mental health help they need: A 2020 survey asked respondents if the COVID-19 pandemic had impacted their emotions, and how likely they would be to talk to a professional, if it had no cost. More than 50% of Gen Z, millennials, and Gen X said they would be likely or extremely likely to speak to someone, while baby boomers and the Silent Generation skewed toward the “not likely at all” spectrum.

Millennials in particular have been called the “therapy generation,” and no wonder: We have an absurd amount of well-documented economic, social, environmental, and health reasons to need therapy and/or medication. Fortunately, many of us also have the knowledge, language, peer support, and wherewithal to seek it out. That was simply not the case for many of our parents or grandparents, some of whom may have grown up with a cultural stigma against seeking mental health treatment, except in the most severe cases.

It can be difficult if you see a parent struggling with something like anxiety, depression, or unresolved trauma and believe that they might benefit from professional help — especially if you yourself have benefited from talk therapy, medication, or other therapeutic treatments. It can be hard to know how to bridge that generational gap — and how to even start a conversation without inadvertently causing an argument.

Don’t give up. Here are a few ideas that might help.

Don’t go in expecting to “win.”

A general rule with difficult emotionally charged conversations: If you go in determined to achieve a certain outcome, you’re usually setting yourself up for disappointment.

“You have to be both 100% convinced about your stance and flexible to have your parents not be OK with your stance,” says Yasmine Saad, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and founder of Madison Park Psychological Services. “You have to be okay with them disagreeing. It’s important that it doesn’t become a conversation around ‘I’m right and you’re wrong.’”

If you’ve never spoken with your parents about mental health before, you might want to ease into it: Start with some neutral observations or general questions to try to gauge their attitudes on mental health. If they seem closed off — or outright against — mental health treatment, it’s probably not a good idea to push the conversation too hard.

“Approach them for a place of understanding and love, and ask the same in return,” adds Saad, “Work on not being triggered by criticisms, instead seeing them as your parents’ way of protecting their view. It is important to not take it personally. This is not a statement about you.”

Be clear about your reasons.

Before you broach the subject, it’s smart to ask yourself what your reasons are. “If it’s approval of your stance, it’s better to work on giving yourself your own approval,” says Saad. “If it’s convincing them that they need to attend to their mental health [because of a serious concern], try to speak their language. For example, use what is important for them to convey your point of view, like being mentally healthy for grandchildren or mentally healthy to decrease hypertension.”

It’s essential to keep a fair balance between conveying your point and accepting their opinion, Saad explains, and to have empathy for how hard it is for anyone to change and embrace new things — and to convey that empathy as much as possible.

Practice empathy by putting yourself in their shoes.

“I’ve found that sometimes when your grown child gives you advice, it feels like they’re taking away your car keys, so to speak,” says Jane Isay, author of Walking on Eggshells: Navigating the Delicate Relationship Between Adult Children and Parents. “Like they’re exerting a kind of judgment on you that they would resent you doing to them.”

To counteract the frustrating feeling of role reversal — no one wants to be talked down to! — Isay recommends a thought exercise. Take a minute and think first: ‘“Before I say anything to them, how would I feel if they said that same thing to me?’” Reflecting beforehand about how you would feel if these same words were said to you is an easy way to promote empathy, which can help the conversation go more smoothly.

Another thing Isay recommends is asking yourself “Would you say this to a friend?” It’s likely that if you were talking to a pal to suggest therapy or mental health help, you would be very careful, delicate, and considerate with your words — if you did it at all. “That’s the gold standard,” says Isay. “Imagine you’re talking to a peer, not talking down to somebody.”

Pay close attention to body language and tone.

For these conversations to happen at all, “all parties should be willing to engage,” says licensed marriage and family therapist Kiaundra Jackson. “If not, maybe the timing is off. We often focus on what others are saying as cues. But what about what’s not being said? Focusing on body language, facial expressions and tone of voice are just as important.” If your parent seems stressed or fidgety by you bringing up this topic, abandon the mission (at least for now).

Similarly, it’s not wise not to start a conversation when someone is already upset. You should wait until things are calm and you can speak from a space that feels “safe” to both parties. Ask yourself, “Are they in a mental space to listen?” Saad says, “It’s best to start a conversation when they are not going through a negative emotion, as if they are, it will color their lens towards the negative.”

“You have to actively think about how what you’re saying might be coming across to the other person. Mental health is especially sensitive and vulnerable,” says Isay. “When you're talking across generations about issues that have to do with mental health, walk carefully. Take baby steps. Listen very hard for the change in tone when somebody feels threatened.”

Use affirming and assertive statements and questions.

Affirming statements can help. Try “I know this is a hard topic” or “I know this brings up a lot,” says licensed psychologist Dathan Landon-Freeman, Ph.D., co-founder of the Landon-Freeman Center for Anxiety, Recovery & Trauma (CART). Assertive statements work, too: “This is hard for me to talk about, but it's an important conversation” or “I understand how this is hard for you, but [it] is something I’m committed to doing.”

You can also incorporate statements that reflect your point and theirs, says Saad. “For example, ‘I feel bad that you don’t have a place to talk about your emotions, while at the same time knowing that would be very uncomfortable for you. What would it be like for you to get support?’ Then, validate their point while adding the benefit of yours,” says Saad.

Try modeling the behavior or sharing a personal story.

Instead of trying to force your parents to understand the benefits of therapy, the best thing you can do is be an example. Share with your mom about how your therapist helped you finally start setting boundaries at work or come to terms with heartbreak from an old relationship, or your anti-anxiety meds allowed you to spend a peaceful Sunday in the park.

“When your parents start to see you being serious about your own mental health, setting boundaries, managing emotions, dealing with trauma, and going to therapy regularly,” says Jackson, “there’s a chance it will spark something in them to want to do the same.”

“Sometimes telling a story about what's going on with you — rather than making it about them — is an easier way to ease into a conversation,” agrees Isay.

Break the conversation into smaller bites.

Having smaller conversations over time can allow space for people to open up. “One day ask ‘How are you feeling?’ ‘How’s it going?’” says Isay. Another day, “maybe you offer examples from others: ‘My friends’ parents are having this issue’ or ‘Harry's dad seems to be forgetting names.’”

Jackson agrees: “Remember, this does not have to be a one-off conversation — it can be ongoing and evolve over time.”

One way to bring up the topic naturally is to ask a gentle question when someone is venting. “If someone is complaining about something in their life,” Isay explains, “there might be an opening for ‘Have you ever thought of talking about it with somebody — with an expert?’” It’s a way of suggesting pursuing mental health help respectfully — and gauging their interest, or lack thereof — without telling them what to do.

Avoid arguments — and end the conversation if it gets too heated.

If you already know your mom is opposed to mental health treatments, don’t expect to go in and convince her otherwise in one fell swoop. You’re more likely to make her feel alienated and attacked than to be successful.

“Arguments around mental health are often due to miscommunication, or someone feeling like they’re being targeted or attacked,” Landon-Freeman says. “When children discuss mental health, parents can sometimes confuse their child’s interest with [a judgment about] their own inability to parent.”

Similarly, if you feel yourself getting frustrated, argumentative, or judgmental midconversation, it’s best to instead take a time out to cool off. If you get heated in the moment, it’s OK — nobody’s perfect! — but try to change the subject or remove yourself rather than sticking to your guns.

You can always simply say, “Let’s talk about something else” or “Let’s talk about this another time,” and change the subject. Remember, “the ground rules for these conversations are love and respect,” says Isay.

Speak with sensitivity to culture and values.

No surprise here — but it’s incredibly important when broaching any intergenerational conversation to be mindful of changing culture and values over time. “Generational and cultural gaps exist — everyone is not on board with the benefits of prioritizing one’s mental health,” says Landon-Freeman. Many older parents grew up during a time where mental health was stigmatized. “Prioritizing mental health is also sometimes seen by older folks as a weakness,” he adds, “or unnecessarily opening old wounds.”

“Mental health and therapy are just recently becoming a hot topic, especially in communities of color,” adds Jackson. “Therapy and seeking professional help and access may be a foreign concept, depending on the parents’ age.”

For many from older generations, often problems were not resolved by talking to strangers — and sometimes they were not talked about all within the family either, says Saad. “These views have tremendously changed: Nowadays learning the skills to manage one’s emotions is seen as a strength, as a sign that you are working on improving yourself. Older people who have embraced the need to attend to their mental health are flexible to that change.”

On the other hand, “older generations who have difficulty attending to their mental health are embedded in their beliefs — and those beliefs provide them safety,” adds Saad. “It’s very scary to open up to a therapist when all your life you were told to keep everything within, and that any signs of mental issues are a sign of something seriously wrong. It is key to understand that [your parents] not addressing their mental health may be their way to establish safety within.”