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Editorial: 'Harford Talks' a good starting point for crucial conversations between parents, teens

No one enjoys having an awkward conversation. But sometimes, the person we are dreading having that conversation with is actually just waiting for you to bring it up.

According to recent focus groups conducted by the Harford County Department of Community Services, high school students said their number one wish is for parents and teachers to have a better understanding of mental health. Students also said they want adults to recognize the signs of addiction, depression and suicide, and they want to feel more comfortable talking to adults about mental illness.

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“Parents tell us they struggle with these topics,” Amber Shrodes, director of Harford County Community Services, told us. “They worry about what is age appropriate, and how to approach subjects like overdose, recovery and suicide. But children want to have this dialogue with the adults in their lives.”

That is the impetus of the “Harford Talks” campaign county government recently launched. The multimedia efforts include a pair of billboards — one on Route 1 in Bel Air and another on Route 40 in Havre de Grace — and 45-second public service announcements in two movie theaters that are meant to prompt conversations that can sometimes be difficult for parents and their children to have.

The county has also launched HarfordTalks.com, which offers several suggested conversation starters as it pertains to drug use.

Hopefully, these messages will encourage both parents and teens to open up and discuss difficult topics. However, as tough as it can be to start some of these conversations, it can be even trickier to navigate once they begin.

The communication gap between parents and teenagers often has much more to do with the tone of the conversation, rather than the conversation itself.

If parents aren’t careful, they can come across as accusatory or demeaning, causing their teen or pre-teen to shut down, even if the parent is well-meaning. That isn’t good for either party, and will make having crucial conversations more difficult in the future.

Preparing ahead of time for these conversations is a good idea. Chances are, if it’s on your mind, it’s probably on your child’s mind too. Better to be prepared than caught off guard if your child brings it up first. Think about what you’d want to say ahead of time.

Regardless of who starts the conversation, remember that it’s about your child, not you. Really listen to what they are saying and try not to interrupt them with advice, but do try to ask questions when the conversation lulls.

Honestly is also crucial. If you want to have a conversation about not drinking alcohol underage, but did so yourself as a teen, it’s OK to tell your child that. Oftentimes, it can make the conversation easier when you show vulnerability and can be relatable, rather than presenting yourself as an infallible authority figure. Use the opportunity to explain why, looking back, you realize it wasn’t a good idea.

Avoid being critical or getting angry. This can be difficult, especially if your child’s answer surprises or upsets you. Try to be understanding of decisions they have made, but let them know you if you don’t approve and keep the conversation going.

Every parent needs to make their own decisions about setting limits for their children and enforcing the rules, but young people are more likely to respond positively to parents who are engaged in their lives. Starting and having these conversations can be difficult, but can go a long way in strengthening relationships between parents and their children.

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