A Guide to Impossible Conversations

Reviewed by Emily Hylden

This is a book I want all my friends to read. Most of all, I want to talk about its assumptions and assessments with them, as some arguments haven’t quite convinced me. The overall argument of the book seems to be that careful listening — both aurally and in behavior — to our children is the best gift and support we can offer as parents.

There are some holes in the example and suggestion sections, specifically a lack of attention to nervous-system responses and very little on emotional and psychological baggage people carry into parenthood. More focus on these aspects of human relationships and especially parenting would both support the argument as well as provide a more fulsome framework for readers.

Written by a mom, musical artist, and counselor in the United Kingdom, it’s quick reading with practical steps and solutions closing each chapter. She was inspired to write it while muddling her way through raising children in the age of social media, COVID, and racial and gun violence. Each of the seven chapters covers a different topic, beginning with an explication of each subject, which manages to be sympathetic to concerned but perhaps befuddled parents and frustrated and suffering teenagers and children. After approaching each issue with clarity and brevity, Lily-Jo turns to tips to try at home.

Some pieces of this work resonated with other parenting works I’ve found useful, but some seemed to gloss over what might be deeper issues for children — such as suggesting that hypervigilance in living-room decór (a problem she identified in her daughter during lockdown) could be solved by the parent choosing to place a plant in the room (the requirement the child would have to accept is the plant’s presence, while the child would have the freedom to decide its placement). I wondered what deep listening to this child’s suffering could have been modeled and explained instead of teaching some sort of “lesson” with a compulsory succulent.

Many times, I was concerned that an offered bandage would shut down a child’s effort at communication rather than building trust with the parent. The book espoused common wisdom to provide certainty and dispel fears in conversations about serious issues, which could also backfire to break trust and shut down pathways of communication rather than fostering an open dialogue. Such a stark honesty about the brokenness of the world and maintaining hope within it is a really hard balance to strike without a robust faith in God.

I wonder what richness might have been mined by a close reading of Scripture and those whose suffering is recounted in it. What might we learn from the prophets’ imposter syndrome? Reflection upon Jeremiah’s refusal and God’s vote of confidence could provide needed stability for those who also might say “I am only a child!” (Jer. 1:6).

While examples from recent history are given to illustrate the impending disaster that the author argues attends every age, I wonder what we might glean from the depth of examples from Exodus, or Job, or Kings, let alone the Gospels themselves. And how could we forget the struggles Paul faced with his mental health and persecution, or Jesus’ example of often withdrawing to a quiet place to pray?

I’m heartened, though, at the urging to pursue professional resources for help with serious mental-health problems. Of course, the resource list provided is U.K.-based, but careful web search should provide more local support for readers. The principles are definitely more universal.

I was surprised, too, at the dearth of spiritual depth or resources, given that it is a publication of SPCK. There were passing and sometimes-faint references to the author’s religious childhood, as well as one direct quotation from a book by an Anglican cleric, Frances Ward (Like There’s No Tomorrow: Climate Crisis, Eco-Anxiety, and God).

I’m grateful for this resource and the conversation it addresses. The worldwide mental-health crisis is worrisome, and this book is a welcome and accessible aid for caregivers and allies of teenagers. Talking to Children About Mental Health is not exhaustive or systematic, but it is a practical guide to begin conversations that might feel impossible.

The Rev. Emily R. Hylden is an Episcopal priest and high school chaplain living in Lafayette, Louisiana, raising three little boys with her scholar-priest husband. Her seasonal podcast on prayer and spirituality is Emily Rose Meditations.


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