Maybe they’re not eating as much as they used to. Maybe the enthusiasm in their voice has disappeared. Or maybe, they just seem different, and it’s got you a little bit worried. But you’re not sure how to approach the topic, or even how to scope out your teen’s mental health status. Asking them about it, you get little more than a grunt, a deflection, or an unconvincing “I’m fine.” Are they? You can’t tell.
Scoping out a teen’s thoughts and emotions isn’t easy. While we’ve all been teens at some point, it’s often pretty difficult to put yourself in the shoes of your child. Teens, after all, think a bit differently than adults tend to.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t probe them the right way. Even if your teen really is fine, it’s still a good idea to ask them about their mental health from time to time. But how?
Ask the Right Questions
Open-ended questions get you unsatisfying answers. The right questions can get you a little closer to the truth. If you want to figure out how your teen is doing, you need to evoke the kind of responses that give you better context clues as to how they feel.
It’s not enough to use a lead-in sentence. Saying: “I’ve noticed you haven’t been eating well lately, are you okay?” might net you an “I’m fine” or an irritated “I’m just not hungry.” Instead of “are you okay?”, ask: “What’s bothering you? You seem distracted, and your head’s been all over the place lately.” If your teen is acting much more scatterbrained than usual, it’s something they probably can’t deny. Alternatively, try:
- “When was the last time you spent some time with your girl/boyfriend?”
- “When was the last time you hung out with your friends?”
- “Did you have a bad day? Wanna talk about it? Tell me what happened.”
It’s Not Always About Solutions
If and when your teen does start talking about the way they feel, don’t take it as an open invitation to offer nothing but solutions.
Sometimes, a helpful solution can be just what the doctor ordered. A nice piece of advice forged by insightful experiences. But a canned response, or a clichéd statement, is more likely to push your teen away than get them to continue talking to you.
If your teen is feeling anxious about something, it’s not exactly helpful to tell them to take it easy or that they’ll be fine. They want you to hear them, to validate how they’re feeling, to share your own experiences of being scared, of being anxious, and of overcoming that feeling.
Take them seriously. Listen to what they have to say. Don’t try to offer up a solution right away, especially if you don’t know exactly how your teen is feeling.
Notice the Red Flags
The common stereotype is that teens are unruly and emotional, so it’s hard to differentiate between a normal mood swing and a mental health issue. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Despite a few irrationalities, teen behavior can and does make sense – and there are always red flags that help parents indicate something is seriously wrong. A few things to keep an eye out for include:
- A sudden and dramatic change in weight. Weight loss or weight gain is normal, but a drastic weight change may sometimes indicate a physical, mental, or eating disorder problem.
- Physical signs of excessive stress. Frequent or chronic headaches and stomach aches, unexplained pains (i.e., no indication of why pain is being felt), signs of hairpulling, nail-biting, or nervous tics.
- Signs of self-harm include hiding scars or cuts, self-starvation, or excessive exercise (to the point of chronic injury or deteriorating health).
- Signs of drug use include empty pill bottles, fake prescriptions, other people’s medication, hidden alcohol bottles, or drug paraphernalia.
- Excessive and sudden anger issues/irritability, including getting physical or frequent shouting. Unusual temperament changes, almost like a different personality.
- And more.
Keep In Touch with Their Friends
It’s always a good idea to know who your teen hangs out with, not just because it gives you a better idea of what they’re up to, but because it can help you keep in touch with your teen, give you better context for what’s happening to them or how they’re feeling, and gives you people to ask when things don’t see to be going well for your teen.
If your teen won’t tell you what’s going on, try to ask their friends.
Reassure Your Teen
Some teens try and hide their problems from their parents for multiple reasons – but the most common ones include wanting to keep their parents from worrying and avoiding a parent’s judgment.
If you’re busy a lot of the time, then your teen might feel like bringing this up with you is just adding to your plate – especially if you’ve been having a hard time keeping up with them lately, neglecting to ask them how they’re doing, or shutting them down when they were about to tell you about their day.
Prioritize Good Communication
Prioritizing healthy communication with your teen is important, especially as they complete their transition into adulthood. Teens are increasingly independent individuals and continuously seek to define themselves while seeking distance from their parents. Giving them further reasons to push away can alienate you from your children and make it harder for you to reconnect and keep connected over time.
On the other hand, not all homes are safe spaces, and sometimes, your teen might not feel comfortable talking about how they really feel. Perhaps it’s because of something you’ve said in the past, an unfortunate association between their symptoms and someone you don’t like, or a parenting style that has eroded the trust between you.
Establishing a safe space for your teen at home is important to help them not just talk more freely about how they feel but also make progress in their treatment. Shaming your teen or making them feel even worse about how they think or what they’re doing will only send them down a deeper spiral.
Affirming Unconditional Love
Regardless of the context for why your teen might not be talking about how they’re feeling, reassurance is important, affirming your teen’s identity and worth as a person with or without their symptoms, and affirming your unconditional love for them, and the trust you want to foster between each other.
Make sure your teen knows that they can count on you and should always count on you to be in your corner. Help them come to terms with who they are in a positive sense, so they can tackle their mental health in earnest and separate themselves from their condition.
Don’t Forget Your Own Mental Health Status
Parents want the best for their children. But it’s important not to neglect your own needs in the process. You cannot offer effective support to your loved ones without doing the work to maintain your mental health status as well.
That’s a lot to ask. But you’re not in it alone. Just as you should support your teen, find others who can help support you. Friends. Family. Partners. People you can lean on in tough times, people you can talk to, people to open up to.
Stress management and adequate coping skills matter too. That means utilizing constructive coping skills – exercise rather than drinking, for example.
Taking care of yourself both mentally and physically can have a direct and positive impact on your teen, as well. While we like to think that our influence as a parent will wane strongly with each passing day after a teen turns sixteen, parents continue to be the most important role model for a teen’s behavior until well into adulthood. Children tend to continue to mirror their parents, even if they don’t want to. Improving the way you take care of yourself can help your teen take better care of themselves, too.
Get Help at Visions Treatment Centers
If your teen is struggling with a mental health issue, contact us today. For more information, visit us at Visions Treatment Centers. We offer professional help for teen mental health conditions via residential treatment and a range of modalities, using specialized treatment plans.
Don’t wait. Reach out now for an evaluation and testing.