Mental health has become a topic of increasing importance for parents with teen children, especially as adolescent mental health problems continue to rise year after year. More children are dealing with symptoms of anxiety and depression, symptoms that can go hand-in-hand with other mental health and behavioral risks. Identifying and addressing mental health issues at home and school remains critically important and difficult.
Parents must be empowered to support their children through helpful resources and professional guidance. That same support is central to the idea of connectedness and the role it plays in helping adolescents tackle the day-to-day challenges associated with poor mental health and reduce the risk of negative health outcomes.
Why Mental Health is Important During Adolescence
Our mental and physical health is inextricably entwined, and our children face sudden and drastic changes regarding both during their teen years. Teens are making the transition towards adulthood and are charged with developing independence and mature social skills and navigating a complicated world.
Adolescence is often the time when we cement many of the habits we continue to employ later in life to cope with failure and pain and seek out help. This is also a time for developing mature behavioral responses towards family and friends and honing one’s interpersonal skills. Patterns of self-care are also important for mental health, including developing healthy sleeping habits and exercising regularly.
Meanwhile, adolescence is also a typical period for the onset of multiple common mental health issues, some of which greatly affect a teen’s risk of developing future social and health problems, including substance abuse. These can further affect and complicate the development of crucial interpersonal and coping skills.
Lastly, mental health issues among teens remain a growing problem. Even as we revise and revisit distinctions and diagnostic criteria, the fact remains that suicidal ideation, feelings of hopelessness, and anxiety have starkly increased in the past decade. Adolescence is not just a time for growth and learning – for teens of this generation, it’s often a time for identifying and confronting difficult feelings of pain and sorrow.
The Role of Connectedness in Adolescent Mental Health
Connectedness is best described as a protective factor consisting largely of important social relationships and a supportive environment. Teens who enjoy greater connectedness have a larger support network, access to better and more resources, friends and family they can talk to about their thoughts and worries, and organizations they can turn to in times of need.
Teens confused or conflicted about their sexual or gender identity, teens feeling hopeless and useless, teens unable to adjust their problematic behaviors, or teens unable to overcome gnawing fears, can draw on the support of their loved ones and open discussions regarding mental health in the community to not feel alone or ignored, and feel empowered to seek out the professional help needed to address these issues – without judgment, prejudice, or harmful intent.
Research shows that building and nurturing this connectedness has long-term effects on a teen’s mental health later in life and that those who felt connected to others and had support networks at school and home were as much as 66 percent less likely to struggle later in life with issues such as substance use, violence towards others, victimization, and adult mental health disorders.
What Parents Can Do to Promote Adolescent Connections
Fostering connectedness at home requires open communication and thorough education. Parents wishing to help their teens can do so by focusing on:
- Learning as much as they can about their teen’s symptoms and condition, preferably from a professional.
- Communicating regularly with their teen’s therapist, teachers, and educators.
- Helping with homework and becoming engaged with what a teen does at school.
- Spending more time together and encouraging healthy habits through role modeling and bonding activities (such as exercising together, cooking together, enforcing better sleeping schedules.)
- Researching local resources to help a teen connect with others struggling with similar symptoms, online support groups.
By often communicating, seeking out local opportunities to help your teen, and discussing your options for treatment and support with school authorities and local mental healthcare providers, you can maximize your teen’s connectedness and drastically reduce their health risks.
Connectedness and COVID-19
Achieving adolescent connectedness has arguably never been more important and never been as difficult as today. While some might argue that we are entering the latter half of a global pandemic, there are still restrictions abound. Many teens are struggling with the long-term effects of social isolation during quarantine. Intentional self-harm, symptoms of anxiety, and feelings of depression have drastically increased among young adults and teens as a result of COVID.
Particularly worrying are the potential long-term implications of this isolation period. For some teens, this might mean greater social anxiety levels and agoraphobia, and discomfort with social interaction. These social skills will have to be relearned as COVID wanes, and life returns to its open, “normal,” pre-pandemic state.
The Importance of Support Alongside Self-Care
Self-care refers to techniques and healthy coping mechanisms individuals can employ to avoid or work through difficult episodes, from breathing exercises to mindfulness, connecting with friends, avoiding abusive relationships, or spending a few minutes out in nature. Self-care is only one part of the greater picture, particularly for young teens in need of help and guidance.
Where one’s own agency and motivation limit self-care, support through connectedness can be the lifeline for many, who are struggling far too much to take their mental health into their own hands. Both self-care and connectedness are part of a greater long-term strategy for dealing with mental health issues after treatment.
Both need to be contextualized to a teen’s circumstances and condition. If you or a loved one struggles with symptoms of depression and anxiety, including very low self-esteem, procrastination, low energy, thoughts of self-harm, hopelessness, irritability, and sudden changes in sleep, know that it is important – and healthy – to look for professional help.