Millions of teens struggle with their mental health in any given year. Those rates have been on the rise lately, and experts indicate that it isn’t just because of better screening measures or testing tools. We are seeing an increase in factors contributing to the mental and social struggles of our teens, affecting their health and wellbeing into adulthood. Teens are being pressured more than ever to get into the best colleges, outperform their parents, and find success in an increasingly difficult marketplace.
Parents always want the best for their children. It is often frustrating, then, when they’re told they can’t take away their child’s pain. But they can help, even substantially. A parent’s role in the mental wellbeing of their child can never be overstated, and even professional therapists will agree that immediate family plays the greatest part in the treatment process, especially for young teens.
But a willingness to help does little without the right tools. If your teen has been struggling as of late – whether it’s at school, with their relationships, with friends, with their growing responsibilities, or with their mental health – here are a few things that can help.
Does Your Teen Trust You?
You cannot address your teen’s issues without being privy to them. Trust, here, is key. While any parent can get their child to tell them the truth, being confrontational and aggressively demanding with your teen can backfire. They’re more likely to lie, edit the truth, or keep things from you because they fear your judgment, your verbal retaliation, or even just your disappointment.
When teens grow up knowing that their parents expect the best, they’re afraid of mistakes. But mistakes are an inevitability, especially in adolescence. Growing up is all about making mistakes, and it becomes impossible to learn from those mistakes if each one becomes an opportunity for self-loathing and chastising rather than a teaching moment between a parent and their child.
If you have been to hard on your teen, back off and allow them to see that your love and affection are unconditional, and that mistakes are a part of life – even when they’re serious.
Privacy matters as well. To build trust, you must trust that your teen can make certain decisions for themselves, including what they choose to do behind closed doors. Trust in your child’s upbringing, and the ethics you have bestowed upon them through example.
When your child trusts you, and knows that you will still love and help them when they’ve made mistakes, they will be honest with you about their problems. Encourage them to talk about those problems.
Listen To Them and Their Problems
Listening is important, sometimes even more so than talking. The worst thing a parent can do is simplify a situation into an “easy” solution, especially when there isn’t one. Avoid words and phrases like “simply”, or “just do”, or “I would’ve done it like this instead”.
Put yourself in your teen’s shoes and remember what it was like to be a teenager. It might have been tough for you to ask your parents for advice, especially if you felt like they were going to trivialize your problems or offer canned responses to a complicated situation.
Yes, adults have greater responsibilities and a different perspective on life. But for teens, even “trivial” situations can have significant and far-reaching (in their eyes) consequences. It helps to take their concerns seriously and acknowledge how they feel in the moment.
Look Out for the Warning Signs
Encouraging your teen to talk to you whenever they feel troubled or worried is important.
But there may be situations wherein your teen doesn’t feel comfortable discussing how they feel. Sometimes, that feeling of shame or confusion is part of the “problem”.
Symptoms of conditions like depression and anxiety can include the kind of lowered self-esteem and heightened sense of self-critique that keep teens from getting the help they need. Instead, parents need to keep an eye out for “warning signs”. These might include:
- A sudden and drastic change in the crowd of people your teen hangs out with.
- A loss of interest in most hobbies, and no or few new ones.
- A shift in mood, particularly more frequent isolation and general sadness.
- Fatigue, both physical and mental.
- Sudden and extreme irritability.
- Changes in weight, especially drastic weight loss or weight gain.
- Struggling socially, loss of friendships, frequent relationship troubles.
- Dropping grades.
- Obvious signs of drug use, from physical symptoms to external signs (smell, paraphernalia, leftover substances).
Not all teens who need help are struggling with an identifiable mental health issue. Sometimes, the warning signs can precede any chance of a formal diagnosis.
But it’s still a good idea to discuss your teen’s symptoms and behavior with a professional and talk to your teen about making an appointment together if you worry about how they’ve been feeling lately.
Help Them Set Realistic Goals
Adolescence is a time of self-discovery and personal growth, more so than nearly any other point in a person’s life. With that comes a lot of experimentation, and change. Encourage your teen’s interests, their changing habits, and their new hobbies, even if you don’t necessarily like them. Furthermore, help your teen set and achieve realistic goals.
Goal setting can be a helpful endeavor for teens who are currently struggling, whether mentally or otherwise. Working on something aimlessly, whether it’s an academic goal or something personal, can be demotivating. Small, realistic goals can keep your teen motivated and turn hobbies into passions.
Talk To a Professional Together
If your teen’s mental health is deteriorating past the point where helping them with their schoolwork or encouraging them to talk to you about their worries is enough, it might be time to seek outside help. Make sure your teen understands that going to see a counselor or a therapist does not mean you’re trying to “unload the problem” on someone else.
You’re there for them, will continue to help them every day, and will be involved in whatever a “treatment plan” might look like, if one needs to exist. Many therapists encourage parents and immediate family members to contribute to a teen’s ongoing mental health treatments, through family therapy, psychoeducation, and continued long-term care.