If you have a teenager in your life, you may already know how difficult it can be to tell the difference between normal teenage development and signs of a deeper struggle with mental health. It’s common for teens to pull away from their family, struggle in school, and experience frequent mood changes. However, when your teen becomes overwhelmed by these challenges, it can cause concern and confusion for the adults who love them. Whether your teen is dealing with anxiety, depression, or just having a difficult time navigating important relationships, there are many ways you can support them in improving their mental health.
Don’t be afraid to ask difficult questions
Many parents assume that by inquiring about difficult topics such as depression, bullying, and suicide, they will put ideas in their teen’s mind that didn’t already exist. In reality, even if your teen is not going through these challenges themselves, they are often already exposed to them through friends, peers, or social media. By asking directly about how these sensitive subjects may be affecting them, you are showing your teen that it is acceptable to talk about them (taking away much of the taboo that often keeps these issues in the dark). You may be surprised how much your teen is willing to talk to you about challenging topics when they are provided with a safe, nonjudgmental space to do so.
Allow your teen to be the expert of their own experience
One of the biggest challenges in parenting can be allowing your child to make their own mistakes. In many cases it is up to parents and caregivers to advise their teens on what is and is not acceptable behavior and to set limits and rules accordingly. However, providing space for your teen to be able to tell you what they need can go a long way in helping them feel respected and heard, therefore making them more likely to reciprocate these sentiments. This can be as simple as asking them, “What can I do to help you feel less stressed about school?” or “How can we work together to solve this problem you’re facing?” Additionally, this provides teens with the opportunity to think critically about how to solve difficult problems and come up with healthy solutions on their own.
Prioritize regular quality time together
As children age, they tend to become less motivated to spend time with their families and more interested in hanging out with friends or engaging in extracurricular activities. Scheduling time to participate in activities that strengthen your parent-child bond can remind your teen that you are interested in their lives and see them as individuals. Many parents also find that by doing so, their teens are more likely to open up about things they may be struggling with. Find several activities you and your teen can enjoy together, and set aside time each month to do so.
Model healthy behavior
As frustrating as it can be to admit, most teens do what you do, not what you tell them to do. Therefore it is important to show your teen what fostering strong mental health looks like. This means that any healthy habits you have can provide your teen with an example of what to do to achieve a healthy life of their own, which they can carry with them into adulthood and then pass on to their own children. Practicing regular self-care, exercising, setting adaptive boundaries, and openly discussing your emotions are all ways you can model prioritizing your mental health.
Help your teen find a mental health professional they feel comfortable with
If you notice that your teen is often anxious, depressed, or overwhelmed, you may be wondering how to tell when it’s time to talk to a professional. When these issues start to significantly compromise their schoolwork, friendships, and relationships with family members, this is often an indication that therapy will be a helpful resource for them. The right therapist can not only help you and your teen better understand what they are going through, but also provide them with coping strategies they can use to improve their mental health and increase their confidence in overcoming obstacles.
– Heather Brown, ASW