Teen Mental Health: What Role Can Parents Play?

The last thing most parents imagine – or at least would prefer not to contemplate – is that one of their adolescent children will develop a mental health or behavioral disorder.

Sadly, it’s not outside the realm of possibility. According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, of the approximately 40 million children between the ages of 12-19:

·       31% reported symptoms of depression

·       13% claim to have had at least one major depressive episode

Anxiety disorders in teens are also on the rise, as reported in the Child Mind Institute’s 2018 Children’s Mental Health Report. Left untreated, anxiety can keep kids from reaching their full potential and is strongly linked to increased risk for later depression, behavior problems and substance abuse.

As important as the data is, this post is not intended as an exhaustive overview of teen mental health, but rather a focus on what we, as parents, can do to support our kids and ourselves.

The first call-to-action is to be watchful of our kids’ behavior. Ironically, adolescence is already marked by normally disordered behavior, so it may be hard to discern the difference between, say, to-be-expected sullenness and what might be symptoms of depression in your teen. Be alert for changes in mood or behavior – and don’t be afraid to talk to your kids about what you’re witnessing. While I don’t advocate over-reaction, you don’t need to be 100% sure there’s a problem before insisting your child see a professional if you’re worried about their behavior.

Why? Like with most health concerns, early intervention is key. The sooner parents catch the onset of a mental health problem and intervene in a healthy and helpful way, the better the chance kids have to recover and learn healthy adaptive behaviors.

Now. Hear. This. Having a child with mental health issues is not shameful. Nor is it your fault. Eliminating any stigma or guilt you may have is an important first step to getting effective treatment for your kids.

It’s especially vital to identify and rectify any biases you may have so they don’t cloud the issue. For example, a friend of mine didn’t realize he considered his daughter’s depression a sign of weakness until he saw how hard she was digging in her heels against seeing a therapist. Once he unwound his own thinking, she was able to do likewise.

The most empowering thing about not turning a blind eye to our kids’ mental health is because these conditions are treatable. I don’t know any parent who would refuse to get insulin for a child with diabetes, chemo for a kid with cancer or a cast for one who had a broken bone. Getting treatment for a mental health condition like anxiety, depression, an eating disorder isn’t any different.

When it comes to deciding what type of treatment to pursue, give your kids a voice and a choice. I’m not saying they need to agree with you about getting treatment – that’s always the parents’ call. But a good fit between therapist and client is tied to better outcomes. So let them interview several therapists and/or therapeutic options to see who and what they best connect with.

When it comes to getting support for ourselves, please remember the familiar on-board instruction to put on your own life mask before putting one on your kids. Parents need support, too. Whether that means finding a meet-up or other parent support group, occasionally sitting in on a therapy session or talking to a counselor or parenting coach, do so.

Realize that you and your family are not alone. Considering the stats at the beginning of the post, the universe of parents coping with the same challenges you are is large. Find them and share your challenges and your successes.

Finally, avail yourselves of the resources available.  Here is a sampling to get you started if you’d like to learn more about teen mental health – and find the support you need:

·       Your child’s pediatrician can rule out physical conditions that may be affecting behavior as well as offer referrals to mental health professional if needed

·       Talk to the school psychologist, who can offer guidance and referrals

·       Learn about the range of possible interventions, including school- or community-based interventions including talk therapy, art, music and equine therapy, medication and even therapeutic digital platforms

·       A new study suggests a correlation between team sports in adolescence that may be linked to preventing or treating depression in young people

·       This blog post offers a primer for helping parents understand the different types of therapists that work in the field, as well as sample questions to ask a prospective therapist

·       Psychology Today website offers detailed listing for mental health professionals who work with teens

·       National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offers support groups, online education, and information geared to teens and young adults

·       National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) offers hotlines, live chats with experts, resources and more