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

3 Step Response to the Teenage Distress Text

Back in the day (as a 70s-era student), when something happened at school – my feelings were hurt, I’d aced a test I’d been nervous about or I wanted permission to go to a movie with a friend – I had to wait until I got home and saw my parents to talk / boast / ask permission, as the case required. Or what about when I was homesick at summer camp? By the time my parents received my snail-mailed letter bemoaning my fate, my sadness was long gone and I was cavorting with my campmates.

These days, texting places a direct line to parents in the palm of virtually every kid’s hand. And many parents have unwittingly made the mistake of buying into the cultural (and child-driven) expectation that communication should therefore be instantaneous and immediate.

 Not so fast.

It’s important to recreate the distance between the onset of a child’s every problem or negative emotion and our instinctive and understandable drive to fix it. Let’s face it: our children aren’t in dire jeopardy when their feelings get hurt or if they’re disappointed in their performance on an exam or on the soccer field. So how can we, as parents, best help our kids?

If your endgame is to help your children learn to navigate unpleasant experiences and feelings, don’t miss this all-too-frequent opportunity to help them develop resilience and agency using this 3-step approach:

1.    Acknowledge but don’t engage

2.    Empathize rather than escalate

3.    Encourage insights that leads to self-efficacy

Acknowledge but don’t engage. Some modern parenting approaches make parents feel that to prove their devotion (and fitness), their job is to be their child’s ally at every turn. But when we react to a child’s text by immediately soliciting more details or instinctively siding with their point of view, we not only shortchange what should be a face-to-face encounter, we run the risk of escalating their emotions or anxieties.

By all means, if your children text to tell you the teacher hurt his feelings or her best friend snubbed her, acknowledge the situation with a short response that promises more conversation later. It’s important to ensure your child feels heard and can count on your support, but not wise to engage in an emotionally charged text dialogue.

Plus, when we give the situation time to simmer in the child’s mind, they just might come up with a solution themselves.

Empathize rather than escalate.

To a child (of almost any age), a small slight can sometimes feel like the sky is falling. It’s an age-appropriate response. But as parents, we should not match their hysteria or emotional temperature. Our job is to acknowledge our children’s pain and give them something their minds aren’t yet capable of delivering: perspective.

By over-identifying with our kids’ emotions or probing for hidden motives by their friends / teachers / coaches, we keep children stuck in the problem. Empathize and be supportive, but ask the types of questions that help them see the bigger picture. Simple phrases such as “Tell me more” and “Why do you think that happened?” gives kids the opportunity to unpack the experience so you can help them identify the salient issues and their role.

Encourage insight that leads to self-efficacy. It’s easy to point the finger and make others responsible for our feelings. It’s typical for children to blame others and feel victimized. But psychologists note that each time a parent swoops in to fix a problem or mend a relationship for their children, they push them one more step away from self-knowledge and self-efficacy.

As a parent with perspective, your role is to help your child identify how they may have contributed to the problem and the steps they can take to amend it. For example, ask questions that probe their part in the drama. See if this is a situation that has occurred before. With that information in hand, the two of you can brainstorm about what is in the child’s control. How can they be empowered to amend the situation by changing their own behavior?

This is also a great time to model how you’ve reacted to a problem at work or with a friend. Knowing that Mom and Dad also deal with challenging relationships and negative emotions – and lived to talk about it – gives children the courage to give growing up a try and figure out the solution themselves.

In the end, we want to build resilient capable kids who will remember to text every once in a while after they have left home because they want to say hello, not because they have a crisis for us to solve.