4 Things You Can Do to Support Your Teen's Mental Health

Mental health is no less important than physical health. Here are four actionable ways parents and caregivers can support their teens' mental health.

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Few things are worse than watching your child struggle. Sure, there are some tough life lessons that kids must learn to navigate on their own, but sometimes, kids struggle because they need help with their mental health.

As a teen and tween parent, I know first-hand that hormones and emotions can run high (and occasionally erratic) on any given day. Still, I also know that mental health challenges like anxiety and depression can be destructive and make navigating the world even more complicated than it already is.

Helping your teen through their mental health challenges can feel overwhelming, but there is hope. Keep reading to learn more about ways you can support your teen's mental health.

What Is Mental Health?

Mental health refers to the overall state of a person's psychological and emotional well-being. It encompasses the way we think, feel, and behave and includes factors such as our ability to cope with stress, our relationships with others, and our overall sense of happiness and satisfaction with life, explains Ryan Sultan, MD, a child mental health physician and medical director of Integrative Psych and research professor at Columbia University.. "It is essential for parents to take their teenager's mental health seriously because mental health problems can significantly impact their child's ability to function in their daily life, and even lead to more severe mental health issues if left untreated."

A sense of taboo has long overshadowed mental health, but thanks to the moving candidness of writers, artists, and celebrities sharing their stories of mental health struggles, that taboo is finally fading into history. Today, we know that mental health is a serious component of overall health and that it can impact many areas of one's life.

"The truth is, mental health diagnoses and challenges can affect anyone; mental health is just as real and important as physical health," says Aimee Miller, a parent of a teen dealing with mental health challenges. "If your child had a terrible physical illness, such as cancer, talking about it and seeking support from co-workers and friends would feel natural. However, it's complicated if a child struggles with mental health issues. You feel the need to protect your child's privacy, and that can make you feel like you need to keep it very private."

Why Is Mental Health Important?

Mental health affects every aspect of our lives, from what we think and feel to how we interact with others. It can even impact our physical health. And yet, some minimize its importance.

"Unlike physical health, mental health is not as highly prioritized by many people," says Lisa Kruger, Ph.D., LPC owner, and psychotherapist at Stepping Stone Psychotherapy, LLC in Alexandria, Virginia. "However, its negative effects, when neglected, can be just as detrimental if not worse (e.g., suicide) than physical ailments. Educating teens about mental health and how to take care of their own mental health is a great teaching opportunity for parents to set their kids up for emotional success."

Ways to Support Your Teen's Mental Health

The number one way to support your teen's mental health is by being available and flexible to their needs.

"Taking mental health seriously involves being aware of the signs and symptoms of mental health problems, encouraging open communication with your teen, and seeking professional help when necessary," says Dr. Sultan. "Parents can support their teenager's mental health by creating a safe and supportive home environment, encouraging healthy habits like exercise and good nutrition, and modeling healthy coping strategies for stress and other challenges. Overall, taking mental health seriously can help teens thrive and reach their full potential."

Here are some actionable steps parents and caregivers can take to support teen mental health.

Check-in with your teen, regularly and often

Dr. Sultan explains that checking in with your teen (regularly and often) is important. "Remember, the goal is to maintain an ongoing, open, and supportive dialogue with your teen," says Dr. Sultan. "By regularly and often checking in, you can strengthen your relationship, better understand their world, and provide guidance when needed."

But what does "checking in" look like when you have a teen who may not want to talk? Here are a few of Dr. Sultan's steps for creating quality communication:

  1. Establish a routine of checking in—like a weekly family meeting— to help set the expectation and create consistency.
  2. Create a non-judgemental, safe space where your teen can feel comfortable talking freely about their experiences without fear of criticism or rejection.
  3. Practice active listening. This can be done by maintaining eye-contact, avoiding interruptions, avoiding dismissing concerns, giving your teen your undivided attention, and showing a genuine interest in what they have to say.
  4. Ask open-ended questions. Instead of saying, "How was your day?" try something more specific like, "What was the most interesting part of your day?"
  5. Acknowledge and validate your teen's feelings even if you do not understand or agree with them.
  6. Share experiences from your own teen years. Not only will this show your teen that you are willing to open up about vulnerable topics, but it will show them that they are not alone.
  7. Respect your teen's privacy—they may not want to share every detail of their thoughts, experiences, or feelings, and that is OK. Building trust means respecting boundaries.
  8. Be supportive by offering encouragement in difficult times, helping your teen to brainstorm solutions, and offering your guidance.
  9. Incorporate technology.. Some teens may feel more comfortable texting than talking face-to-face. Think about scheduling calls, FaceTime, texting, or sharing online calendars to stay connected about their activities and events.

Encourage your teen to share their feelings

Some teens will easily open up and talk, and some will not. As the parent or caregiver, your first job in trying to encourage your teen to share their feelings is to avoid trying to pry responses out of your teen. Instead, think about how you can create a safe space for your teen to share their feelings. You can start by making it clear that you are there in a supportive role to listen without judgment—you can demonstrate this by consistently avoiding things like reacting negatively, dismissing or belittling their feelings, or rushing to shut down a conversation.

Dr. Kruger explains that asking open-ended questions like "How did that make you feel? or "What was that like for you?" are an excellent place to start, especially with teens of few words. But don't just focus on questions. "Provide empathetic responses like "that must be really hard for you, I understand, and I've been there myself," says Dr. Kruger.

But what if you try all this and your teen still doesn't open up? Dr. Sultan explains that some teens have different communication styles, and the key may be figuring out the best style that feels the most comfortable fo your teen.

"Recognize that not all teenagers are comfortable expressing their feelings through direct conversation," says Dr. Sultan. "Encourage them to express themselves through alternative methods like writing in a journal, drawing, or engaging in a creative outlet that allows them to process their emotions."

Acknowledge other markers that this may be amiss

Promoting physical health, including good hygiene, isn't just a healthy way to live for teens; it's also a great way for parents and caregivers to recognize signs of when something is off.

"A lot of teens are not going to share their feelings, but that doesn't mean you are going to be in the dark," says Mavis Peters, a mom of three teens in Maryland. "There are plenty of signs of when they are struggling and when they aren't, or what they are up to!" Peters explains that sometimes a parent needs to check in from a distance to avoid invading personal space and privacy; she suggests that parents ask themselves the following questions about what they observe about their teen:

  1. How do they look? Are they changing their clothes, brushing their hair, and do they have dark circles under their eyes?
  2. How do they smell?
  3. Has their hygiene routine changed?
  4. Are they eating? If so, what are they eating?
  5. Is your teen sleeping more than usual? Less?
  6. Is your teen having a lot of headaches?
  7. Is your teen still maintaining normal their normal social activities?

"Truthfully, we are going to make mistakes. We are all flying by the seat of our pants, praying we are not missing anything and damaging our kids further," says Peters. "There are signs we are going to miss that our kids are going to tell us about later on, and that is OK. But we know our kids and know when something is off enough that we need to take action. It seems dark now, but you can find the light together!"

Signs Your Teen May Need Additional Support

While every person is different and the signs of emotional distress will vary from teen to teen, Dr. Sultan believes parents and caregivers should trust their instints. "If you have concerns about your teen's mental health, it is advisable to seek professional help from a therapist, counselor, or mental health provider who specializes in working with adolescents," says Dr. Sultan. Still, parents and caregivers should watch for the following signs that can be red flags that a teen needs additional support:

  • Persistent sadness or hopelessness
  • Intense anxiety or worry
  • Social isolation from friends and family
  • Extreme mood swings
  • Noticeable changes in eating and sleeping habits
  • Self-harming behaviors and/or expressions of suicidal thoughts
  • Substance abuse
  • Noticeable decline in personal hygiene or self-care

Key Takeaway

Mental health is as important as physical health and can impact every aspect of one's life. If your teen is experiencing mental health challenges, find ways to be as supportive as possible. Seek help by talking to your doctor for guidance and, if your child is in crisis, dial 988, which is the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Remember, you are not alone.

Mental Health Resources for Teens and Young Adults

If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition, know that there is help. There is hope. You are not alone.

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