If you are a parent of a teenager, you may be wondering how to best support your teen’s mental health, especially at a time when we are bombarded with stories about suicide, depression, Tik Tok trends, threats of school shootings, and so on. Parenting a teenager can often feel like trying to decode a complicated algorithm without the formula for doing so. While there is a myriad of resources available to assist parents in this journey, there are also some basic tenants to keep in mind which you can begin to apply today.
First of all, I want to encourage all parents and teens alike that these do not have to be the worst years of your life. True, adolescence involves a great deal of transition and growth, but it is not all negative and you are not doomed to years of heightened chaos and emotionality, as many believe. Second, it is crucial to understand what is happening during the teenage years so that you can keep your eye on the end game and not become lost in the daily process. Remember the reference to decoding your teen? Well, a huge part of that is recognizing the function of adolescence so that you as a parent do not misinterpret the ups and downs of behavior. In her book about the development of the teenage brain, Dr. Frances Jensen (2015) describes the process that goes into “building a brain” (p. 24). An adolescent brain possesses “an overabundance of gray matter (the neurons that form the basic building blocks of the brain) and an undersupply of white matter (the connective wiring that helps information flow efficiently from one part of the brain to the other)” (p. 26). Jensen likens the result of this developmental journey to that of obtaining “a brand-new Ferrari: it’s primed and pumped, but it hasn’t been road tested yet” (pp. 26-27). In other words, a teenager may look like an adult physically, but his/her brain is far from being fully prepared to make adult decisions or navigate adult emotions.
This information is important to keep in mind when trying to determine whether your teen’s behavior is the result of normal development or may be a warning sign of something deeper, such as a mental health concern. Admittedly, it can sometimes be difficult to discern the difference, which is why consistent communication and interaction is key. Assuming your teenager is fine or isn’t struggling because they are not acting out or vocalizing their struggle is not necessarily accurate. The reverse can also be true, however: not all teenage rebellion is the biproduct of anxiety or depression. The following paragraphs will attempt to outline symptoms and behaviors to pay attention to, as well as offer suggestions for providing support to your teen.
Signs and Symptoms of Depression or Anxiety
This is by no means an exhaustive list and may vary in presentation from one individual to the next; however, here are some general signs or symptoms to be aware of in your teenager:
- Sudden changes in behavior or habits that cannot be explained by a medical condition or other identifiable stressor
- Increased conflict between peers or family members
- Increased withdrawal and isolation
- Excessive sleeping or an inability to sleep
- Substance abuse
- Promiscuous activity
- Binge eating, purging or restriction of food
- Excessive exercise
- Lack of motivation or procrastination
- Decreased performance in school or other activities
- Self-harm or suicidal thought/ideation
- Inability to focus or complete tasks; forgetfulness
- Frequent lashing out in anger or heightened emotion
- Frequent crying or an inability to stop crying
Understanding Your Teen’s Behavior
In order to know if these behaviors are new or unusual for your teen, it is necessary to keep tabs on their daily habits and activities and have a general awareness of their friends and the influence their peer group has on them. You don’t have to know all the details or micromanage (in fact, I advise against that), but you do need to take a regular pulse. Not only does this allow you to track patterns and notice possible problems, it also sends the message to your teen that you care and are interested in their life. Although many teens protest parental involvement, they actually do want to know you care. I cannot tell you how many teens tell me their parents are checked out, don’t care or don’t monitor their activities—they don’t say this with satisfaction, by the way; rather, it’s with a sad awareness that the adults in their life are not paying close enough attention.
You may be wondering how to maintain this connection without your teen pushing you away or feeling you have to stock them on social media. For starters, establish some kind of regular check-in. I tell my teenage daughter to “keep me in the loop,” so this might take the form of a conversation over dinner, after school, in the car on the way to an activity, or, more often than not, late at night. As a parent to teens, we have to be available when they are ready to talk, even if their timing doesn’t match with ours or is inconvenient. If you can’t make the time when they are ready to talk, assure them you will make it a priority and follow through with them. It is also advisable to occasionally monitor their on-line activity and discuss parameters of how to utilize social media. For example, Snap Chat is not the place to post pictures of self-harm or a cry for help. Not only can these messages negatively impact others who view this material, it often won’t result in intervention. Other kids are not equipped to help their friends, nor should they have to, so it is critical your teen knows of at least one adult they can go to in a crisis.
Communicating With Your Teen
In addition to establishing a regular check-in or monitoring social media, make your home a place where your teen’s friends are welcome to hang out. This can provide you with a wealth of information about your child and allow you to truly assess their state of mind. Finally, never underestimate the power of a good old-fashioned question about how your teen is doing. Not everything has to be clandestine with adolescents. In fact, it is perfectly acceptable to ask your teen how they are doing. If they don’t feel comfortable talking, ask them to write you a letter or encourage them to talk to a counselor. The goal is to get them talking about their feelings and to create a safe space for them to process. In my experience, most teens would rather have a root canal than talk about their feelings, so your child may not get super deep with you, but at least they will know they can when push really comes to shove.
Additional Tips for Maintaining Strong Mental Health
Some final suggestions for helping to support your teen’s mental health include making sure they get adequate sleep, eat regular meals, engage in some form of regular movement or exercise, have down time without being on a device, and have an open-door policy to talk with you whenever they choose to do so.
Keep in mind that not every difficult or dramatic behavior from your teen is a sign of dysfunction. Part of their brain development includes learning to emote in healthy and constructive ways. They don’t always know what they are feeling or how to describe it, so it can be challenging for them to communicate the reason behind tears, eye rolls, angry outbursts, etc. Sometimes an adolescent’s acting out is trying to tell you something deeper and they aren’t necessarily trying to be difficult or disrespectful. By the way, one of the biggest complaints I hear from teens is that their parents demand respect but often yell at or criticize their teen, in return. While their brain may still be developing, they do see this for the double standard that it is. Keep your cool, Parents. Believe it or not, teenagers are capable of fairly high-level conversations and are often logical in their thinking—it just may not be the same as your way of thinking. Again, fostering an environment where conversation is invited and productive is key.
Sarah Groff, LCMHC has worked in the mental health field for over 20 years in a variety of settings that have included the nonprofit and private practice sectors. This work has ranged from providing counseling and support to birth parents, adoptive parents and adoptees in the adoption field, to working with those infected with HIV/AIDS, to teaching undergraduate psychology courses, and now to private practice where she works with adolescents, individuals, couples, and families. Sarah truly loves her work and counts it as a privilege to come alongside clients in their most painful and celebratory moments of life. She has three children and has lived in the Lake Norman area for eight years.