Many teens struggle with mental health issues.  Here are some tips for parents.

Many teens struggle with mental health issues. Here are some tips for parents.


As a clinical psychologist, I often find myself sitting across from students struggling with issues such as anxiety and suicide, who confide that their parents don’t understand. Unsurprisingly, I also work with parents of young adults who want to help their kids but can’t get online. It can be disheartening when people who matter deeply to each other misinterpret cues at critical emotional times, but part of what I teach parents is how to help their teens feel heard and supported so so that they can move forward.

About 50% of adolescents meet the criteria for a psychiatric diagnosis at some point, and we’ve all heard about unresolved mental health issues in adolescents as well as concerning rates of suicidality. While young adults crave autonomy, the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain that handles thought with flexibility and impulse management – continues to develop until the age of 25, which means that, as mature as it seems, your teen needs adult help when it comes to regulating his emotions and dealing with tantrums.

Yet I’ve seen even the most well-meaning parents freak out when their child is struggling with mental health issues, then inadvertently say the wrong thing like “you’re overreacting.” Sometimes they give kids too much space, assuming their teenager will come to them with a problem. But there are effective ways to empower your teen, including working on managing your own emotions, asking the right questions, and helping to determine the level of support they need.

Practice being kind and non-judgmental: To increase the likelihood that your teen will open up to you in difficult times, it helps to be open and warm in ordinary times. It can also help remind you that feeling distress is part of being a young adult, says psychologist Lisa Damour, author of “Under Pressure” and co-host of the “Ask Lisa: The Psychology of Parenting” podcast. . “Part of the way we can support young people is to normalize stress,” she says.

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Don’t be a “snow plow parent”: It’s not your job to suppress the potential problems your teen is facing. Living and dealing with mistakes and failures can be a “hidden agenda” that helps young adults grow and find their purpose, say Belle Liang and Timothy Klein, authors of “How to Navigate Life.”

Many parents I treat, especially those who suffer from anxiety themselves, are eager to rush to save the day on non-urgent issues, like helping their teen catch up on overdue homework. This only prevents their young adult from learning consequences and developing better problem-solving skills. Instead, Damour recommends listening and empathizing, which reduces the intensity of negative emotions. Rather than going into restorative mode, the goal should be “to help your youngster build a broader repertoire of management,” advises Damour. This can include talking about cultivating healthy habits such as getting enough sleep, exercising, and avoiding substances.

Give them hope: If your teen is struggling with more serious issues than average stress, like depression or anxiety, let them know that what they’re going through isn’t permanent and that it’s possible and within reach. to feel better. “Symptoms of depression don’t define you, they are part of your life experience and will change through effort, adaptive coping strategies, and finding the right supports,” advises Jessica Schleider, psychologist and assistant professor at Stonybrook University. Schleider has developed brief, one-session interventions that are free online, that help reduce hopelessness and depression, especially if you’re waiting to see a professional.

Ask questions about thoughts of self-harm: However, if you’re worried your child is considering suicide or self-harm, “the most important thing is to pull yourself together and find a way to ask questions directly about it,” says David Jobes, psychologist and teacher. at the Catholic University. who developed the Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicidality, an evidence-based clinical intervention to help prevent suicide. He encourages parents to gather their strength, approach their loved one at the right time when you have their full attention, and then be direct – “Are things so bad you’re thinking about suicide?” Have you ever thought about doing things to hurt yourself? – and make sure you’re ready to hear the answer. “You have to listen and just hear it and hold it in, rather than invalidating or anticipating or pointing things out,” Jobes says. “You want to convey the message that we are here, whether physically or emotionally; by phone or text. We have you.

Many young adults are terrified of discussing suicidal feelings with their parents, which can mean suicidal thoughts are not discussed until there is an emergency. That’s why it’s so important to set the stage for your teen to feel comfortable sharing. Also, keep in mind that suicidal thoughts are quite common, with nearly 10% of people having these thoughts in their lifetime.

“We can all have weird thoughts, they’re just thoughts, and we can talk about them together,” Schleider says, adding that it’s crucial your teen knows they can come to you. Although suicidal feelings can seem terrifying and warrant seeking professional help, remember that you need to be someone your child can turn to, so don’t overreact. Instead, try to enter these prepared conversations with potential resources.

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Rely on research-based approaches: As a parent, Jobes says, you can call crisis hotlines and use tools, such as the Stanley-Brown Safety Plan, and share them with your teen, giving them power over what which he finds useful. Some of the support Jobes encourages exploring, while waiting to meet a professional, includes the Crisis Text Line, the National 988 Helpline, exploring Dialectical Behavior Therapy – an evidence-based approach evidence for dealing with suicidal feelings – content on Now Matters Now or DBT-RU, or join the Lived Experience Academy or peer-led alternatives to suicide. Definitely take precautions and remove access to any lethal means.

Despite conventional wisdom, when the risk of suicide is not imminent, there may not be a need for medications such as SSRIs or hospitalizations. Instead, Jobes encourages understanding of the factors that lead your child to consider suicide and offers your child a range of options, including psychotherapies proven to reduce the risk of suicide, such as dialectical behavior therapy, to directly address challenges that fuel suicidal feelings. After decades of experience in the field of adolescent suicidology, Jobes has observed that “at the heart of most suicidal struggles are relationship issues.” These can include anything from problems at home to bullying at school to relationship breakups, and medications or hospitalizations usually don’t improve these concerns significantly as much as a good psychotherapy, says Jobes.

One of the suicide prevention studies that I think of often in my work is psychiatrist Jerome Motto’s simple but life-saving finding that clinicians who send brief, thoughtful recording messages that show someone is investing in a person’s well-being can significantly reduce the risk of suicide. . Communicating that you truly care and are there, repeatedly and without judgment, is a profound gift.

No matter what the young adult you love is facing, consider your role, as Jobes prescribes: “Like a beacon, just keep sending the message, I’m here.” There are rocks there. I will continue to send a beacon of light to guide you, but you are the captain of your own ship, and together we can bring you safely to shore.

Jenny Taitz, PsyD, ABPP, is a clinical psychologist and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles. She is the author of a forthcoming book on stress, “How to be single and happy,” and “End emotional eating.”

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