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How parents can support teens’ mental health

December 20, 2021

Mental Health Primary Care Wellness
A teenage girl of African descent is indoors in a bedroom

Anxiety, depression on the rise among adolescents and young adults

Parents remember all too well the stress and strife teen years can bring. After all, teens face pressure from just about every angle: From school, sports and activities to friendships and relationships; they’re struggling to figure out who they are and where they fit in.

“The teen years are a formative time in life,” shares Ryan McQueen, M.D., Medical Director for Adolescent Services at Riverside Behavioral Health Center. “They’re navigating new situations all while experiencing very real and significant changes to their bodies. This can create a perfect storm that brings on more than teen angst. It can trigger anxiety and depression.”

Here, Dr. McQueen shares recent data about mental health and teens and offers parents advice on recognizing signs of struggle and how to get teens the help they need. 

Studies paint an alarming picture

There has been growing research into identifying and understanding trends when it comes to adolescents' and teens’ mental health. And what studies show is that depression and anxiety are all too common. Consider:

Identifying signs of depression, anxiety in teens

The statistics blasted in headlines can certainly create some anxiety of its own among parents. But Dr. McQueen reminds parents to take a deep breath. 

“One of the best things parents can do for their teens is to pay attention to what’s happening in their life and spend some time learning about anxiety and mental health issues among teens – including what it looks like,” he says.  

Typically, symptoms of depression or anxiety last for two weeks or more. Symptoms can include:

  • Extreme irritability
  • Loss of interest in favorite activities
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Trouble getting along with others
  • Panic attacks
  • Excessive worry
  • Extreme concern about the future

“When it comes to your child’s mental health, it’s always better to be safe than sorry,” reminds Dr. McQueen “You should call your child’s doctor if you notice any troubling symptoms.”

How to support your teen’s mental health

It’s no secret that teens aren’t always eager to get help from their parents. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t show up for your child. Here’s what that might look like for your family:

Offer gentle encouragement

It can be a fine line to walk to encourage teens to (safely) move out of their comfort zone without putting unnecessary pressure or stress on your child. Instead of telling them they need to do something, sit down and plan together how they might try something new and what they can do to help themselves feel more comfortable. These types of conversations go a long way in setting your teen up for success long after they leave your home.

Encourage other connections

We all need someone to talk to sometimes. Teens aren’t any different. And the reality is they may have questions or concerns they don’t feel comfortable coming to you. Help them build a relationship with another trusted adult – a counselor, teacher, coach or family member – that they can always turn to with a question.

Take the stigma out of mental health 

It’s hard for anyone to admit they need help. That’s especially true when it comes to mental health. Speak up about any struggles you’ve had with your mental health and encourage your teen to share their own experience. A simple conversation can go a long way in opening doors and talking with people facing similar situations.

Work together to find effective strategies 

There are many great ways to help ease feelings of anxiety and stress. Work with your teen (and a mental health professional if possible) to come up with ways that may help your child get through stressful situations. Coping strategies might include:

  • Breathing exercises – Try 3-3-6 breathing where you breathe in for a count of 3 seconds; hold your breath for 3 seconds; and breathe out for a count of 6 seconds. Watch a video.
  • Grounding exercises – A grounding exercise can be anything from focusing on your five senses to putting your hands in water. These simple activities help refocus your mind and body. Find the right technique for your teen.
  • Soothing activities – Chances are when your child was a toddler, you had a handful of activities to grab when they were starting to feel overwhelmed or tired. Well, teens need the same support. Work with your child to figure out activities that can help them self-soothe when they are starting to feel overwhelmed or anxious. It could be anything from listening to calming music, cuddling up under a weighted blanket to going for a walk together in the fresh air. 

“Like most things in parenthood, trying to support your child’s mental health can be overwhelming,” says Dr. McQueen. “You might feel like you’re ill-equipped or unsure what to do. But remember – it’s like everything else. 

“Being there for your child and listening without judgment will create the kind of relationship where your teen knows they can go to you. And your child’s doctor or mental health professional can guide them to the support and care they need,” he concludes.

If you think your teen may be struggling with mental health issues, schedule an appointment with their doctor. Learn more about the adolescent services available at Riverside.

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