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How To Talk to Your Teen About Their Mental Health

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One of the most delicate of topics to raise with a teenager is the subject of mental health. Young people face stressors and risk factors on a daily basis, and it can be hard for parents and educators to determine when the social and emotional habits they are developing are cause for concern. Making a point to talk about mental health with our youth opens the lines of communication and allows each of us to offer the right support.

How Common Are Mental Health Issues in Teens?

Research has shown that about 49.5% of teenagers ages 13-18 suffer from a mental health issue, and that 22% of young people in their teens are severely impaired by a mental health condition.1 Many of these mood, behavior, and anxiety disorders are hard to recognize in the rapidly developing mind of a teenager.

Teen mental health statistics suggest that the most common disorders among teens are2:

  • Emotional disorders, including mood disorders like anxiety, panic disorder, bi-polar disorder, and depression
  • Behavioral disorders, including ADHD and conduct disorder
  • Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa
  • Psychotic disorders like schizophrenia
  • Suicide and self-harm disorders
  • Risk-taking behaviors and substance use disorders

What Are the Signs a Teen Is Facing a Mental Health Challenge?

Starting a conversation with your teen about the importance of developing healthy habits for mental health is helpful for every young person. They may share with you their own concerns and develop awareness of how wellness extends beyond the physical body. Developing coping skills and strengthening social skills helps all of us manage emotions in a positive way.

When teen mental health issues are not addressed, they often extend into adulthood. When you see these kinds of warning signs, it might be time to talk to a teenager about the challenges they are experiencing3:

  • They are often more anxious or afraid than seems reasonable
  • They have sudden and extreme mood swings or over-react emotionally
  • They seem depressed or apathetic for more than a few days
  • They seem overly excited, euphoric, and have racing thoughts that interfere with focus and sleeping
  • They are frequently irritable, angry, or violent without an obvious cause
  • They seem to feel hopeless, lacking self-worth, or say they want to escape
  • They suddenly change their eating habits, sleeping patterns, appearance, or body weight
  • They engage in self-harming behaviors
  • They have difficulty with memory, retaining information, or making decisions
  • They hear voices, hallucinate, or hold strange beliefs that do not align with reality

How To Start a Conversation With Your Teen About Mental Health

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When it comes to teens and mental health, how the conversation starts can make all the difference to a young person. Being non-judgemental and supportive will help your teen open up and share their own thoughts and feelings. Behaviors that might seem out of the blue to a parent or caregiver could turn out to have a situational cause that can be dealt with directly.

Try these conversational strategies to encourage a young person to start talking:

Observational

Share what you have observed in a way that avoids judging or drawing conclusions.

  • “I have noticed you haven’t been talking to your friends much.”
  • “It seems to me that you’ve been feeling sad a lot lately.”
  • “I got a notice that your science project was turned in late.”

Avoid disapproving or accusational approaches and don’t speculate on the reasons why. Let them tell you what they are feeling and thinking.

Informational

Share information that opens up the subject of teen mental health issues and the challenges young people face. You might say that you read today that 22% of teenagers are dealing with mood issues that interfere with their quality of life. Print out informational materials or encourage them to take a youth screening test online. You might even take one yourself and talk about the results together. Keeping things informational makes clear there should be no stigma attached to facing normal life challenges with the best resources available.

Experiential

It is not unusual for family members or relatives to have similar mental health challenges. You might have struggled with depression or anxiety yourself and have valuable experience to share about how coping strategies and counseling have helped. Maybe the shared experience is about what happens when we don’t seek the help we need. Knowing someone else that benefited from support in mental wellness gives teenagers hope for their own ability to make changes and feel better.

Should You Take Action on What You Hear?

Encouraging a young person to share their mental health concerns or discuss their innermost feelings comes with a burden of trust. You should keep what they share with you confidential, unless the situation seems dire or life-threatening. Some admissions, like a teen having psychotic or suicidal thoughts, are a mental health emergency and do require you to take action. In most cases, you can offer teen mental health resources that will support them on their own journey to mental and emotional wellness.

Where To Find Mental Health Support for a Teenager

Slipping grades, behavioral issues at school, experiencing bullying, or having a general lack of interest in the academic and social aspects of education might be solved by a change in approach or environment. Discussing and exploring other options like a one-on-one approach to coursework or a hybrid approach of on-campus and virtual learning might be a better fit for some young people.

You might start with self-assessments for parents and young people which help them gain awareness of the severity of problems they may be facing. Some assessments which can open the dialogue and encourage teenagers to engage in more assessments and professional help can be found at mhascreening.org.

Another starting point or follow up to self-assessment is a visit to your child’s pediatrician or primary care doctor. This trusted voice can help you and your teen decide what next steps are appropriate for their physical and mental health. They can also provide a referral to a teen mental health specialist, therapist, or counselor.

Identifying a Mental Health Emergency

When we open up the lines of communication, sometimes what is shared is a very serious situation that has been pent up and hidden. A crisis might come to the surface even when you were not the one to raise the subject. The challenges your teenager is facing might be much more serious than you knew, and you may need to respond quickly to keep them safe.

Some examples of situations that require emergency care include:

  • Threats or thoughts of suicide that are specific or planned
  • Using dangerous drugs to self-medicate, or overdosing on drugs
  • Violent behavior in school or at home with little or no provocation
  • Self-harming behaviors that threaten physical health
  • Any situation where you or your family members are in immediate danger

Support and resources are always available at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255). In any physical or mental health emergency situation, you should call 911 for immediate assistance. In these kinds of situations, don’t worry about over-reacting. Stay calm and reach out for professional help, where experts can guide you about the appropriate treatment or support for your child.

Advocating for a Young Person’s Mental Health

girl sitting on stone steps reading a book

Experiencing a mental health challenge is a normal part of being human. Many of us have or will be impacted by these issues at some point in our lives. When we engage teenagers in a discussion about their mental wellness and self-actualization, we empower them to make changes that better their lives in the future.

Very often our feelings result from the environment around us and situations we face. Depression, anxiety, and isolation are often situational rather than biochemical. Changing the situation can change the emotions and enable us to chart a different course that is supportive of our individual needs and strengths. What happens at school can be a big influence on a teen’s quality of life.

Building strong relationships with adults and peers at school builds a sense of community and stability that encourages healthy habits and emotional growth. Whether these interactions are virtual or in person, this sense of being accepted and connected is an important way to protect young people from risks of violence and drug abuse.4

Many teens who are struggling in a traditional school environment find new motivation in a customized plan and individualized approach to learning. Lydian Academy offers a one-to-one accredited middle and high school program that supports every student’s physical and mental health. If your child might benefit from a more supportive educational environment, schedule a virtual open house or speak with us today to find out more.

Sources:

  1. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/mental-illness
  2. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/adolescent-mental-health
  3. https://cmha.bc.ca/documents/talking-to-teens-about-mental-health/
  4. https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/mental-health/index.htm

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