Today is World Mental Health Day, which reminds us how important it is to be aware of the signs, symptoms, and ongoing support necessary for managing mental health conditions in our children and teens. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five teens and young adults suffers from clinical depression, a serious condition that requires prompt, appropriate treatment.
While parents and teens alike experience mental health conditions, they are often more difficult to diagnose in teens than adults. After all, many adults expect teens to be moody at this age. Research has shown that the teen brain is “still under construction,” so parents may not be fazed that their teens are euphoric one day and down in the dumps the next. It’s easy to dismiss some of these behaviors as just “part of growing up.”
Even more challenging is that mental illness has become a taboo subject in our culture. But it’s our job, as parents, to help remove the stigma. That means talking openly about our own or perhaps a family member’s struggle with depression and providing an open, safe home environment.
Communication is key
Perhaps the biggest challenge is getting your teen to talk about what’s going on. Most teens are just not comfortable discussing feelings, or they often don’t understand or express them very well. This makes sense since most of us weren’t raised to talk about feelings.
But it’s up to you as a parent to change that behavior so your child knows it’s not just okay, but important to express him or herself and have a safe place to do so. According to Mental Health America, the first step is to choose a good time to talk. Conversations seem to flow best when they occur naturally rather than when you sit your child down for a “talk.” Consider bringing up the topic when you’re cooking dinner, just hanging out, or driving together. If your teen is busy or having a bad day, you may want to wait until he or she has a more receptive frame of mind.
Observe changes in behavior
One helpful strategy it to make nonjudgmental observations to let your teen know that you’ve noticed certain changes in behavior, such as:
- Spending less time with friends
- Being extra hard or demanding on him/herself (which may be sign of high-functioning depression)
- Performing poorly in school or seeming uninterested in anything school-related
- Talking about death and dying, giving away belongings or posting pictures on social media that are disturbing
5 Ways to foster mental health in teens
- Let your teen know you are there for them and support them unconditionally. They may not act like it, but teens want to know you have their back.
- Validate their feelings. Tell them you know how stressful school can be and maybe share a story about something similar that you went through.
- Tell you teen it’s normal to feel sad, stressed or angry, but explain that if it gets to the point where he or she is feeling that way all the time, he or she needs to let you know. Assure your teen that together, you can find help.
- Be available but not intrusive. Your teen may not open up right away. Be there when he or she is ready to open up.
- Don’t try and talk your teen out of depression. Even if you have a hard time understanding your teen’s depression, offer nonjudgmental support by saying things like, “I can see how upset you are about that. Do you want to talk about it?” You don’t have to ‘get it’ to make your teen feel understood, loved, and supported.
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