Mental Health in teens…
It’s a touchy topic…
Those words conjure up powerful feelings, no doubt.
And the bottom line is, it affects every single one of us…
So why the heck aren’t we talking about it with our kids?
After all, this face-to-face survey of 10,123 adolescents aged 13-18 years shows us that 1 out of every 4 teens meets criteria for a diagnosable mental disorder, while 1 out of every 10 meets criteria for a Serious Emotional Disturbance.
And that’s not the only thing we learn…
We see from the data in the same study that most teens who deal with mental illness also fail to receive treatment.
We talk a lot about self-care around here. We know that when we don’t take care of ourselves, we aren’t mindful of ourselves things can break down.
Well, guess what? Self-care is a practice…it takes work. We have to LEARN how to do it.
And in the same way, as parents, we have to TEACH our kids how to be mindful of themselves…when we don’t, things can break down.
It’s scary to imagine that one of our sweet babies could be a part of this type of statistic…
But what’s even scarier???
Knowing that they could be a part of these statistics and not have the awareness or resources to get the help they need.
That’s why I sat down with an expert in the field, Kristi Peirce.
Well, technically I sat on my side of the screen and she sat on hers because #life…but she graciously agreed to answer all of the questions I launched at her in our digital meet-up.
I asked all the questions so you could have the answers and the roadmap to navigate mental health with your kids.
Kristi is a Licensed Professional Counselor who works for BJC Behavioral Health. She has worked with children, teens, and adults in the mental health field and has also spent countless hours teaching college content to future helping professionals.
(You’ll find my words in black and Kristi’s in teal.)
Without further adieu, here’s everything you need to know about your teen’s mental health, Q&A Style…
Raising a teenager is difficult…It’s hard to tell what is normal and what might be a bigger issue. How can I differentiate between “normal teen behavior” and the symptoms of depression, anxiety, or other emotional/behavioral difficulties?
Yes, I’ve told people that raising kids is the hardest job I have ever had!
It’s hard enough along the way, but teenagers are entirely different monsters.
It is often difficult to tell normal teen behavior from behaviors that may require parents to intervene.
There are going to be some situations in life that make us sad or “depressed” and others that make us anxious or nervous. Teens may feel these emotions more intensely than adults. They are learning who they are and what they believe, and their emotions are very intense due to life-changing situations and hormones.
In this field, we see some parents who believe that their teen’s normal behavior is abnormal and others who think abnormal behavior is normal.
Here are some tips to know the difference:
Tip #1…Assess what’s “normal.”
Does the situation warrant the teen to be depressed or anxious? Did they not study for a test and are anxious that they may not pass? This would be normal and understandable.
Are they experiencing anxiety to the point they can’t function or can’t do what their friends are doing? Do they put too much pressure on themselves (pressure that seems unrealistic or unachievable)? This may be anxiety that is over the top and not normal.
Are they sad or irritable all of the time? Have they stopped socializing with friends? Do you find that friends are calling and wanting to “hang out” but the adolescent declines these offers? This could be a sign of depression.
Tip #2: A word about Substance Abuse…
Unfortunately, substance use is seen in adolescents as well as adults.
It’s never too early to educate or intervene.
Signs of substance abuse may be:
- Personality changes
- Avoidance of family and positive adult supports
- Changes in
- Dropping grades
Please note that these symptoms can be a sign of other things as well.
It’s crucial to have open and honest conversations with your adolescent…
And understand that those conversations may be the hardest most uncomfortable conversations you will ever have.
I know that teens can often want a “divorce” from their families during adolescence…how much space is healthy vs. unhealthy for them?
Adolescence is a time of the individual defining him/herself as a person. They are adult-like in many ways, but child-like in others.
Their “tough shield” is what sometimes shows the most, but inside they are often needing that love and reassurance from their parents and support systems just like they did when they were young.
It’s normal for the teen to want to begin to think independently of their family. And it’s important that they have this opportunity to explore their beliefs while under a safe and secure structure of the family.
On the other side, brain development isn’t complete in the teen years. Therefore, at times adolescence are not able to process fully, not because they don’t want to but because they can’t.
Continued teaching is necessary at this time. Although teens may look like adults, their brains are not adult brains yet.
Teachings can come in the form of conversation, by setting good examples, and by following the values that we teach. (They learn more by what we do than by what we say…#hardlessons)
Giving teens too much space can lead to poor decisions and a lack of boundaries.
Although teens appear to resist rules and boundaries…
they actually feel more secure in trying out their new ideas, feelings, and beliefs when strong boundaries are in place.
Too much “space” can make it possible for the teens to continue to make poor decisions and not having the safety net in place to learn from
All teens will make poor choices at some point; they may range from not studying the night before a test to experimentation with substances.
If we think back to our adolescence we can definitely think of at least one poor decision.
Hopefully, that allowed us the opportunity to learn from that decision and to learn that every action has consequences.
What are the best ways to talk to my teen about mental health issues like anxiety and depression?
Having honest conversations about anxiety and depression is the best way to make it acceptable to discuss.
We live in such a fast-paced world that involves
Defining depression and anxiety is the first step.
There are clinical definitions, however, those aren’t the best way to talk about them with your teen or preteen.
Your conversation needs to be simple with understandable explanations.
Something like the following:
This is sadness beyond normal sadness. It’s
Depression includes other symptoms like irritability, difficulty in sleeping or sleeping too much (sometimes it’s hard to tell with teenagers because they actually do need more sleep), staying in their room and not interacting with others including family and peers. They may lose interest in things that they were interested in before.
This can be defined as “nervousness.” Again, this is normal and healthy as long as it is within reason.
It’s important that they know that anxiety comes from the need to act. For instance, if we are anxious about passing a test, we should study.
It, too, can be seen in the form of irritability and agitation. There are many types of anxiety so it can look different in different cases.
Sometimes it can look like avoidance of going to school (but, again, this can have other causes).
It can include an inability to sleep, difficulty in getting thoughts out of their minds, or discussion of the same topic over and over. Anxiety can even involve physical symptoms.
A person who has some repetitive behaviors and thoughts could have an anxiety disorder as well.
Finally, experiencing a traumatic event can lead to a form of anxiety known as PTSD. One doesn’t have to fight in a war in order to have PTSD.
As with any physical or mental health disorder, it is good to know the signs and symptoms but it is important not to “diagnosis” on your own. Please consult with a physician or qualified mental health professional to be sure.
How can I teach my kids to notice mental health “red flags” in their peers?
The most important piece of this is for kids to have face to face interactions with their friends.
If they notice a change in a peer’s behavior, encourage them to consult with the friend. Teach them that if they are still concerned, then they talk with a teacher, school counselor, or their own parents (or possibly set up a conversation with the parents of the friend).
This is scary, and at times and we worry what the other parents may think, but honest, open conversations are important and could lead to improving or saving the lives of others.
Are there any coping skills you teach that can help my teenager deal with the big emotions that come with all the hormonal changes?
Absolutely! One of the biggest coping skills one can learn is being able to identify their emotions.
Having the ability to put an emotion with an actual feeling can help the adolescent process the feeling. Once they understand the emotion then they can start looking for triggers (or causes) of the emotion.
Again, we are in a very hi-tech, fast-paced world, and we forget that our bodies (not unlike our devices) need time to recharge (read more on that here). This “recharge time” comes in the form of rest and time to just be by ourselves.
Introducing mindfulness is a great way to teach kids and adults how to recharge. Mindfulness is simply to just “be.” It doesn’t have to be for hours, just enough time to decompress.
This Danish way of living mindfully is a great place to start. Read all about it here.
Another useful skill to develop is discussing when a situation arises that may cause some depressive or anxious thoughts and learning to develop strategies in order to reduce those feelings.
A great example is teaching them to avoid procrastination by not waiting until the last minute to study, do homework, or clean the room.
When things are done in a timely manner, they are less likely to cause feelings of anxiety.
So What’s the Most Important Thing You Can Learn About Mental Health in Teens???
SIMPLY TALK ABOUT IT.
There tends to be a lot of shame surrounding issues that face us concerning mental health.
But here’s the thing about shame…
Once you give it oxygen and light, it tends to die.
By talking to our kids and keeping this mental health “box” open, things won’t be allowed to grow out of control.
So if you sense that a teen in your life is dealing with something more than just “normal teen stuff,” remember to talk about it.
Teach them about self-awareness and how to sit with their imperfections…
Help them to work through the complexities of their emotions…
Teach them that they are enough, even when they’re overwhelmed…
And teach them that by owning their story…
They make the world a better place.
Parenting is a long road…there are no shortcuts and it isn’t easy, but you can do it one talk at a time.
Now take a deep breath and remember this quote…
So be their calm.
***Special thanks to Kristi Peirce, LPC, for contributing her time and expertise to the loveYOUmore community. We can’t thank you enough!
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