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*NEW* Expert Alert, Mental Health-Help Your Teen

Posted by Face It Today on
Parents of Teens: How to help your teen who is struggling with their mental health issues.

An increasing number of teens today are suffering from mental illness, chronic stress, and the ambivalence associated with getting help. Thankfully, an increasing number of teens are also speaking out about mental health and reaching out for support.  (See FIT contributor blog by Paige Stabile's on this page.)

I have the privilege of helping teens better understand and manage things like anxiety, depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, suicidality - and all the attached fears, misconceptions, and stigmas that make it even more complicated.
Working with teens by default gives me an opportunity to also help parents through these challenges, and to better understand the extremely painful experience that is watching your child suffer and having no idea how to help them.
I have seen well-intended parents make their child’s issues worse by inadvertently denying or minimizing the problems, letting their ego get in the way, parenting from fear, or having unresolved mental health issues themselves.
Obviously it is human instinct to be afraid and upset when your child is suffering or making choices you disagree with. I never want to downplay the magnitude of how difficult it is to raise kids and parent teenagers.
Based on my research, training, and experience, I’ve come up with some tips to help make this process less daunting.

 

  1. Don’t freak out. What many parents don’t realize is just how much of an impact they have on their children...not through teaching, not through lecturing, not through rearing, but through modeling. We are innately and biologically wired to connect with other human beings, especially our parents, so if your fear is leading the way, they will feel afraid. If you are angry or condemning, they will feel ashamed, if you are constantly anxious and insecure, they will absorb that too.
So, if you learn that your child is cutting, using, bullying, being bullied, failing English, hoarding food, etc etc….connect with them FIRST, with calmness and curiosity about what they are going through. Then get your own anxiety and feelings in check before you decide how to proceed or what consequences (if applicable) are necessary. Chances are, they are already feeling scared and anxious (even if they don’t tell you that or appear to be), and they need you to be stable, consistent, and rational. If you respond out of impulse, they may be too scared or ashamed to feel safe asking for help in the future.

 

  1. Listen, empathize, set limits, empathize, instill confidence. By no means do I believe that rules or consequences should go out the window when it comes to behavioral issues. But I do believe that first and foremost your child needs to feel heard and understood, and they need to know that you see their strengths and believe in their ability to overcome adversity. The most effective consequences are the natural and logical ones that they (and we all) endure by making mistakes. If your teen is using drugs, alcohol, or engaging in other activities you disapprove of, before you lay down the law or set a boundary, be curious and listen to them. If they aren’t acting out but you know they’re suffering internally, let them know that you can see that they are struggling with “x”, that you know it’s really difficult and confusing and hard, and that you are here for them. Then set the reasonable limit or boundary, followed by further affirmation of their ability to overcome whatever they are going through.

 

  1. Understand. Their internal pain and suffering may be manifesting in ways you wouldn’t expect. Be careful about jumping to conclusions or layering on the punishments without taking the time to understand what is really going on. Depression and anxiety in teens can often look like: substance abuse, lying, sexual promiscuity, difficulty concentrating, social issues, isolation, irritability, stomach pain, restricting, bingeing or purging food, headaches, and other physical symptoms...the list could go on. Assuming that they are just seeking attention, being manipulative, or disobedient is more than likely not true. The point is don’t make assumptions about what’s going on in their head without taking the time to try to understand their underlying feelings, and don’t be afraid to enlist the help of a professional.

 

  1. Get them help and find yourself support. Your teenager may naturally feel more comfortable talking to another adult about their innermost thoughts and feelings. Try not to take that personally. It is a natural and healthy part of human maturity and development. Find them professional help -  and get support and help yourself. Not because you “need help” in the stigmatized way, but because this work is really hard and taxing and you deserve all the support you can get. As I mentioned above, the most impactful way to teach your teens how to be is how you choose to be - the healthier you are, the healthier they will be*.
*This doesn’t mean that you can be the “right” kind of parent or determine the outcome of your child’s life. You are human too and nobody does this perfectly. Their physical and mental health is dependent on many factors, many out of your control. However, how you support and love your children will have an everlasting impact on them, their resilience, and their ability to thrive.

 

Many parents of teenage girls have found the book “Under Pressure” to be a particularly helpful resource. There is also a summary version that quickly breaks down all the pertinent facts.

 

Written by, FIT expert contributor, Rachel Daggett, LMFT

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