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by Dr. Brad Schwall
| Teens, Parenting, Adolescents, Teens, Children

Adolescent Mental Health: Seven ways to support your teen through the turbulent years

A parent’s attitude can help everyone navigate the tumultuous, but exciting and pivotal, stage of life we call adolescence.

Teens in front of screen sm crop

Adolescence is a time of extremes. Teens may think their parents are too strict, while parents may worry about their kids’ safety -- and their futures. Teens may go days of saying almost nothing to their parents, actually shielding their lives from us. And the next day, they may be yelling at us in frustration, or excited to share some good news with us.

If we step back and think about our teens, we recognize that their brains are growing. The prefrontal cortex is developing—that’s where our executive functioning skills are housed, which includes our ability to think ahead, and to think about consequences. We need to understand that our kids are growing, and the changes and the mood swings are really growing pains.

Rebellion is a growing pain, which is part of the search for independence that our teens are undergoing. In addition experiencing their brains changing, our teens are being heavily influenced by their peers, while our teens are navigating who they are.

And, we have another consideration – their mental health. Most people don’t know that: one in five youth deal with a diagnosable mental illness. It can be difficult to spot depression in adolescents because their mood changes may be seen as “normal” – simply symptoms of the changes happening hormonally, physically, and emotionally during the teen years.

The symptoms of depression include:

  • Irritable mood
  • Lack of interest in activities that normally bring enjoyment
  • Changes in appetite and sleep patterns, among others
  • Thoughts of suicide
  • Helplessness and hopelessness

Depression in adolescents is often expressed through irritability, more than just sadness. Symptoms of depression typically cause impairment in normal functioning. While all adolescents experience normal mood swings, depression involves symptoms that persist.

Checking for depression through observation, and as part of physical exams at the doctor’s office, can help parents stay in tune with the emotional state of their teens. Then, we can detect depression early and seek help.

If your family has a history of depression, it is especially important to be vigilant about watching for and screening for depression. If you suspect your teen may be dealing with depression, talk to your school counselor, pediatrician, or mental health professional right away.

We want to encourage the well-being of our teens. Our daily interactions are key to this. We can create a healthy environment that promotes resilience and a balanced perspective. Here are seven tips to help you:

1. Treat your teens with respect.
If we attribute positive qualities to our teens, they're more likely to want to live up to those positive expectations. If we are treating them as if we believe they can't be successfully independent, they'll live up to that as well. It's defeating and discouraging.

We need to treat our kids with respect and bring out in them that wisdom that is there. If we sit down with teens and take time to listen to them, we realize they've got some good thoughts and insights. Affirming them encourages them to show their mature and thoughtful selves.

2. Stay out of arguments.
The more we get into arguments with teens, the more we escalate issues, and then the whole situation escalates. When you have a conflict, vent with your spouse or a friend, but find someone else with whom you can share frustrations.

Listen to understand where your teen is coming from. Don’t react.

3. Make expectations clear.
Teens have a keen sense of what is fair and what is not. So the more that we can tell them what we expect before a problem happens, the easier it is to redirect them when we have to. It’s better to be able to go back and say, "Well, we had talked about this being your curfew already," than to announce that they should have known a reasonable curfew. The more teens know what to expect, the better.

4. Give opportunities for successful independence.
Giving teens a chance for successful independence helps them learn to do things on their own. More importantly, it helps them develop the confidence to be able to direct their own behavior. We can set parameters and then allow them to act, allowing them to make the choice.

5. Listen without fixing or judging.
A common way to say this is, "Don't freak out." Just listen. Don't jump in to try to solve the problem for them.

Validate their feeling. If they're saying, "You're the worst parent in the world,” certainly we say, “I'm not for talking to that way.” But we can also say, “I know you’re frustrated because I have some rules that you're frustrated with.” By focusing on what their anger is about, you can help them better articulate that feeling. The more that we jump in to give advice, the more teens will tune us out, and we will lose their attention.

6. Stay connected to your teens.
Now, we may assume the teen years are when kids are in their room, door closed, on their screen. We do not have to encourage that isolation.

We have to be intentional about connection. Make time at dinner with no screens. Make eye contact when you talk. Plan activities together. Be available even if your teen seems to be withdrawn.

7. Be in tune with the mental health of teens.
We need to be aware that when our child has a period of low mood (with negative self-thoughts and self-talk), or they're anxious over time, we must pay attention.

Don’t ignore your gut instinct that something may be wrong. If our kids are not thriving in areas of their lives across the board – if they're struggling in areas across the board in their lives, we need to pay attention to that.

Counseling can be helpful. It’s a safe place to share and learn and get encouragement. And, sometimes we need that counseling too.

Helping your teens survive and thrive in their teen years

To sum up: Be patient. Have hope. Be grateful for the positive. Pursue well-being. A parent’s attitude can help everyone navigate the tumultuous, but exciting and pivotal, stage of life we call adolescence.

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