Raising teenagers can be tough. Among other things, it’s full of emotional upheaval. Teens are moody. But sometimes it’s more serious than just that. 1 in 5 teens experiences mental health challenges and the National Institute for Mental Health cites suicide as the second leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 34. While there are no easy answers, there are some small but powerful steps we can take as parents to support our teens emotionally. Nearly 90% of teens who commit suicide have an underlying mental health condition*. But of course, we shouldn’t only focus on the extreme of suicide, but rather on the day-to-day emotional well-being of our teens.
Sadly, many of us feel ill-equipped to do this well. While there are no easy answers, there are some small but powerful steps we can take as parents to support our teens emotionally.
As a father of 3 teenagers, I fully realize that most of the time it feels like you and your teenager speak a different language. But this is all the more reason why you need to learn to listen to them. Look, we’re all busy. But you might be surprised at the impact of taking a moment to close your laptop, set your phone down, look your teen in the eye, and actually listen to what she’s saying.
Monitor screen time
The data strongly suggests that the more time your kids spend on screens, the more prone they are to things like depression, anxiety, and even suicide. Technology like smartphones, social media, video games, and VR aren’t going away; but as parents, we need to help our kids make wise decisions about their screen time. Why not begin by taking a few simple steps like prohibiting screens during meals or setting a curfew on devices (no screens within 30 minutes of bedtime, etc.).
Assemble a team
As a parent, you are irreplaceable. Still, there will be times when your teen is convinced you have no idea what you’re talking about (and frankly, there will be times when he’s right). This is why it’s so critical to have other trustworthy adults in your teen’s life. This might be a coach, teacher, a youth pastor, friends’ parents, etc. Work to put your teen in environments where they are around others whom you trust, that care about them, and can serve as a mentor in their life.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that teenagers get 8-10 hours of sleep. If they don’t, this doesn’t simply affect their ability to stay awake during class. It also takes a toll on their ability to regulate their emotions. If your teen is struggling to get to sleep or stay asleep, they are more likely to experience symptoms of depression and anxiety. If your child is struggling to get adequate sleep, consider something as simple as getting a diffuser and putting a few drops of lavender in it at night or talking to your pediatrician about having your child take melatonin or other natural sleep aids. And like everything else, talk with your teens about why sleep matters.
Take them to a licensed therapist
Many of us hesitate when we consider the idea of taking our teen to a therapist. We worry about communicating to our child that he or she is ‘crazy’ or, sadly, we worry about what others will think. But the reality is sometimes you need a specialist. We don’t think twice about getting a pitching coach or a tutor when our kid needs a little help. In the same way, sometimes we need specialists who understand the unique mental health needs of teenagers to walk with them (and us) for a season. There’s no shame in this. The real shame is when we allow our biases and fear of other’s judgment to keep us from getting our teen the assistance he or she needs to thrive.
Not all teens are athletic or inclined toward activity, but all can benefit from regular exercise. Exercise reduces stress and can help alleviate feelings of anxiety and depression. Help your teen think through a reasonable exercise regime. And consider joining in. It’s good for you AND your relationship with your teen!
Sound off: What are some other things we can do to help our teens mental health?
*Columbus Recovery Center
National Institute of Mental Health
Huddle Up Question
Huddle up with your kids and ask, “Do you ever struggle with feeling anxious or depressed? How frequently?”