While working with teens, and digging deep into personal development, I’ve spent many hours reflecting upon my own mental health during my teenage years. It was at 15 that I started to notice my need for alone time, my struggle to be in large groups or crowded spaces. At 16, I started seeing a therapist and worked closely with teachers that I trusted. Still, I had a difficult time being honest with my parents, and I secretly stayed up until the wee hours of the morning obsessing about homework or talking on the phone with my boyfriend. The cycle of achievement and anxiety became my MO, and asking for help didn’t feel like an option.
During high school and into college, I faced intermittent depression, anxiety, and loneliness on and off. While I had a foundation of support from family, friends, and professionals, I didn’t feel empowered to talk about my challenges, needs, or preferences until my mid-20s.
As a high school teacher during the last decade, I observed an escalation in the number of students who described themselves as “anxious,” “depressed,” “alone,” and “socially anxious.” I’m grateful that students are finding– perhaps through the internet– resources to name their experiences and sensations, but I’m still concerned about the stigmas they face because of these labels. Furthermore, teenagers might be facing more pressure to perform than ever before.
This is my inspiration for leaving the classroom; I left in pursuit of providing the support I heard my students asking for, the same support I needed as a teen.
The stories of my students and clients often mirror my own experiences as a teenager, and I’m confident that continued conversation is crucial to healing and the end of stigmatization on an individual and societal level.
Many parents come to me with concerns about their teens’ mental and emotional well-being. Dialogue about mental health deserves space, awareness, and safety. Use these strategies to support conversation about mental health with your teen:
- Teach your teen how to ask for help. Encourage your child to ask for help when they notice that there is a problem they can’t solve alone. Teach them that they never have to be “stuck” solving something alone. Remind them of the many layers of support they can access– family, school, professional, friends. Self-advocacy is a great superpower, and this skill is a pathway to empowerment. Teach that asking for help can be as simple as writing a note to a teacher, “I need to talk after class,” or texting you on tough days, “I need extra love and relaxation at home tonight.”
- Use compassionate, supportive language. Do your best not to label people in the media (real or fictional) as “crazy” or “insane.” It’s important to steer clear of dehumanizing language and vocabulary that adds judgment to mental illness. Speak with compassion and kindness about others in the face of their challenges, limitations, and illnesses.
- Look for signs, but not with a magnifying glass. Familiarize yourself with “red flags” or signs to be aware of. Read up on teen mental health, especially anxiety and depression. Yet, stay calm and don’t hunt for signs or signals.
- Give attention and love to the “gems” too! Be sure to affirm that aspects of your child’s life that are strong, steady, and life-giving. The “gems” are the gifts, unique skills, and strengths that your child possesses.
- If signs emerge, approach your teen with curiosity. Just as it’s important to avoid judging others in our modeling, it’s important to approach your teen gently, kindly, and with a sense of openness. Use questions, rather than statements. Ask open-ended questions like the following: “How are you managing the pressure of high school?” “What is feeling impossible about being a teenager right now?” “What parts of being in middle school feel peaceful and supportive?” Give your teen space to share their experience, rather than labeling it for them. Remember, this kind of conversation may take several attempts and invitations before your teen opens up You may also consider using “I statements” to own your feelings and concerns. Consider the following: “I feel worried about the number of hours you are spending at your computer. How is that feeling for you?”
- Listen to your child’s needs AND validate them. As your child shares or asks for help, remember to listen. Take deep breaths, let them take up space, and refrain from immediately giving advice or jumping to conclusions.
- Address personal limits and preferences. Give your teen/tween the opportunity to explore and name their needs, likes, and dislikes. Consider taking a Myers Briggs-type personality test with them; make conversation about how this self-knowledge can help your child make choices and set limits that serve their needs.
- Create a rich support network and review it regularly. Surround yourself, as the adult, with a support system of friends, family, professionals, coaches, etc. Likewise, encourage your teen to build relationships with their school counselor, teachers, coaches, friends, etc. Consider creating a support system map together. E-mail me for a printable PDF.
- Talk about emotions regularly. Address the full range of emotions that we all face as humans– from great joy to deep sadness to enraged anger. Ask your teen where they notice anxiety in their body. Ask them what signals they feel in their body when they feel depression take over. Use this language with more temporary emotions, such as surprise or excitement as well, encouraging awareness of the body-mind connection.
- Address being a support and resource for others. Let your teen know that they can be a part of others’ support networks. They can also be aware of “red flags” in their friends’ behavior, and they can help friends ask for help.
Stigmatization of challenges such as depression, anxiety, and loneliness contribute to isolation, which only grows illness. Huge numbers of teenagers face mental health challenges, and as parents and supporters, we have the capacity to treat mental health “challenges” with greater acceptance, love, and compassion! Through intentional dialogue, teens and tweens will have a deeper understanding that health includes mental, emotional, and social aspects, not just physical. With recognition and acceptance, healing will come.
As always, the goal is continued communication–dialogue. Revisit this topic often, keep communication open, remind your teen that you are there when they need help, and research together as new challenges or developments come up. Please reach out to me for support for having these conversations and ensuring that your teen’s needs are being met.