When talking about mental health, it’s important to remember there’s no shame or weakness for seeking help. That bit of advice goes for anyone, adult or adolescent, but it’s particularly important for teens. Adolescence is a time when struggles are expected, especially when factoring in the developmental and hormonal changes teens undergo, in addition to their unique societal pressures. What’s more, teens are going through a time that is about separating from their parents as they begin forming their own identity and beliefs.
Teens are more likely to act on impulses, to misread cues, get involved in accidents, fights and display risky behavior. They’re also less likely to think before they act or consider the consequences of their actions. Because of all these factors, it’s important to ensure teens have a good foundation when it comes to their mental health.
“Many of the strategies we focus on for physical health are essential for mental health,” says Debi Kabisch, a nurse practitioner in mental health and wellness at Kaiser Permanente.
Drawing on her 20 years of experience in the field, she went on to add that those strategies are things like getting adequate rest, eating a healthy diet and getting regular physical activity. While she acknowledges life isn’t setup for perfect balance in these areas, it is important to setup teens for success in all areas of health.
One way parents can do that is to encourage teens to choose healthy snacks, provide balanced meals and encourage them to get enough exercise. Because the teen body is growing at a rapid rate, it’s vital that adolescents have quality rest and recovery time.
Another aspect to consider is setting limits on screen time, especially toward bedtime. Debi encourages parents to consider setting a no phone or tablet use policy, or other kind of technology boundaries, in a teen’s bedroom.
Friendships are an essential part of most teens’ lives, and can play a role in helping young people deal with trying circumstances and more.
“It’s important that teens build a network of friends that can help them cope in positive ways and that they take breaks from stressful situations,” Debi explains.
Regarding social connectedness, she went on to add that positive face to face interactions and other kinds of positive interactions are important for maintaining teen mental health. Another building block of mental wellness is learning to adequately manage stressors. There are a lot of ways to practice this, but some stress management tools can include learning relaxation exercises, assertiveness training and knowing when to say no.
Another tip Debi advocates parents try is to practice rehearsing situations that cause stress, as well as teaching teens about ways to decrease their negative self-talk. It can be tough, but important, to teach teens to replace negative self-talk with neutral or more positive thoughts.
With all the changes teens go through, it may be difficult for parents to determine when their teen’s behaviors warrant more serious action.
“It can be challenging because teens are expected to try out new looks, or new attention-seeking choices, but parents should view a change in appearance accompanied by problems at school as a potential red flag,” she says.
A few other potential warning signs that your teen might be struggling with mental illness are a change in appearance accompanied by extreme negative behavior, like violence or having run-ins with the law. Influence by others is very common with teens, as they naturally shift from being influenced by parents to being influenced by peers, but sudden changes in their peer group, especially negative, can indicate a problem. Mood swings are to be expected due to hormonal changes, but a warning sign can be rapid changes in personality, like persistent sadness or having sleep problems.
The optimal time frame for parents to have a conversation with their teens about mental health is early in the adolescent’s life. Debi cautions parents not to get frustrated if they don’t get a response from their teen in their initial talk.
“Teens can be indifferent and express anger, but they still crave love, acceptance and approval from their parents.”
By opening the dialogue, your teen will know they can come to you when they need to because you’ve taken the opportunity to put in the time for a talk in the past. If you think your teen might need help, it can be difficult to know where to begin looking for assistance.
Debi encourages parents to reach out to the school counselor, their child’s primary care provider or national professional organizations if needed. A few of those organizations are the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, or the National Parent Helpline at 855-427-2736, or for crisis concerns the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.