Teenage years are a critical period of development, both physically and mentally. They faced extreme pressures during the COVID-19 pandemic, yet the effects of school closures and other stressors may persist. Young people may also face overwhelming pressure to figure out their future, perform academically, or get into elite colleges. Or to be superstars in athletics, performing arts, or other extracurriculars. They may face intense time demands juggling homework, sports, and social commitments that may leave little time for rest, relaxation, and adequate sleep. They may face bullying, both in person and via social media, or discrimination based on race, gender, sexual orientation, body image, disability or other factors. As parents, it is crucial to be vigilant and proactive in identifying signs of mental health struggles in our teens.
How do I know if my child is struggling?
- Drastic Changes in Behavior: Adolescents often experience mood swings, but drastic and persistent changes in behavior should raise a red flag. Watch for sudden withdrawal from social activities, loss of interest in hobbies, or a significant decline in academic performance.
- Emotional Instability: Teens may struggle to regulate their emotions, but extreme and prolonged emotional instability can indicate a deeper issue. Frequent outbursts, excessive irritability, or unexplained sadness should be taken seriously.
- Changes in Sleep Patterns: Keep an eye on your teenager’s sleep habits. Both insomnia and excessive sleep can be signs of mental health issues. Pay attention to frequent nightmares, night sweats, or difficulty falling asleep.
- Physical Complaints: Sometimes mental health struggles manifest as physical symptoms. Persistent headaches, stomach aches, or other unexplained physical complaints might be your teen’s way of expressing emotional distress.
- Social Isolation: Adolescents often desire independence, but extreme social isolation, cutting ties with friends, or avoiding family gatherings might indicate a problem. Isolation can exacerbate mental health issues, so it’s essential to address it promptly.
- Changes in Eating Habits: Be mindful of your teen’s eating habits. Dramatic changes in appetite, overeating, or significant weight loss can all be warning signs of mental health issues like depression or eating disorders.
- Change in peer group: a whole new group of friends you may haven’t met before.
- Substance Abuse: Signs of drug, alcohol, or other substance use.
- Self-Harm : Be mindful of signs of self harm like cuts, burns, or bruises that your teen tries to hide or can’t fully explain.
If your teen is having thoughts of suicide:
Suicidal thoughts or actions should NEVER be ignored. If your teen is in crisis right now, call The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or text “TALK” to 741741. Or take them to the Emergency Department.
If your teen is thinking about suicide but not in crisis, it is still vitally important to get help. Call your pediatrician or mental health provider right away for resources and to plan appropriate treatment and support.
Supporting Your Teen’s Mental Health
If you recognize potential signs of mental health issues in your teenager, it’s crucial to take proactive steps to support them.
- Open Communication: Create a safe and non-judgmental space for your teen to express their feelings. Encourage open conversations about their struggles, worries, and fears. Listen more than you speak.
- Seek Professional Help: If you suspect your teen is dealing with a mental health issue, consult a mental health professional. They can provide an accurate diagnosis and recommend appropriate treatment.
- Establish Healthy Routines: Encourage regular exercise, a balanced diet, and sufficient sleep. A healthy lifestyle can positively impact your teen’s mental well-being.
- Limit Screen Time: Excessive screen time, especially on social media, can contribute to anxiety and depression in teenagers. Set screen time limits and encourage face-to-face interactions.
- Supportive Peer Relationships: Help your teen build healthy friendships and navigate peer pressure. Positive peer relationships can serve as a buffer against mental health challenges.
- Educate Yourself: Learn about common mental health issues in teenagers and available resources. Being informed can help you better support your child.
- Practice Self-Care: As a parent, taking care of your own mental health is crucial. Seek support for yourself if needed, as your well-being directly impacts your ability to support your teenager.
Sky Pittson, MD, October, 2023