As a mother of teens, I spend a lot of time talking with other parents. There are times that virtually all of us feel baffled by our kids’ behavior. One day they’re on top of the world, feeling awesome about friends, school or sports. The next day they’re angry, sullen or withdrawn, unable to tell us what’s dragging them down.
Moodiness, of course, is part of being a teenager. Memories of your own teenage years will reassure you that a lot of what your child is facing is perfectly normal. It’s important to remember that teen brains are still under construction, which can have a strong effect on thinking and behavior.
Still, a vital part of raising kids is making sure we’re not overlooking the signs that something more serious is happening. In the U.S., 1 in 6 young people between the ages of 6 and 17 are living with a mental illness. I would like to share some suggestions for parents, grandparents and guardians because I know from experience that, when our children struggle, we do too. And while the prospect might scare us, we need to take full responsibility when our kids may need help.
THE FIRST STEP IS FACING OUR OWN FEARS
In this country, we have an unfortunate way of dealing – or should I say, notdealing – with mental health. Did you know that less than half of all young people who need mental health treatment actually receive it?
This is strange if you think about it, because we generally don’t react this way to any other health problem. (If your teen had a raging fever, a mysterious rash or a broken leg, you’d seek out immediate treatment, yet you might feel reluctant to call the doctor when you’re worried that s/he is depressed.)
Please don’t feel guilty if you haven’t known how to respond to your child’s struggles. All of us feel fearful and unsure what to do at times, especially since the symptoms we’re seeing may not be clear to us. Just remember that mental health is a crucial part of your child’s lifelong health, which means s/he deserves the same excellent care you would demand for any other kind of health problem.
SIGNS YOUR CHILD MIGHT BE STRUGGLING
By mid-adolescence, girls are twice as likely to develop mood disorders as boys. Researchers aren’t sure why, but it may stem from the fact that girls mature more quickly, and their growing sensitivity to emotional and social issues may increase their risks for anxiety, depression, eating disorders, or self-harm.
Conditions such as ADD/ADHD often emerge at this age, too. The first symptoms of more serious illnesses such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia may also appear.
If you are worried that you won’t recognize what’s going on, realize that virtually all parents need help understanding the symptoms they see. Here are some clarifying questions to ask yourself:
- Has my teen’s behavior changed dramatically, with the changes lasting 2 weeks or more?
- Is this causing serious disruption with school, home, sports and friends?
- Have I noticed a major shift in energy level – either far more or far less activity than usual?
- Are there drastic changes in my teen’s appetite? Is s/he refusing to eat, or eating a lot more than normal?
- Is my teen having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep? Does s/he wake up feeling tired?
- Do I see increased anger, irritability, or inability to concentrate?
- Has s/he lost all interest in things s/he once loved?
- Does she express feelings of fear, anxiety or hopelessness about the future?
If you answered “yes” to one or more of these questions and your gut tells you something more serious is happening, please contact your teen’s primary care physician for help and perspective.
WHY YOU SHOULDN’T WAIT TO SEEK OUT HELP
With the right blend of therapy, social support, and sometimes medication, your family can have the resources to help your child feel better. Studies show that early treatment is the key to long-term mental health, especially for those who are facing a serious mood or cognitive disorder.
If I seem to be pushing a little too hard here, urging you to act right now, it’s because I know the cost of waiting can be painfully high for your child and your family.
- High school students with serious mental health problems are twice as likelyto drop out of school.
- More than 17% of high school students have serious thoughts of suicide in any given year – and if your child identifies as gay, lesbian or bisexual, the rate is nearly 50%.
- Untreated mental health conditions can interfere with your teen’s ability to enter and finish college, find a rewarding career and build strong relationships with friends, colleagues and life partners.
Your teen may argue and fight with you, but it’s crucial that you follow your instincts here. Your family doctor, your school’s social worker, or your family therapist (if you have one) will support you in your search for answers and help you create a plan for treatment.
LEARN MORE – AND GET THE SUPPORT YOU NEED
Here are some very helpful tips for parents and guardians, including ways to start a mental health conversation with your teen. I also recommend this article, which outlines 6 key facts all adults should know about teen mental health.
Keep in mind that, in turbulent times, you need support too. Call or email me if you’re feeling overwhelmed by the situation you’re facing. I will help you find the resources you and your family need.