3 Ways to Improve your Teenager's Mental Health
Teenage brains are wired to seek new experiences, master skills, and create relationships. Developmentally, this is what is needed for teenagers to grow into adulthood.
Unfortunately, the pandemic has interfered with all of these things. This can impact a teenager’s mental health, which may lead them to feel anxious or depressed.
Some teenagers are experiencing these struggles for the first time. While others are experiencing them at a more severe or frequent occurrence.
how do you know when to worry as a parent?
When your teenager’s daily life is affected by their emotions, its time to start paying attention. Everyone experiences big emotions sometimes. And it is normal to pull back from life for a short period of time while you process your feelings.
But when your teen is withdrawing for more than a couple of days it is a red flag. It is also a red flag if they are no longer able to function in their daily life the way they used to. These red flags let you know it is time to intervene with help.
what does no longer being able to function look like?
Think of functioning as the everyday things we do to navigate life. Like sleeping, eating, taking care of our body, attending school (on-line or in person). If your teenager has stopped doing these things it’s time to check in with them to see what's up.
Let's talk about sleep
Sleep affects a teenager’s ability to learn, make good decisions and develop emotionally. Too little sleep will negatively impact their mental health and functioning. When a teen is struggling with their mental health, sleep is one of the first places to look.
Having said that, it is normal for teenagers to change their sleep habits during the teen years.
Most will turn into night owls, due to changes affecting their circadian rhythm. These changes are due to development, which produce a slower building sleep drive. These changes also cause their bodies to delay making melatonin (the body’s natural sleeping aid).
So naturally, teenagers stay up later and want to sleep in later.
It is also normal for teenagers to catch up on their sleep during the weekend. This is usually due to them sleeping too little during the week and their body trying to capture the lost hours.
If your teen is struggling with their mental health, help them keep track of how much sleep they are getting. If your teen is not getting 8-10 hours of sleep per night, work with them to make their sleep health a priority.
If your teenager is sleeping too much, where they are missing out on life, it is usually a sign they are out of balance. Helping your teenager re-engage in life and finding professional help can help.
More red flags
- Your teenager has a theme of anxious or depressive thoughts in all they do.
- Your teenager believes their feelings are permanent (i.e. this is never going to end).
- Your teenager indicates they are powerless in how they feel or in creating change for how they feel.
If your child mentions self-harm or taking their life, always treat it seriously. Try talking with them to let them know you are there for connection and help. If they don’t want to talk with you, see our Teen Resources for numbers and resources so they can talk with someone else.
What can you do as a parent to help?
Let’s face it, sometimes it is hard to get your teenager to buy into getting help. Sometimes it is hard to find help because everyone is struggling right now. But there are ways you can help at home.
1. Practice your own self-care.
Your teens are watching everything you do, even if they pretend to ignore you. If you model getting up, showered and dressed everyday it does plant seeds in your teenager’s mind.
Invite your teenager to join you in your self-care. Ask them to go for a walk with you, take deep breaths with you or do mindfulness with you.
Your teenager may deny your request depending on how stuck they are, but don’t give up. Keep asking them and if you can, do your self-care around them so they can always join in.
Gratitude is an easy way to invite your teen to start practicing self-care. At a meal ask everyone to say what they are grateful for. Even if they say they are grateful for going back to their room after dinner, it is a start.
Consistency is key so keep trying even if it does not seem to be working. At the very least you will feel better, which will help you when interacting with your teenager.
2. Teach your teenager self-compassion
This may be a hard one for your teenager at first, but again modeling it can have a huge impact. Ask them to talk to themselves as though they were their best friend.
Take it in little steps. In the beginning. act as their regulator. When you hear them say something harsh to themselves, go over and give them a hug if they will let you. Then say ‘I’m sorry that was so harsh, that must have been hard to hear’. Even if they don't want the hug, say the words so they can hear your compassion.
Next, encourage them to refrain from saying the negative talk to themselves. Ask them if they would say that to their friend and remind them to treat themselves the same.
And finally, teach them to practice compassion with themselves. Teach them to say, ‘this is hard, it’s okay to feel bad because it is so hard, everyone is having a hard time with this right now’.
Kristin Neff, a leader in self-compassion research, has many short compassion exercises on her website. Share them with your teenager so they can do them when they want. Or better yet, do them together!
3. Validate your Teenagers Feelings
Anxiety and depression can feel very isolating, like no one else understands or feels like we do. But a parent has the power to break through these feelings by listening and reflecting.
Give your teenager lots of chances and lots of time to talk. Teenagers don't always want a face to face so a car ride, walk or dark room can provide the safe space for them to open up.
Next, let them say anything. This means they should be doing 90% of the talking. Your job is to sit there and listen. Every once in a while repeat back what you heard. For example, ‘it feels like this is never going to end’ or ‘it feels like there is no point in getting up’.
Don’t judge what they say, try to make things better, or problem solve.
Just listen and repeat.
If you feel like you are getting upset listening to them, ask them to take a break. Model what to do when you start to get upset. Say you want to hear more, but you are feeling upset and you don’t want to say the wrong thing. Then say you need to take a break and you will come back to finish the talk in 10 minutes.
Make sure you let your teenager know you are coming back and commit to it by scheduling a time. This will keep you accountable and will build their trust in you.
If you can, invite them to take a walk with you or do a short activity with you during the break. That way you are keeping the connection and modeling how to cope. As an added bonus, you are getting both of you to focus on something other than their anxiety or depression.
Navigating the teenage years can be difficult even without added mental health challenges. But your teenager does not need to suffer, and you can help. Sometimes these strategies are enough and sometimes your child will need more help. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help for your child or yourself.