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Published on April 26, 2019

Talk to Teens About Their Mental Health

Adolescence is a difficult time for teens and parents. With so many changes happening for your child, it can be hard to determine when they’re experiencing regular teen moodiness and when they might be struggling with their mental health.

More than 22 percent of people between ages 13 and 18 will experience a mental health or substance use problem in a given year, and most don’t receive treatment. It’s key that teens feel comfortable talking to trusted adults in their life, and seek help before they reach a crisis.

First, learn to recognize signs of mental health problems in your teen. Some symptoms are the same as adults, and some are specific to adolescence.

While not a complete list, some signs include:

  • Mood changes
  • Hopelessness
  • Tearfulness or crying
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Change in grades
  • Change in appetite
  • Isolation, or distancing themselves from certain friends or family
  • Irritability or anger
  • Tiredness or fatigue
  • Highly sensitive to criticism, or low self-esteem
  • Complain of aches and pains that don’t have a medical explanation
  • Risky behavior such as recklessness, drinking or unsafe sex

Regardless of whether you see these signs, it’s good to talk about mental health with your teen, so if they feel like they’re struggling, they know they have a support system.

Tips for Conversation 

  • Ask – Pick a time that feels comfortable - this might be when you’re in the car together, doing the dishes, or right before bed - and ask your teen how they’re doing. You can start by commenting on something you’ve noticed, in a neutral way, like, “I noticed you haven’t been hanging out with your friends as often as you used to. Is everything ok?” or “How are you feeling? It seems like things have been hard lately.”
    • If you truly suspect they may be experiencing depression, it’s a good idea to ask if they’ve considered hurting themselves, or if they have thoughts of suicide. Talking about it won’t put the idea in their head, but it could save their life.
  • Listen – The most important thing you can do for your teen is to listen without judgment to what they’re experiencing and how they feel. Try to really understand and empathize with what they’re telling you, and don’t make assumptions or jump to conclusions.
  • Validate – Just because they’re young doesn’t mean they don’t have real stress and real emotional turmoil. Make sure as you talk with them, you don’t brush away their feelings as “just” teen angst. It’s also really important to let them know that mental health disorders are common and treatable. It will get better for them, even if they’re going through a rough patch.
  • Talk about next steps – If they’ve been open to talking to you about what they’re going through, discuss what ways they might be comfortable to get help.

If your teen doesn’t seem to want to open up about their feelings, don’t worry! It’s not a one-time conversation. Just letting them know that you’re there for them, that you care, and that you will support them in anything they’re dealing with goes a long way.

You can take a mental health screening on behalf of your teen, or for yourself, by taking this anonymous online screening.

If you’re concerned about your teenager’s behavior, call 911. If you think your teen is actively suicidal and in danger of self-harm, them to the nearest emergency room. Bryan Medical Center West Campus has a 24/7 mental health emergency room where you can determine if hospitalization is needed. The National Suicide Helpline is 1-800-273-8255.

To learn more about Bryan Medical Center’s continuum of mental health services go to www.bryanhealth.org/mentalhealth

dave miers

About Dr. Dave Miers

Dave Miers, PhD, is the counseling and program development manager for mental health services at Bryan Medical Center in Lincoln, Neb.

He helped establish the Nebraska State Suicide Prevention Coalition in 1999 and chaired/co-chaired this Coalition until 2017. He currently serves on the Board of Directors. Dr. Miers is a member of the leadership group for the Lincoln/Lancaster County Suicide Prevention Coalition. Dr. Miers has published research and co-authored a chapter in the Routledge International Handbook of Clinical Suicide Research focusing on family survivors of a child suicide. Dr. Miers helped develop the Lincoln Lancaster Local Outreach to Suicide Survivors (LOSS) team in Lincoln, Neb. He also helped develop other LOSS teams in Nebraska and is active with LOSS team development on a national level.

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