- Steven Sutton, LCSW
How To Support Your Teen's Mental Health
Updated: Mar 5, 2021
Last March, our world suddenly became smaller. The week that was once filled with running back and forth to workplaces and schools, dropping off and picking up kids at practices and friends’ houses, has become more simple and predictable. Our lives are focused on the home now more than ever. No one was prepared for these changes. For many, it has been an opportunity to explore new opportunities.
It is also posing new questions about how to parent and to prepare children for their lives away from home -- in public, at school, and beyond. What might it mean for so many hours to be lost to the glow of devices and how does it impact young people’s mental health to be withheld from so many of the things we as parents identify with as healthy and supportive activities?
Here we will explore some ways to think about supporting teenager's mental health and development, given the limitations of staying safe during the pandemic.
For teenagers, social isolation - even to a small degree- can be especially challenging. Young people between the ages of 13-18 are in a life stage where they need to explore their independence, begin to form more of an adult identity, take on new challenges, and build their social life beyond their family.
Here are 8 ways to support your teen’s mental health:
1. Connecting with you remains important
Teenagers can be surly and will often act like they do not want to connect. The bottom line is they need more of your attention during the pandemic rather than less. Don't take their attempts to push you away personally and stay in touch with what they need, not how it feels when they react rudely or seem to dismiss you. Find ways to connect with them and be clear with them that you expect to have a warm, loving relationship with them. If they seem not to want that? Tough, you're doing it anyways. It's natural to meet with resistance but our teenagers sometimes need to have us set the tone and see that we will not be dissuaded from loving them openly. If the experience you want with them is good, then don't compromise it just because they're not enthusiastic. Part of being a great parent to a teen is knowing what is right for your family despite your teenager rolling their eyes.
2. Become an excellent listener
One of the most challenging things to do for any parent is to recognize the transitions that our children go through as they age. As our kids become teenagers, we are challenged to listen in a new way. We have to learn how to mix in more adult listening skills into the relationship. Practice listening skills with your teenager and become aware of how much or little space you allow them to have the floor. They may need more time to process or complain than in the past. It does not always have to be your role to offer solutions. Of course there will be times to offer them guidance, but treat those times as valuable opportunities, not your everyday job. Parents who offer guidance every time they talk with their teenagers often get tuned out. Try sharpening your listening skills and using them during the pandemic with your teenager:
Reflect back to them what you think you hear them saying
Name their feelings without offering a different perspective
Ask yourself if they want support or a challenge in a given conversation and try offering support more often than feedback
3. Your teenager needs real world challenges
Identify the things your teenager feels uncomfortable doing and design supported challenges to prepare them to expand that comfort zone. Consider having them make phone calls to schedule appointments, have them run into the store to pick things up for you, on their own, give them challenges and don't solve the problems for them. Let them struggle and figure things out. Your job can be a support net, but not a helping hand the way you might have been when they were younger. Downplay any struggle they have and celebrate what they do well. You'll notice that once they figure out the challenge they'll get a boost of self esteem and enthusiasm.
Here’s an example of how this can work:
Make a grocery list with your 14 year old. Have them go to the store "on their own," while you follow them at a distance. Allow them to find the items on the list, make decisions, and navigate the store as independently as they can. Arrange for them to check out with as little help as possible.
4. Engage in an activity before asking them to open up
Sitting across from your teenager and asking them personal questions can make it more difficult for some of them to open up. Consider getting them engaged in activity with their hands before asking the personal questions.
5. Plan an adventure to feel well
While it is difficult for most of us to pursue adventure in our life during the pandemic, it's more important than ever. We all, your teens included, need adventure. Think of adventure this way:
Something you want to do that is not urgent -- most adventures could always be put off to a later time
Something that is challenging and requires you to stretch or learn something new
Something you believe will add reward and value to your life
Both you and your teenager should know what adventures you have in your life right now. Without them, you'll slowly hew towards low mood, fatigue with the urgent matters in life, and may find yourself in a rut before long. The teenager who is trying to check out through social media or video games is often lacking adventure in their life and may need you to help them explore how to cultivate it. Secure your own adventure first and familiarize yourself with how it works and how important it is -- you'll then be a more powerful position to teach your teenager how it can improve their life.
6. Assess your family's rituals and invest in them
Ritual is important for any group of closely connected humans. Families have their own rituals and they should be cultivated throughout life. Assess what rituals you have: Do you eat meals together? Family movie night? Do you always do that one thing anytime there is a birthday? If you assess your rituals and you have a hard time identifying them, it might be time to invest in developing some. Get your teenager involved in developing a new ritual and make it one that means something to them. Don't make this too complicated, rituals can be simple. Having them is more important than their specific content. At any given time, you should be able to list 2-3 simple rituals your family engages in regularly. At their best, they should bring a smile to your face.
7. Use technology for good
Research some apps that can contribute to your teenager's wellbeing. Check out Moodnotes and other cognitive behavioral based apps. Teenagers might be more willing to learn how to influence their own sense of wellbeing from their engagement with a device than from an adult. Even better, they can receive valuable information from multiple sources, increasing the likelihood that it stays with them. Apps like Moodnotes can help your teenager to recognize counterproductive thought habits and how to counter them.
8. Set limits when you see them fading into low mood or bad habits
Have the courage to explain to your teenager that while you want to have a fun, light, positive and loving relationship with them, keeping them well and safe is even more important. Be clear with your expectations and consistent holding them accountable. Make the consequences clear beforehand and tell them when to expect for both successes and failures. Finding ways to set limits with love and patience is a powerful tool in supporting your teenager through their difficult times.
If you would like more information or additional support, you can reach Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org or Bettermanprojects.com.
If you are in need of immediate support for a mental health crisis, please contact:
Offers teen to teen crisis help with both a phone line and a texting support line through Lines for Life. Teens respond from 4:00 to 10:00 PM Monday through Friday 24 hours a day / 7 days a week Call 1-877-968-8491 Text teen2teen to 839863