Tuesday, March 5, 2024

How to Know When Your Teen Needs Help: Mental Health and Teenagers

*DISCLOSURE*  This post is developed in partnership with BetterHelp.

Navigating adolescence can be a complex journey filled with growth, change, and challenges, both for teenagers themselves and their parents or caregivers. During this critical developmental period, mental health issues can emerge or become more pronounced, often leaving loved ones unsure about when typical adolescent behavior crosses into the realm of needing professional attention. The distinction between normal teenage moodiness and signs of a potential mental health concern is not always clear-cut, making it essential for those caring for teenagers to be equipped with knowledge and understanding. This post will briefly examine some of the signs that a teen might need help and what to do if help is required.

Recognizing mental health concerns in teens

Teenage years are marked by rapid physical, emotional, and social changes that can sometimes mask underlying mental health issues. It's crucial for parents and caregivers to distinguish between typical teenage behavior and potential signs of mental health concerns. Common issues that teenagers may encounter include depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and substance abuse.

Key signs that may indicate a teenager is struggling include significant changes in behavior or personality, such as withdrawing from social interactions, losing interest in previously enjoyed activities, or exhibiting a sudden onset of increased irritability or moodiness. Changes in eating or sleeping patterns, a noticeable decline in academic performance, or a lack of concern for their personal appearance can also be signs that something is amiss.

It's important to note that occasional moodiness or changes in behavior are a normal part of teen mental health. However, when these signs persist over weeks or months, they could point to a deeper issue. Persistent feelings of sadness, extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure, and frequent outbursts of anger are important signs to pay attention to. Similarly, significant increases in risky behavior and the use of drugs or alcohol are also prominent warning signs.

Perhaps the most significant and urgent warning sign of a mental health issue is thoughts of harming oneself or others. If your teen has exhibited self-harm behaviors (like cutting or burning themselves), intends to hurt another person, or has spoken of ending their own life, immediate intervention is required. Seek help immediately if your teen exhibits any of those signs. If you need immediate guidance, you can reach out to the free Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988 (in the United States) or by visiting

Talking to your teen about mental health issues

Opening a dialogue about mental health with a teenager can be daunting, but it is very important to demonstrate support. It’s essential to approach the conversation with care, ensuring it’s rooted in kindness and understanding rather than judgment. Here are some strategies to facilitate a constructive discussion:

Choose the right moment: Look for a calm, private time to talk, avoiding moments of high stress or conflict. Choose an area to talk where your teen is comfortable and feels secure.

Express concern without blame: Start by expressing your observations and concerns in a non-confrontational way. Use "I" statements, such as "I've noticed you seem really down lately," to avoid making them feel defensive.

Listen actively: Allow your teen to speak without interruption. Show that you're listening through body language and by reflecting back what you hear, validating their feelings and experiences. It is important to continue the theme of non-judgment and to avoid blame.

Avoid minimizing their feelings: It’s crucial not to dismiss or minimize their emotions, even if they seem disproportionate from an adult perspective. Acknowledge their feelings as real and significant, which can help them feel understood and supported.

Offer support, not solutions: While your instinct might be to fix the problem, it’s more helpful to offer support and let them know you’re there for them, no matter what. Ask how you can help rather than proposing immediate solutions. Your teen might already have an idea of what direction they want to go next.

If your teen refuses to talk about what’s going on, start by offering support and acknowledging their response. Simply knowing that they are supported may be helpful for your teen. You may also consider working with a professional to help facilitate the conversation. While you can certainly encourage your teen to join you in therapy, it may be more helpful for you to work with a therapist one-on-one at first to determine how to best engage your teen in the therapy process.

Seeking professional help and providing support

If signs of distress persist, it's important to consult with mental health professionals, such as therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, or school counselors, who can offer guidance and appropriate treatment options. You can also reach out to your teen’s pediatrician for a referral to an appropriate mental health provider. Be sure to involve your teen in the process and encourage them to engage with the mental health professional. Many teens take a while to open up, and it is important to listen to them about their relationship with their therapist. Therapy requires a strong cohesive relationship between the therapist and patient, and if your teen doesn’t get along with their therapist, it is likely worthwhile to find a new one.

At home, work toward creating a nurturing environment where your teen feels safe and supported. Continue to encourage open communication while expressing love and acceptance. It is important that you do not punish your teen for their mental health. While their behavior should still have appropriate consequences if necessary, the consequence should be for their actions, not underlying thoughts or feelings that may be related.

If your teen engages in mental health treatment, do your best to stay involved in your teen’s treatment plan. Their therapist may want you to attend some sessions or implement recommended strategies at home. You can also promote good self-care by helping your teen eat a healthy diet, get enough sleep, and get physical activity.

A teen undergoing mental health concerns can be challenging for a parent to watch. It is often difficult or impossible to fix the problem right away, and in many cases, your teen needs to address their concerns independently to make adequate progress. Do your best to continually present a kind, nurturing environment that makes your teen feel safe, and make yourself available for support if needed. While mental health issues are common among teens, so is recovery from those issues. With time and care, it is likely your teen will be able to return to a better mental state. 

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