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Teen Mental Health: What Parents Can Do To Help

May 10, 2021 By Elenor MacGregor
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Over the last year, we’ve heard time and time again about the significant toll the pandemic has had on adults’ mental health, amid business closures, high unemployment rates, and new work from home routines. While the emphasis has been on adults, however, they aren’t the only ones who’ve been affected. According to a national poll by the University of Michigan’s C.S Mott Children’s Hospital, 46% of parents say their teen has shown signs of a new or worsening mental health condition since the beginning of the pandemic. Meanwhile, a report by the CDC found that the proportion of emergency room visits by 12 to 17 year olds for mental health reasons rose 31% in 2020.

While the pandemic has been tough on everyone, it’s been particularly difficult for teens, who rely heavily on school, extracurricular activities, and their friends for emotional support. On top of worries and concerns about the virus itself, many teens have had to adapt to virtual learning, endure tough family dynamics at home, and miss out on key milestones like proms, championship games, and graduations. Some have even had to pick up part-time jobs or take on more childcare responsibility depending on their family situation. Now as vaccine access expands and economies reopen, there is the added anxiety of returning to school and resuming normal activities. Many teens and young adults may have concerns about their safety, worry about social anxiety, or fear changes in their friendships and relationships.

It can be heartbreaking seeing your child in pain and it may even leave you feeling worried, frustrated, or helpless. While you may not have any control over the pandemic, there are ways you can support your child’s mental health during this time. Here’s what you can to do help:

Start with yourself

As a parent, it’s easy to let your own health and self-care slip through the cracks when caring for another person. While you may think you should put your child’s needs ahead of your own, doing so may actually be harmful to your child’s health. Children and young adults look to their parents as an example, so if you’re exhibiting high stress or are not prioritizing your mental health, your teen may adopt similar attitudes or behaviors. It may be difficult for you to maintain a positive mindset while undergoing your own anxiety and stress, but it’s important to remind your child that things will get better. Model healthy coping mechanisms, such as practicing mindfulness or doing breathing exercises or yoga, or another form of self-care. If you don’t demonstrate healthy ways of managing stress, it will be hard to convince your teen of their importance. This also means maintaining a healthy diet, getting a good night’s sleep, practicing good hygiene, and exercising regularly. Your teen will pick up on your worries and stress, so protecting your own mental health can really set the tone for your household.

Talk it out

If you notice changes in your teen’s mood or behavior, you should bring up your concerns. Your teen may not recognize they are struggling themselves or may be embarrassed or afraid to bring their feelings up on their own. While it may be uncomfortable to get the conversation started, doing so is the first step to getting your child the help they need. Start by expressing your own concern without placing any blame. Let them lead the conversation by asking open-ended questions like “I’ve noticed you’ve seemed down lately. How are you feeling?” Let them volunteer information on their own time and don’t pressure them to talk if they aren’t ready. Try to stay calm and avoid dismissing their feelings as trivial, reacting extremely, or interrupting. Rather than lecturing or offering solutions, focus on listening, asking plenty of questions, and validating their feelings. Though it’s natural to want to find a solution to your loved one’s pain, doing so may minimize their feelings or discourage them from further opening up. Questions like “What do you think about that” or “Do you think you need to do something about that?” can help your teen express what they need or offer a solution. Don’t be surprised if your teen doesn’t want to talk or is annoyed by the conversation. They may be embarrassed and not know how to react. Talking openly about mental health, however, lets them know that they can come to you when they do feel like sharing.

Practice compassion

One of the best things you can do if your teen is struggling with their mental health is to remind them of your love and support. You don’t need to understand what they’re going through or have a solution. Just simply offering a hug or shoulder to cry on can go a long way. Offer reassurance and hope by letting them know that things will get better, while allowing them the space to feel their emotions fully without criticism, judgment, or blame. Remind them that they aren’t alone and you’re here for them every step of the way.

Make time for fun

Between academic pressures and jam-packed extracurricular schedules, it can be easy for teenagers to get caught up in schoolwork and other day-to-day responsibilities, without making time for the activities that actually bring them joy. It’s important — especially now amid the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic — that your child take breaks and find opportunities to do things just for fun. Hobbies and activities that bring your child joy can distract them from everyday stressors and boost their overall mood. For some that means getting outdoors and going on a hike or swimming. For others it could mean doing a craft, playing a board game, or picking up the guitar. Make time to do things together as a family too, whether it be a day trip, a picnic, or just a movie night. Try to also encourage your family to turn off the electronics for a bit and enjoy the activity at hand.

Encourage healthy habits

Teenagers are notorious for eating whatever they want, staying up late, and sleeping all day. While many parents are quick to let these bad habits slide or write them off as normal for their child’s age, your teen’s physical health can have a significant impact on their mental health well-being. A good night’s sleep, a nutritious diet, and regular physical activity can boost your child’s mood, productivity, energy, and general outlook on life. Though it may be tempting to let your teen stay up later or sleep in since they don’t have to leave the house for school, be sure they follow a regular sleep schedule and have set wake up times, even on weekends. Teenagers ages 13 through 18 should get about 8 to 10 hours of sleep per night. As for exercise, the CDC says that kids ages 6 through 17 should get an hour or more of moderate to vigorous activity each day. Try making physical activity a part of your family’s daily routine by taking regular walks, hikes, or bike rides or playing active games like soccer or football together. Likewise, it’s important to prioritize a healthy diet. Try to limit your teen’s consumption of processed, sugary foods and drinks, as well as caffeine. Healthy fats like avocados, nuts, chia seeds, yogurt, extra virgin olive oil, coconut, and fish, including salmon, mackerel, sardines, and trout are great options for your child. Research suggests that magnesium-rich foods like pumpkin seeds, beans, dark chocolate, almonds, sunflower seeds, oatmeal, bananas, and spinach can also help relieve symptoms of anxiety. Lean proteins, fruit, and vegetables can also help stabilize mood and blood sugar.

Prioritize mindfulness

Mindfulness and meditation aren’t just for adults. Research shows that practicing mindfulness can reduce anxiety and boost happiness for children at each developmental stage. If your teen is feeling anxious or overwhelmed, there are a variety of ways you can help them feel more rooted in the present. For instance, your teen can try the 4-7-8 breathing technique, in which you inhale for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 7 seconds, and exhale for 8 seconds. Doing this for a minute or two at a time, a few times a day can help alleviate some stress and anxiety. Spending time in nature can also help your teen de-stress. Encourage them to get outside, even if it’s just to read or go for a short walk. Your child can also try using apps like Headspace or Calm for guided meditations or find free yoga tutorials on Youtube.

Check in regularly

Though you may feel like one conversation with your teen about their mental health is enough, it’s important to keep a regular line of communication open with them. Doing so will enable you to keep an eye on their progress and the development of any symptoms. Regularly check in and ask how they are feeling and how things are going with school, friends, or a particular extracurricular activity. Ask how you can help or make things easier for them right now. You should also pay close attention to any signs that may indicate your child’s mental health is worsening. Concerning signs that warrant immediate attention and possibly an emergency room visit include:

  • Talking about committing suicide or harming themselves
  • Strong feelings of hopelessness or feeling trapped
  • Preoccupation with death
  • Acting recklessly as if they have a death wish
  • Saying goodbye to people
  • Giving away prized possessions
  • Saying that “Everyone is better off without me” or “I want out”
  • A sudden switch from depressed to happy or very calm

Seek professional help

As much as you may want to help your child yourself, it may be in both you and your child’s best interest to work with a trained professional. While you may be able to provide some emotional support, mental health experts and medical professionals are trained to identify and create treatment plans for all sorts of mental health issues. To start, try talking to your child’s primary care provider, who will be able to recommend lifestyle changes or medication, refer you to local mental health resources and specialists, as well as rule out other potential underlying medical issues that may be impacting their mental health.

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Elenor MacGregor, One Medical Provider
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The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Orange County,Phoenix, Portland, San Diego, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.

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