Our kids go to school to become proficient in academic subjects from basic math to college-level physics. Although mental health is equally important, it’s rarely addressed in the classroom. With teen depression and anxiety on the rise, what can you do to foster your child’s social and emotional health and wellbeing?
According to the World Health Organization, many teens suffer from undiagnosed mental illnesses. Their 2019 report on adolescent mental health concludes that one in seven children aged 10-19 has a mental disorder, and that anxiety and depression are among the leading causes of adolescent illness.
When it comes to anxiety and depression, early detection and treatment are crucial. The tragedies at Sandy Hook Elementary, Stoneman Douglass High School, and – more recently – Robb Elementary, bring that fact closer to home, demonstrating the need for early intervention and a greater focus on adolescent mental health and wellbeing.
Peer pressure. Puberty. Bullying. Increased academic demands. Social media-related stress. Life transitions. Relationship worries. Pandemic concerns. College move-ins… Our children face a barrage of anxiety-inducing physical and emotional demands. However, it can be difficult to tell if our children are handling the pressure, or if they’re suffering socially and emotionally – especially when many signs of depression and anxiety are also symptoms of typical teen angst.
So, how can you determine if your kids are mentally and emotionally OK? How can you help them navigate through turbulent and confusing pre-teen and teen years? And ultimately, how can you help a teenager with depression and anxiety?
Family Matters: Tips to Support Your Teen
Tip 1. Encourage Your Teens to Talk About Their Feelings
One of the best ways to know how your children are feeling is to ask them. Let them know that you’re there for them, but don’t force or pressure them into talking if they don’t feel ready. Rather than asking questions that will likely elicit a ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ ask open-ended questions that encourage elaboration. For example, instead of asking, “Did you have a good day,” you might try, “Tell me about your day – what were the best – and not-so-great – things that happened?”
Tip 2. Be Ready to Listen…Without Judgment
When we encourage our children to talk, we must be prepared to actively listen – even when we don’t like what we hear. Active listening means heeding not only their spoken words – but also their body language and other non-verbal cues that might indicate more about how he or she is feeling.
Don’t admonish or punish your teens if they disclose something that goes against your values. Instead, validate their feelings by paraphrasing what they say to show that you’re hearing them, and reassure them with encouraging statements. Use supportive language and remind your children that they can learn just as much from their mistakes – if not more – as they can from their successes.
Although it’s tempting to try to solve every problem our kid's face, resist the urge and encourage your teen to come up with solutions. For example: “I can see how that would be upsetting. What do you think you can do to keep it from happening again?” Consistently stepping in with solutions may prevent your teens from developing their own problem-solving skills, and ultimately create more anxiety.
Tip 3. Seek Professional Support
If your teen is truly struggling, consider professional support. A therapist will listen without judgment and provide impartial, objective advice to help your teen develop tools and techniques to manage anxiety and depression.
Although student support is available in school, guidance counselors are often pulled in different directions and don’t always have sufficient time to devote to individual students. In fact, although the National Association for College Counseling recommends 250 students per public school counselor, a recent report indicates that the national average is 482 students per counselor. The same holds true on college campuses, where counseling services are in such high demand that students often must wait several weeks to see a counselor.
Professional, easily accessible services are crucial. Ask your friends, your teen’s physician, and other trusted sources for therapist recommendations. Also, consider mentoring programs and educational consulting firms that specialize in choosing the best-fit counselors and therapeutic programs for teens. These independent professional services can help your kids identify and develop their strengths and interests, help them build self-esteem, and guide them throughout their journey toward better emotional health.
Tip 4. Make Changes Together, As a Family
If your teen is showing signs of anxiety, depression, or other emotional distress, a supportive family environment can be a strong source of comfort and encouragement. Set a good example by practicing what you preach, and demonstrate that you’re willing to make changes as well. Enjoy extra family time together – even though the mere mention of family time might result in a disconcerting eye roll from your teen. Despite their objections, family time is something your teen needs and will (eventually) appreciate. Eat meals together, limit screen time (your own, as well), and enjoy activities like walks or hikes, outdoor adventures, movie nights, and other favorite family pastimes.
Tip 5. Cut Your Teen Some Slack
The teen and pre-teen years can be emotionally and physically exhausting. If your child is experiencing anxiety and depression, he or she may find it difficult to meet obligations. Try to cut your kids some slack and be understanding if they’re having a hard time accomplishing everything. Ask what you can do to help. In some cases, that may mean helping your teen lighten the load.
As parents, we want to encourage our children to be their best and try new activities. But make sure that you aren’t pressuring them to take on more than they can handle. For example, if you’re encouraging your daughter to get involved to build her college résumé and she’s on the debate team, is president of the science honor society, takes guitar lessons, plays trumpet in marching band, is on an after-school basketball team, volunteers for a non-profit organization…it may be too much. Sit down with her and encourage her to follow her passion – while not overdoing it. Balance is key.
Tip 6. Encourage and Help Your Teen Foster Supportive Friendships
A supportive social network is an important – and rewarding – part of growing up. Nurturing, positive friendships can provide a much-needed sense of connection, as well as invaluable support during difficult times. Peers experiencing similar challenges are often the best sources of comfort and healing, as it makes our teens realize they’re not alone. If your teen is struggling to make friends, you can help by suggesting social activities, clubs, and other ways to make meaningful connections. But – remember tip number five, and be sure not to be too helpful. Forcing the issue or enrolling your child in too many activities can add pressure instead of alleviating it.
Tip 7. Promote Healthy Coping Skills
Adolescence is a time of great change when it’s important to develop strong, positive coping skills to promote social and emotional health and wellbeing. Without them, anxiety and depression can lead to substance abuse, self-harm, and other destructive coping mechanisms.
- Remind your teens that they shouldn’t keep their feelings bottled up. If they aren’t ready to talk with trusted friends or family members, writing their thoughts and feelings in a journal can help relieve pressure and anxiety.
- Creating to-do lists helps keep teens focused and on task.
- Proper nutrition, exercise (including cardio as well as yoga, meditation, and other relaxation techniques), and adopting
Teens exhibiting signs of anxiety and depression often fall behind in school, which can lead to unhealthy coping strategies like skipping class, disruptive classroom behavior, and not turning in assignments. Independent educational consultants and learning centers can help keep your teens on track, alleviate school-related anxiety, and help them ensure academic success in school, college, and beyond.
Tip 8. Practice the ‘It Takes a Village’ Approach
Every stage of child development has its ups and downs, and the adolescent years can be particularly tumultuous. But, no matter how difficult things may seem, remember these two facts:
- You’re not alone: Just as you are there for your teen, your friends and family are available to support you. In addition, there are a variety of books, online resources, and local support groups that can offer guidance and direction. A strong support network can make all the difference, so don’t be afraid to ask for help. It really does take a village to raise a child!
- Every cloud has a silver lining: Although the teen and pre-teen years definitely come with challenges, the time will also likely comprise some of your most rewarding years together. Your teens are not quite children, but not quite adults – they’re just beginning to ‘find’ themselves and discover their true potential. Your caterpillar is transforming into a butterfly right before your eyes.
Try not to worry – all of your years of parenting have paid off. Your teen may think he or she is supposed to be ‘all grown up' and conquer the world on his or her own while balancing life’s responsibilities and demands. But remind your kids that you will always be there for them, no matter how old they are. You’ve got this.
If you believe your child is suffering from anxiety, depression, or other social and emotional issues, contact JRA Educational Consulting. We’ve supported and successfully helped thousands of families – and we can help you.