The teen years can be rocky at best, however with the current state of the world with covid and the increase in online activities it can be harder than ever to manage teen mental health. There are many factors that influence teen mental health and it is important to note that 50% of mental health conditions start by the age of 14 years old and most of these are undetected and untreated.
As an addict and alcoholic, diagnosed with bipolar disorder, mental health is a huge passion of mine. My challenges started around the age of 14 years old. While my parents were aware that something was wrong, they struggled to find the information and the help that was needed. My life spiralled out of control until 2008, at the age of 29 years old, when I finally got the help I needed after being admitted into a psychiatric facility, followed by a year in an addiction rehabilitation clinic.
My hope is that through my own experiences I can help my children navigate their teens years and help them to overcome any mental health difficulties they may face. I also hope that through sharing about my difficulties I can help to break through the stigma associated with mental health challenges.
The Teen Years Are A Critical Phase Of Development
The teenage years are a time of great change. The onset of puberty begins, bringing physical, hormonal, and emotional changes. During this time teenagers acquire the social, cognitive, physical, economic, and emotional resources that form the foundation for their future life and well-being.
These resources also define the trajectory into the next generation, which means that these will also impact their own children in the future.
Adolescence is the peak time for the onset of most mental health problems. Common psychiatric disorders in teens include depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and substance abuse. All of these disorders are associated with a higher risk of suicide. It is important to get help for your child if they are struggling with depression or any other mental health difficulties.
Taking Note Of Stress Factors
There are many situations that may cause stress for your adolescent and more so now that we are into the third year of the pandemic. Teens will feel increased stress in situations when they perceive a situation to be difficult, painful, and/ or dangerous, and they don’t have the required skills to cope.
Here are some stress factors teens face:
- body changes
- negative feelings and thoughts about themselves
- problems with peers
- bullying (school and online)
- school frustrations and demands
- neighbourhood or home life that is unsafe
- worries about the pandemic
- loss of a loved one
- moving schools
- divorce or separation of parents
- problems in family such as chronic illness or financial difficulties
- having expectations that are too high
- too many activities
Watching Out For Signs Of Potential Problems
Teens are notorious for having mood swings due to hormonal changes, however there are certain behaviours that could be a red flag that need to be taken note of:
- Sleep pattern changes (beyond normal teen tiredness) – this could indicate difficulty in sleeping, substance abuse, depression, insomnia, or other sleep disorders
- Abandoning or losing interest in hobbies, sports or other pastimes
- Dramatic and unexpected decline in academic performance
- Loss of self-esteem, expressing feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness
- Weight loss or gain, loss of appetite and changes in eating patterns
- Excessive moodiness or unexpected weepiness
- Self-harm or talk of self-harm
- Excessive secrecy and paranoia
- Excessive isolation
- Obsessiveness over body image
- Abandoning friends or social groups
- Personality changes such as being aggressive and out of character anger
It is important to take note of the signs of eating disorders. Anorexia involves restricting and avoiding eating – noticeable changes in eating patterns are a concern. Bulimia is the bingeing then purging of food after eating, through vomiting or through the use of diuretics, enemas, or laxatives. Bulimia can also involve non-purging methods to offset bingeing such as excessive exercise or the use of stimulants or diet pills.
While many teens experiment with alcohol or drugs due to peer pressure, some teens use drugs to self-medicate. Watch out for slurred speech, excessive changes in behaviour, reduced attention to personal care, evidence of alcohol/ drugs or drug paraphernalia, and hangovers. It is also essential to note that it is not only alcohol and street drugs you need to look out for. Abuse of prescription medications and over the counter medications such as cough mixture and medications for colds and flu is common.
Creating A Safe Environment For Open Communication
Communication is going to be key during this phase of your child’s life. You want to create an environment where your child feels safe to talk to you about anything that is bothering them.
Your teen will be pushing boundaries and throwing tantrums, just like they did during the toddler phase. They will be wanting to assert their independence and pull away from their parents. They will need to learn some lessons through making mistakes.
They will be making decisions that will have real consequences such as sex, driving, substance abuse, and giving into peer pressure. They are not going to be great at regulating their emotions and they will be prone to taking risks and making decisions that are impulsive.
Here are some tips to promote open communication with your child:
- Listen as much as possible rather than ask direct questions. Teens may be more open to talking if they don’t feel pressured and you may learn more by listening to your child and being interested but not prying.
- Validate your child. Make sure not to be dismissive of the things your child is struggling with. You also don’t need to try and solve every problem your child is having. Instead, try to empathize and understand.
- Show trust in your teen. Let your child know that you have faith in them, this will boost their self-confidence and make them more likely to make good decisions.
- Set the rules but don’t dictate, rather explain why certain rules are necessary.
- Praise your teen. While teens may act like they don’t care what their parents think, they do still want your approval. Be encouraging and positive.
- Control your own emotions. Yes, your teen is going to get under your skin but remember that you are the adult and you are showing your child how to behave in tense and uncomfortable situations. Your teen is learning how to cope with emotions and you are the role model.
- Make time to do things with your teen. It is important to have positive and fun experiences together without talking about anything personal or stressful.
- Eat meals together as a family. Your teen is going to be a lot more outgoing and spend more time away from home with friends. It is important to keep a feeling of family togetherness and create a space where everyone in the family can connect and talk together about their day.
Teen Mental Health – Teaching Coping Skills
As parents we cannot shield our teens from all stress in life, and teaching them coping skills is an essential life skill that they will need to learn. One of the most valuable things we can do for our kids is to learn good coping skills ourselves and model them for our children. Children learn best through emulating what their parents do.
Here are some coping skills to teach your teen to manage stress:
- The importance of good eating habits – eating balanced meals in the right amount and at the right times. The impact that food plays in overall health, including mental health, cannot be emphasized enough.
- Exercise regularly.
- The importance of good sleep hygiene – teach your teen how to get into a good sleep routine so that your child gets enough good quality sleep.
- Avoid too much caffeine – caffeine can interfere with sleep patterns as well as increase feelings of agitation and anxiety.
- Learn and practice relaxation exercises such as deep breathing and meditation.
- Avoid the use of drugs, alcohol, tobacco and vaping.
- Start journaling – it is a fantastic mental health tool.
- Decrease and challenge negative self-talk: start replacing with positive affirmations.
- Start implementing practical coping skills such as breaking up an overwhelming stressful task into smaller manageable tasks.
- Build a support network of people that help in a positive way.
- Learn to feel good about being competent rather than expecting perfection every time
- Learn the importance of self-care.
- Take a break and focus on some stress-reducing activities such as spending time with friends, taking a hike, listening to music, reading a book, drawing or writing.
The Importance Of Therapy
Some teens are going to go through the teen years with ease and others are going to struggle a lot. If you feel that your child is struggling and you are unable to help your child navigate these waters on your own therapy is a fantastic tool.
Therapy will help teens better understand their feelings, behaviours, and thoughts, as well as teach them the tools they need to make the changes they need in their lives and to function better. Your teen will be able to work through issues and find solutions to problems they face.
If your teen has depression, anxiety, substance abuse problems, or any other mental health difficulty it is important for your child to get help.
It is essential to note that therapy is not only for teens that suffer from mental health challenges, it will be useful for any teen to go for therapy.