Advice for Parents and Caregivers on Teens and Mental Health

Help Them Find Their Purpose

Helping young people understand the concept of life purpose, or what gives their life meaning, can be transformative, says Brzycki, who earned a master’s degree in education from Tufts Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and a Ph.D. from The Pennsylvania State University. “It’s often a connection to a greater good or to other people’s wellbeing, and we’ve found that children as young as 10 can have a strong inner sense of what that is.”

Brzycki, who has 40 years of experience in education and psychology, says the idea of life purpose is used both as a prevention tool and an intervention tool, especially with young people who have eating disorders, substance use disorders, or suicidal thoughts. He says teens really want to be engaged and discuss these kinds of meaningful issues in their lives.

“It’s moving to see it work, too. When young people realize that they are important, and their parents recognize they have importance beyond doing chores or getting good grades, they see that they have a larger role to play in life and in society, and it lights their fire. It motivates them,” Brzycki says.

Address Social Anxiety and Bullying

Connors-Kellgren and Sharma report an increase in social anxiety among the teenagers they see after the COVID-19 pandemic. They also point out that social media has transformed teens’ lives, moving more of their interactions into the virtual realm and creating a new arena for harmful judgments and bullying. 

How can parents help teens with social anxiety navigate this reality? 

“The important thing to do is ask, why is the child shrinking in social situations? Why are they minimizing themselves? And it often has to do with their sense of self-worth or self-esteem,” says Brzycki. “They feel like they’re being judged, being assessed, or put in a particular role or box in which they don’t feel comfortable.” 

He encourages parents, caregivers, and educators to talk to teens about why they may be afraid to express themselves in a peer group, community group, or similar situation. What role, if any, would they like to play? What strengths do they have that they would like to express? 

Somewhat similar to the concept of life purpose, teens also benefit from the concept of life dreams, whether a situational set of dreams or big-picture dreams, Brzycki says. “You can teach a young person to understand that at every moment, they can be in touch with their dreams and what they want in that particular situation or for their life. They have control over their future. And that gives them a sense of agency.”

When people sacrifice their dreams, he adds, resignation and sadness set in and their sense of self-worth plummets. 

Community and family support are the main protective factors of teen mental health, and a sense of belonging, whether through a sport, faith community, school, or other group, is vital to fight the negative messages bombarding today’s teenagers.
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Connors-Kellgren says self-worth and self-esteem also come into play with teens who have been bullied. “When I work with families whose teens have experienced bullying, I focus on two things: rebuilding the teen’s self-esteem and ability to cope with interpersonal stressors and supporting the family in advocating for and managing the source of the bullying,” says Connors-Kellgren. 

If you are concerned about bullying, you may want to talk with staff at your child’s school about how they address it, she says. You may also need to put limits on your teens’ social media use to reduce their exposure to harmful interactions. 

Help Your Teen Manage Stress

When it comes to stress, sometimes your teen won’t have much control over how much comes in their direction. But you can help them have more control over their response to the stress. 

Take, for example, high schoolers who are stressed about getting into college and trying to fill their applications with extracurriculars and activities. Connors-Kellgren talks to teens in this situation about prioritization. 

“Teens need to sleep 8-10 hours a night, they need three meals a day, and they have to go to school. With those needs met, what are the things they really want to prioritize after that?” she says. “If they have a lot of homework, can they finish the project but save the reading for another night? Can they choose one sport instead of two? Help them think about what feels important to them in addition to what’s important based on the demands of college applications.”

She also talks to teens about healthy stressors and a healthy stress response. Examples of healthy stressors include final exams or a championship game. During those times, parents can help teens prioritize things like sleep, nutrition, and movement. That foundation may help them be able to practice time management or make room for relaxation exercises, so they don’t feel so overwhelmed.

Connors-Kellgren also cautions that sometimes stress about productivity comes from parents. And she acknowledges that it can be hard not to push kids, especially when you see their peers doing more. But she encourages parents to take some of the pressure off when they can, and she advocates for building rest into the family schedule. 

Connors-Kellgren says parents and teens can try anxiety-reducing strategies such as relaxation or breathing techniques, challenging the automatic thoughts teens may have about their anxieties, and reducing negativity in self-talk. There are a number of online resources with guidance, she says, such as the Calm and Headspace apps for relaxation tools, and Calm’s tool to improve self-talk. 

Consider Professional Help

When mental health concerns seem like more than you can handle on your own, Connors-Kellgren and Sharma suggest reaching out for professional help, whether from a school counselor, your child’s pediatrician, or a therapist. 

Many families have questions about using medication to treat a teenager’s anxiety. Connors-Kellgren and Sharma stress that the decision to try medication depends on the specific circumstances of the child and their family. But in general, if someone’s anxiety starts to become disruptive—if they’re breaking down in tears every night over homework, refusing to go to school, or reporting a lot of physical symptoms—then it might be time to speak with a pediatrician or therapist to explore options for medication, Connors-Kellgren says.

If you’re concerned that your child may be considering harming themself, make sure they know about the federal suicide and mental health crisis hotline, 988. Launched in 2022 after the child mental health crisis was recognized during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s a resource for anyone in a state of crisis. In addition, the Trevor Project offers crisis counseling aimed specifically at LGBTQ+ youth. 

Although the challenges today’s adolescents face are serious, parents can make a positive difference, Connors-Kellgren says.

“It can often feel like our children are suffering and there’s nothing we can do about it,” she says. “But in my practice, I have seen so many kids in adolescence get better through therapy and medication. If we can catch some of these mental health disorders when someone is a child or an adolescent, our interventions are so much more meaningful. I feel very hopeful working with kids and adolescents.” 

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