The mental health crisis facing today’s youth is staggering, and has only been exaggerated by events such as the global pandemic. Loneliness and isolation exacerbate despair and depression. A lack of safety and security invite anxiety. It doesn’t take much imagination to highlight how practices, such as social distancing and stringent hygiene that were highly valued during the COVID pandemic, actually contribute to the second wave of a mental health pandemic.
Statistics tell us that something like one and six teenagers experiences a mental health challenge and this spiked to one in three during the pandemic. And somewhere in the neighborhood of 50% of all mental illnesses express themselves while a person is still in adolescence. So whether you are parenting a teen experiencing a mental health challenge, or connected to one in some other influential position, you’ve probably wondered, “Now what?”
You’re not alone and don’t go it alone. The willingness to seek help for mental health has increased as stigmas have been reduced. This is a healthy culture shift but has also caused strain on many systems that provide professional care. By all means, get on waiting lists to see psychiatrists and find creative ways to enlist the help of other professionals. But as a parent, you will likely need many people encouraging and helping you along the way. Other parents on similar journeys can be great at offering validation and empathy, normalizing your experiences. A spiritual leader might be helpful in offering empathy or hope. A teen’s teacher or coach might be great at offering perspective and feedback about how they experience your teen. You and your teen need these people and the relational nutrients they provide.
Person over problem. Work to stay focused on your teen as a person first. It’s easy to let mental health challenges become a definition of the person experiencing the challenge. But even small language changes such as “My teen is experiencing some mental health challenges” vs “I have a depressed teen” can shape the way we view and give care to the teen. Person centered caregiving helps us honor and meet the teen where they are: as a human to be loved, not a problem to be fixed. Practice creating times for connecting with the teen that sets the challenges aside. Are they isolating in their room playing video games?…ask to join them and have them teach you the game. Are they refusing to participate in family activities they previously enjoyed?….get curious about new traditions or activities that might interest them more. Are they constantly putting themselves down or seeking acceptance from unhealthy peers?…speak affirmation over your teen to communicate your belief in them, about WHO they are, not what they are.
Your best chance at helping your teen is changing YOU. A dysregulated parent (or any adult) can not regulate a teen, such as in the case of an anger outburst or incident of self harm. A caregiver who can’t hear a healthy “no” from a teen can’t expect the teen to magically be able to say “no” to peers in unhealthy situations. A family culture that is too consumed with goals and achievements will communicate to a teen that they have pressure to perform in certain ways to be a part of the family. Writer Anne Lamott says, “…the three things I cannot change are the past, the truth, and you.” You can work to earn influence in a teen’s life, but you won’t have the power to control or change them. You only have the power to change yourself. Find your own therapist or life coach. Join a growth or support group. Practice your own mental health hygiene through techniques such self care, radical acceptance, or progressive muscle relaxation. Work on YOU first.
As parents and caregivers, it is vital that we acknowledge the epidemic of mental health challenges exhibited in our current generation of teenagers. It is important that the problems are validated and professional help is sought for the teen. But don’t underestimate the power of doing your own growth work and connecting with support systems. Even if your teen continues to struggle, you will have gained a village of encouragement and invested in your own mental-emotional wellbeing. That might be just the peace you’re looking for!