Understanding your teenagers mental health

“Youth comes but once in a lifetime”

-Henry Longfellow

The words “Mental Health are understood differently by everyone who hears them. Common associations include “mental illness, dramatic, weak, and not real”. The topic of mental health becomes even more difficult to interpret and approach when it involves your children. Improving understanding of your child’s mental health is paramount in the journey to be a successful and supportive parent. This articles intended to support parents at gaining a greater knowledge of mental health and provide realistic interventions that parents can use to encourage healthy mental development in their children. 

For the purpose of this article it is important to define “mental health”. I myself define mental health as a persons psychological functioning and ability to navigate life. Psychological concerns can be identified and measured when individuals experience distress in their social or occupational roles.  For example if someone is plagued with severe anxiety symptoms you may see that they begin showing up to work late and are unable to complete assigned tasks. For children and teenagers you may begin to see changes in their behavior at school, changes in their interactions with peers, and differences in their functioning within the family. 

There are numerous factors that contribute to a persons mental health; genetic predisposition, history of trauma, parenting styles, peer interactions, physical health, and societal pressures to name a few. It would require much further exploration and explanation to cover all aspects that affect a persons mental health. To stay focused I will discuss some of the most common concerns noted in my professional career that impact a teenagers mental functioning. 

First is the presence of emotional suppression and avoidance. This factor is almost uniform across all teenagers and adults I encounter with mental health concerns. Children learn either through family or peers that it is not ok to feel and express difficult emotions. Avoiding emotions works for a time because you don’t have to deal with them, but eventually with increased life experience and complex emotions the suppressed feelings will overflow. I think of suppression as a very dirty room. The person in question wants a clean space to think and live so they begin picking up their room and putting all of the stuff (feelings) into the closet. They continue to do so until the closet is packed and can not sustain and more content. Finally with the closet full they try to pick up the room again. When they open the closet everything falls out. The content from the closet spills out onto the floor and the mess is too overwhelming to deal with. My biggest recommendation for parents to counteract this process is to have frequent conversations about emotions with your children. As a parent you can tell your children that, “it is ok to feel”. I often encounter parents who think that they need to be a counselor or doctor to speak to their children about mental health. I encourage parents who don’t know what to say to talk about their own experiences with hurt, frustration, and pain. While talking to your children if you feel flooded with emotions,  odds are that you have also been suppressing emotions. If this is the case it is important to seek professional help. A professional can assist you with unpacking your closet and support you in being more emotionally available for your children. 

Second is a lack of connectedness. This element of mental strain can come in many forms. However teenagers repeatedly tell me that they don’t feel like they belong. This lack of belonging can manifest when a teenager doesn’t have a strong peer group where they’re accepted. Still if a teenager does not feel connected with peers but comes home and has a family unit that is unified and flourishing the lack of peer connection can have less of an ill effect. With that being said I believe a teenagers lack of connectedness is rooted in the family unit. I don’t say this to attack parents but to provide an opportunity for growth. I urge and support parents to be intentional with their children and have purpose with each interaction. It is difficult to be intentional at all times but practicing this skill will foster stronger relationships, supportive communication, and mutual goals. 

Third I far too often hear teenagers tell me that they don’t have purpose. It is important for all individuals to find their purpose, however for teenagers this is paramount. Not having a purpose or meaning for life often leads to a lack of hope. A lack of hope can contribute to excessive feeling of depression and can lead teenagers to seek hope and purpose through external stimuli including drug use, unhealthy sexual relationships, and risky behavior. Asking a parent to help a teenager find their purpose is difficult and will take time. A teenager needs to explore multiple interests and topics to find something that they connect with. Once your teenager finds something of interest it is important to support and nurture the child as they succeed and and fail in their interest. It can also be beneficial for parents to discuss what gives them hope with their children. A teenager who has purpose is more likely to a robust mental health. 

In summary there are multiple factors that contribute to the overall mental health of your child. As a parent it can be overwhelming to tend to you and your child’s mental health. I have identified three things that every parent can do to assist their children in becoming resilient and developing mental fortitude. First provide a space where your children can talk about their emotions and stop suppressing difficult feelings. Second, work to develop a greater sense of connection and communication within the family unit, and third help guide and support your child in finding a purpose to their life. 

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