May has been declared Mental Health Month in an effort to increase awareness and promote discussion about mental health issues. There are many kinds of mental illnesses, and millions of people in our country who suffer from mental health, but the one thing that people with mental illness all have in common is that they need our continued understanding and support. If you have a teenager who struggles with a mental illness, you may not know exactly how to support your teen through this struggle.
Learn About It, Talk About It
When a teen is first diagnosed with a mental illness, it will help if you fully understand the diagnosis. Find out as much as you can about the kind of mental illness your child has and how this mental illness affects teens. Find out what resources are available, from books and websites, to doctors and therapists, and support groups.
Help your teen to understand the diagnosis, and then talk about it with the rest of your family. Don’t try to hide the mental illness from your teen’s siblings, or the extended family. They know something’s going on. Talk openly about it, without shame and without blame. It’s helpful for you to be able to talk to others, whether it’s caring family and friends or experienced professionals. It’s helpful for your teen to release the stigma that often comes with a diagnosis of mental illness.
Listen with Compassion
Teens often hide the symptoms of their mental illness from their parents, and hesitate to talk with parents about how they feel. Encourage your teen to talk with you. Let your teen know that he or she has your unconditional love and full support. Try to put yourself in your teen’s place and imagine how you would feel. Teens often find it difficult to talk about how they feel and to identify emotions. Be patient while she searches for the words to describe her feelings. Try to listen without judging or overreacting. Take your child’s thoughts and emotions seriously. As adults, we see things with a different perspective. What seems trivial or silly to us is really important to a teen. Be sure not to discount or belittle things that matter to your teen.
Acknowledge what your child is feeling. Don’t ask a lot of questions and press for answers. Just let your teen slowly reveal what’s on his mind. He may “test the waters” at first, by bringing up a couple topics and watching how you react to them. Let your teen find out that he can talk to you about anything.
No Quick Fixes
Many teens suffer from depression and anxiety. Those conditions can be difficult to understand if you have never experienced them. If your teen is suffering from depression, don’t make the mistake of trying to cheer her up. Depression is not just about being sad, or seeing life from a negative point of view. If you tell your teen that she has no reason to be depressed, or that her life is not so bad, you only give her the message that she is wrong to feel the way she feels.
If your teen suffers from anxiety, don’t try to convince him that he has nothing to be worried about, or that he just needs to relax. He’s already told himself these things. It didn’t help. Understand that your child knows that some of their thoughts and emotions don’t seem right. Tell your child that it’s ok to feel how he feels. Encourage him to work with a therapist so that he can start to feel better.
Persist in Love
There will be times when your teen will shut you out or push you away. She may be difficult to live with because she’s acting rude, rebellious, and irritable, or lethargic and uninterested in life. Understand that this is not a reflection on you or your parenting skills. Your teen has an illness.
Talk with a therapist to learn the best way to respond to these behaviors. It’s also important to maintain an attitude of love and gentle persistence. Let your teen know that you won’t stop loving her. This is a difficult time, but you will get through it together.
Stay Calm and Carry On
It’s an old British saying, but actually good advice for parents with troubled teens. Try to keep yourself and your home calm. Aim for a low-stress and supportive environment. Keep to a steady schedule. Children find comfort in structure and consistency.
Everyone benefits from good physical health habits, especially teens with mental illness. Both you and your family will feel better from eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, and participating in physical activities. Make healthy lifestyle choices for yourself and gradually introduce healthy changes in the lives of your teen and other children. Set some limits on screen time and establish a bedtime for all of your children. Teens should get 9-10 hours of sleep each day, but rarely do. You’ll also feel better if you cut the screen time, and reduce stress.
Know When to Ask for Help
According to the National Mental Health Association one in five adolescents suffers from depression during their teen years, but only about one third of those teens get the help they need. Keep an eye on your teen and notice changes in habits and behaviors. If your teen is in therapy, stay in touch with the therapist and tell him or her about disturbing new behaviors that you’ve noticed in your teen. When your teen begins therapy, it’s also a good idea for parents and siblings to have at least a session or two with a therapist, so that they can understand what is happening with the teen and how to help, and have their questions and concerns addressed.
If your teen has had therapy in the past, certain behavioral changes may mean that your teen needs to see a therapist again for new problems. Make it a priority that your teen meets with a therapist and keeps to the schedule of sessions.
Marriage vows include the promise to love someone in sickness and in health. This is the same commitment parents make when they have children. Be sure to tell your teen that you will always love him or her. Let your child know that you may not understand exactly what this mental illness feels like, but you do understand that dealing with the illness can be frightening and frustrating. Assure your child that you will be there to listen, support, or even just give a hug when dealing with mental illness feels overwhelming.