Tips for Helping Teens Struggling With Mental Health Issues

Tips for Helping Teens Struggling With Mental Health Issues

As any adult can remember well, adolescence is a unique, formative, and particularly stressful time in our lives.

 Thanks to a combination of hormonal changes, brain development, unstable notions of identity, and academic pressure, teenagers are prone to mood swings that contribute to the “grumpy adolescent” stereotype.

What’s more, teenagers of this day and age have more to cope with than many previous generations: from pandemic-related isolation to feeling overwhelmed by the climate crisis.

Worryingly, such issues have contributed towards what many psychologists see as a national adolescent mental health crisis.

One set of statistics from Save The Children revealed that in 2022, 70% of children in the UK suffered from Climate Anxiety and worried about the world they are set to inherit.

What’s more, the evergrowing Cost of Living Crisis here in the UK is creating difficult situations for families, and many children pick up on their parent’s financial worries.

In more general terms, according to 2021 statistics, among those aged 6 to 16 in England, one in six had a probable mental health condition.

Even more concerning, one in four adolescent girls between 17 and 19 had a probable mental health condition.

But at what point does a “typical” teenage outburst become a warning sign of something more serious? Many parents and guardians have questions about what counts as usual erratic teen behaviour and what is more of a concern.

Specifically, what kind of behaviour could be indicative of a diagnosable mental illness such as Anxiety, Depression, or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder?

 Mood disorders such as depression, for example, are usually characterised by continuous low mood or sadness, rather than infrequent outbursts of tearfulness.

Teens suffering from depression may also voice feelings of hopelessness, show increased irritability towards others, and seem less interested in things they once enjoyed.

Another debilitating illness that’s common among teenagers is anxiety, with more adolescents than ever experiencing social or general anxiety disorders.

While being a teen often comes with a variety of stresses and pressures, symptoms of anxiety go beyond the usual amounts of nervousness. Signs that your teen might have anxiety include problems sleeping, loss of appetite, feeling overwhelmed or consistently on edge, and difficulties concentrating. 

However, it’s also important to note that signs of mental illness vary depending on the individual, and just because your teen isn’t exhibiting any of the above symptoms, it doesn’t mean they aren’t struggling behind the scenes.

Tips For Helping a Struggling Teen

If you’re parenting a teenager who’s struggling with psychological symptoms and you don’t know how to proceed, you are not alone in this scenario. Being the loved one of a teenager who’s exhibiting signs of mental illness is a worrying situation to be in, but there are many ways to help a struggling adolescent.

The following tips will provide you with various ways of helping a struggling teenager, whether this is through seeking professional support, arming them with coping skills, or creating a safe space for them to talk to you about their feelings.

Offer Support and Encouragement

Talking to a teenager about their feelings can be a tricky, sensitive topic, and one that can be met with resistance if tackled incorrectly. First and foremost, you must offer support to your teen and let them know that you’re here to help them find a way through their mental health concerns.

Many experts in teenage psychology cite the importance of receiving emotional support from a trusted adult in times of uncertainty, especially when a mental illness could be looming. The best way to offer this support is to do so simply, through clear verbal communication.

Take the time to assure your teenager that you’re here for them, whatever they may need, and that you’ll find the resources to help them work through these struggles.

However, encouraging your teenager to open up about their feelings can be easier said than done, especially if they show signs of emotional rebellion and resistance to talk.

Child psychologist Dr Ethan Benore explains that, when talking to a teenager who’s struggling with an issue such as anxiety, it’s important to “join them in their struggle to manage their emotions”.

Instead of viewing resistance as rebellion, experts encourage us to remember that teenagers are often struggling to manage their emotional response, and what may present as anger or moodiness is often a cry for help.

As parental figures, the best way to help a teenager with mental health issues is to remain calm and supportive. A few simple sentiments of encouragement can help teenagers feel more comfortable sharing their feelings and opening up.

 So, how can you best facilitate an encouraging, supportive conversation with a struggling teen? Firstly, find a quiet and private place to talk, either at home or in a comfortable outdoor space.

There shouldn’t be any formal pressure placed on this conversation, just make sure that you communicate your willingness to listen more than you talk.

When encouraging your teenager to talk about what’s causing their mental health symptoms, let them know that it’s okay to feel how they’re feeling.

This can be a great opportunity to remind them that talking is a fantastic way to help them manage their feelings and put them into perspective.

How to Make These Conversations Less Difficult

Things might not go smoothly all of the time, however, and that’s to be expected. It might be that you weren’t used to discussing your feelings with your parents as a teen, and so aren’t sure how to start such conversations.

You may be anxious about how your teen will react, or simply worry that your attempts at talking about mental health might not be “good enough”.

It’s important to realise that these are all valid emotions, and what’s more, it’s likely that your teen can already tell that you’re feeling anxious or uncomfortable. The best thing you can do is to own your own insecurities and address the elephant in the room.

You might start by saying something like, “This is hard for me to talk about, and I’m not sure where we should start”, before reassuring them that “I want us to be able to talk about these things, even if they’re difficult”.

By showing that you’re genuinely concerned for your teen and that you’re making an effort to overcome your own discomfort, future conversations can be open and honest.

Once you’ve got the conversation started, don’t be disheartened if you’re met with silence in response to some questions.

No matter what age we are, it takes time to process how we should best respond to questions surrounding our mental health, especially if we don’t talk about it often.

If your teen responds to prompts with silence, try your best not to interrupt them just because you feel uncomfortable – as this could make them less likely to respond.

Instead, let some time pass and try to sit comfortably in silence before trying a statement to follow up. This could be a simple acknowledgement such as “I know that it’s difficult knowing how to answer these questions”, or “I know it’s hard to open up about these things, but I’m here whenever you’re ready”.

When your teen feels ready to respond and begin opening up, remember to ask open-ended questions to gain as much insight as you can. Simply asking “Are you okay?” might be a start, but it gives your teen the opportunity of an easy out, by simply replying “Yes, I’m fine”.

Instead, try asking questions that require more than just a one-word response from your teen and that are more likely to turn into a conversation about how they’re really feeling.

For instance, if there’s a specific example of worrying behaviour, like your teen failing to pursue things that usually interest them, ask them directly about it.

Try framing it as something similar to “I’ve noticed you haven’t been doing as much *insert hobby* lately, is this because you’ve been feeling anxious stressed, or down?”.

Create a Stigma-Free Space to Discuss Mental Health

Last year, conducted a research survey in collaboration with And then to fully understand young people’s experience of mental health.

Some of the more worrying findings indicated that 2 in 3 teenagers experienced stigma and discrimination at some point when reaching out for mental health support.

Unfortunately, mental illness is a topic that has been met with controversy throughout our history, and it’s only in recent times that psychological symptoms have been seen as diagnosable conditions, rather than character defects.

Fortunately, as a trusted adult figure in your teen’s life, you can be the one to create a stigma-free environment in which to talk openly about mental health challenges.

The easiest way to do this (although it can sometimes be difficult for us adults, too) is to talk about your feelings and not treat it as a taboo topic.

Why not try talking about your feelings of anxiety, stress, or any history of low mood in a safe way? For example, you might talk with your teen about the anxiety you had about giving a presentation at work or about confronting a colleague.

By talking openly about how you experience anxiety and how you cope with these feelings safely,  you’re setting a good example for your teen to follow. You’re also setting the stage for future, non-judgemental check-ins regarding mental health issues.

Teenagers often avoid talking about sensitive topics with parents, especially if think they might be judged, lectured about it, or punished.

With this in mind, it’s important to affirm that not only can your teen tell you anything, but these conversations will also be judgement-free zones.

Respect Your Teen’s Autonomy

Adolescence is a strange time for many reasons, but one of the hardest to navigate is being in limbo between childhood and adulthood.

Most people can remember a stage in their teenage years of feeling trapped between these life phases: craving more freedom, yet being dependent on others.

When you add a potential mental illness into the mix, normal teenage problems can seem a lot more overwhelming.

In times of increased stress, it’s more important than ever to respect your teen’s autonomy and give them the space to process everything they’re feeling. Sometimes, they might not feel like talking to you about their mental health struggles, and it’s crucial to respect these boundaries rather than forcing them into a discussion.

By showing empathy towards your teen’s decision not to talk, they’re more likely to seek support from you when they feel like chatting.

You can always encourage them by saying that, while you’re worried about them, you respect their decision not to talk at this time and will let them initiate future discussions.

When it comes to mental health treatment and recovery, it’s important to focus just as much on the process rather than the outcome.

Encourage Them to Socialise

One of the key signs that someone is struggling with a mental illness, whether they’re old or young, is becoming increasingly withdrawn from other people.

Authorities such as the DSM-5 cite social isolation as a warning sign of disorders such as depression and anxiety. You may have noticed that your teen is withdrawing from loved ones more than usual, or that they’re cancelling social activities with close friends with seemingly no explanation.

While socialising and nurturing healthy friendships isn’t a form of treatment for mental illness, having a supportive network outside of immediate family makes the recovery process smoother.

Encouraging your teen to reach out to friends that are a positive force in their life can be a great distraction from their symptoms.

It might also help to socialise through other avenues, such as trying a new hobby, joining a martial arts club, local art class, or other recreational activities that allow them to connect with teenagers outside of the school environment.

Various online support groups exist specifically for teenagers who are going through the mental health recovery process, and this can be a great way of making new friends while receiving additional support.

Mental health services such as Hub of Hope provide a directory of peer support groups for young people living in the UK, based on your specific location.

Equip Them With Mental Health Tools

It might be worthwhile to suggest activities that your teen can incorporate into their daily routine to boost both their mental and physical health, as well as strategies for managing anxiety.

Many professionals suggest building healthy habits as a way of managing mental illness: from breathing techniques to eating nutritious food and increasing physical activity.

A good place to start is to help your teen identify stressors that could be worsening their mental health symptoms, and then work to remedy them. It might be that they’re not getting enough sleep, aren’t eating well, or haven’t kept physically active.

If your teen is struggling with anxiety symptoms, a tool that could help them cope with everyday life is mindfulness. This practice involves daily activities that aim to ground and relax the body and mind: utilising methods such as meditation and yoga to improve mental health.

It’s also important to ensure that your teen has a healthy diet (there’s truth behind the “healthy body= healthy mind” philosophy!), is maintaining some form of exercise, and is getting an adequate amount of sleep.

While all of this is easier said than done, there are plenty of apps, podcasts, and online resources built to help optimise sleep, practice mindfulness and build a healthy regimen.

Are Drugs or Alcohol Exacerbating the Problem?

Substance Use Disorders are indeed more likely to affect adults, but teenagers aren’t exempt from drug and alcohol abuse. In fact, substance abuse is more common than you may think among teens and can combine with or exacerbate pre-existing mental health disorders.

One recent  GOV UK report published a deep dive into the pattern of particular drug use among teenagers in the UK.

They found that cannabis was the most common substance in 2020 that young people sought treatment for (89%), followed by cocaine and ecstasy. Additional findings revealed that between April 2020 and March 2021, there were 11,013 teenagers in contact with substance addiction services.

Drinking or drug use is often used as a form of self-medication to cope with difficult feelings. If you suspect (or know) that your teen is using substances in addition to showing signs of mental illness, it’s important to take action in the form of professional treatment options.

The combination of mental illness with abuse of substances is referred to in the medical community as a Co-Occurring Disorder and should be treated immediately.

Integrated treatment for both conditions is best undertaken residentially: meaning that your teen may need to stay overnight at a drug and alcohol rehab clinic.

This is because mental health symptoms often increase the chance of a relapse occurring, so each patient must be monitored carefully. As inpatients, teens who are addicted to drugs or alcohol will have skilled clinicians and mental health professionals at their disposal.

They’ll evaluate their situation carefully to provide personalised care and address their issues through medical and therapeutic support.

To find out more about treatment for your teen, whether through privately owned clinics or the NHS, you can easily contact professionals for advice at websites such as Rehab Recovery.

Getting Professional Help

No matter how much you want to be there for your teen and alleviate their mental symptoms, sometimes it’s necessary to seek professional help.

Enlisting the support of a therapist doesn’t mean you’ve failed to provide a loving environment for your child, it just shows you’re helping them access the resources needed to recover fully.

Therapists and mental health professionals who specialise in teen psychology will implement various therapeutic techniques. These include well-studied behavioural therapies such as Interpersonal Therapy, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and Dialectical Behavioural Therapy.

A good therapist will evaluate your teenager’s needs before selecting a style of therapy that allows them to get to the root of the problem.

Finding a therapist who specialises in teen mental health and who’s a good fit is incredibly important, and for this, you’ll have to do some research. Fortunately, organisations such as Young Minds make the process of finding help easier than ever: providing all the information you need to start the process.

Their guides and resources include early help and intervention services, NHS and GP support, and how to access counselling.

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