NOTICING THE SIGNS
It can be tough to know when your teen really needs help. Some common indicators include:
- Your teen is withdrawing from friends
- Your teen is isolating more and/or seems less interested than normal in his/her usual hobbies and activities
- Grades may drop significantly or unexpectedly
- Your teen seems distracted
- Your teen appears sad or depressed
- Your teen reacts in a big way to things that appear to be minor
- Your teen is sleeping more than usual
- Your teen's self-esteem seems to drop
- Your teen is less interested in eating or is losing weight
- Shifts in personality, such as an increase in aggression or anger
- Other more obvious cues, such as self-harm (i.e., cutting), or voicing thoughts of suicide
Generally, these changes are not one-time occurrences, but rather more persistent changes, lasting a couple of week or more. If you notice any of these changes in your son or daughter, he or she may be struggling with mental health difficulties. It is important, at this point, that you reach out to your son or daughter in a supportive manner, in an effort to learn more about what is going on.
HOW TO HELP
Take some time to sit and talk with your teen. Actually, listen MORE than talk. Ask your teen how he or she is doing, possibly prompting by sharing what you have noticed (in a non-blaming, non-critical manner) and ask your teen about it. "Honey, I have noticed you've been in your room alone a lot more recently and you seem unhappy. Are you o.k.? Is anything bothering you?" Be extremely careful not to judge or criticize. Criticism conveys a lack of approval and will cause your teen to stop talking quicker than you can say, "I'm sorry." Just listen. If they share something, recap what they are saying and ask if you have understood them correctly. Teens often want to talk, if they believe you will listen to them, support them, and not critique them, or "take the other side." Try not to get discouraged if your teen will only give you minimal information, or "Yes" or "No" answers. If you let them know it is safe to talk to you, they will, when they are ready.
Be careful, in this day and age, to give your full attention to your teen. If you are on the computer or multi-tasking, your teen will understand this as a reflection of his/her lack of importance to you. Also, if your teen does open up, be careful not to rush to offering solutions or problem-solving. It is tempting to do, especially if the 'answer' seems obvious. But, teens (and adults as well) often don't need answers from you. What they need is to feel loved, respected, understood, validated, and important. Their emotions need more attention than their problems. Talk to them about how they are feeling, how difficult their struggles must be for them, what it must feel like, and how much you care about that. And let them correct you if you misunderstand. Try and remember, as long as they are still talking to you, you are doing a good job. If your teen asks for advice or solutions, offer them gently and express that it is your opinion or thought, but not a requirement that the teen does as you say. Give them space to make the decision for themselves.
Don't forget to check back in with your teen regularly. They need to consistently hear that you care and value them, which is conveyed when you check in and follow-up. You may even ask your teen if he or she would like to talk to a professional. You would be surprised to hear how often a parent tells me that their son or daughter asked to talk to a psychologist. Don't assume your child will turn down the opportunity for help. Also, make sure you let your child know how normal it is for people to struggle, that all people struggle at times, and that many, many normal and sane people will go to see a psychologist at some point in their lives to get help in dealing with emotions and problems. It is critically important to your teen's sense of self to view wanting or needing help as a healthy decision and not a sign that they are somehow flawed or different from others. Also, don't forget to use other resources you may have at hand, such as the expert advice of your pediatrician or school support staff.
In the end, if you remain calm, behave lovingly and respectfully, and listen, your teen will likely open up to you and allow you to help him or her to get the assistance that is needed.