Everyone can struggle with their mental health from time to time - even kiddos and teens. We all have thoughts and feelings that can have a negative impact as we navigate through life. Daily challenges and hidden struggles can build up and take a toll on our mental health.
As a parent, you're fiercely protective of your child. You want to keep them safe and healthy in all aspects of their lives. Mental health concerns can be tricky to spot because they don't look like cuts and scrapes. However, there are some signs you can look out for. Explore the guide below to learn about some behavior changes that might reveal that your teen could benefit from therapy and additional support.
Signs That Your Teen Might Benefit From Therapy
It's often been said that if you've ever had a childhood or experienced a culture that therapy might be a good idea for you. Go back and reread that sentence once more time. Especially if the idea of your teen needing to talk to a mental health professional seems a bit strange. This phrase suggests that everyone can benefit from therapy, including your teen.
People go to therapy for a variety of different reasons. They might be feeling low, stressed, overwhelmed, or a combination of all the above. For some people, seeking additional support can feel like a big life decision. For others, it might seem like a natural transition. The same feelings can apply to teenagers.
But how can you tell if your teen is just being a teen, or if therapy might be what they need? It can be tricky to gauge the situation, but it's not impossible. Look at the warning signs below to help you decipher if your teen might benefit from talking to someone, or if they're just experiencing life's growing pains.
Changes in Their Eating Habits
Several mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety, have been linked to changes in appetite.
For example, you might see your teen:
- Eating more than they typically do
- Eating less than what you're used to seeing
- Preferring to make their own food or eat at a different time than others
- Saying they're on a "diet" (Often, people with an eating disorder will say they've adopted a vegan or vegetarian diet in order to avoid eating certain foods.)
- Snacking more often
- Skipping meals
In addition, these changes in eating behavior can also accompany changes to your teen's body. This might look like your child quickly and noticeably gaining or losing weight.
It's important to note that some weight gain and loss is totally normal in developing teens, especially since they are going through stages of growth and hormonal development. Changes in body weight that may be related to mental health concerns are typically significant and can seem to develop rapidly.
Different Sleep Patterns
Many mental health conditions can also impact your teen's sleep. This can show up in your child through:
- Difficulty winding down or putting away screens at night
- Experiencing difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep
- Feeling exhausted or fatigued when they wake up
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Struggling to get out of bed in the morning
Not everybody gets the perfect amount of sleep each night and wakes up feeling refreshed. If your teen says that they aren't sleeping well now and then, it might not be a sign that they need some additional support. However, if you notice repeated patterns of this behavior, it might be a sign to talk to your child and uncover the cause of the behavior change.
Isolating Themselves From Friends and Family
Social isolation can also be a warning sign that your teen is experiencing a mental health struggle. For example, your child might:
- Cut off old friends and relationships
- Refuse invites to hang out with others after school
- Share less about their personal lives with you and your family than they did before
- Start spending most of their time in their room
- Stop inviting friends over to the house
It's important to note that social isolation is not the same as wanting privacy. If your teen doesn't want to answer some of your questions about their social life or likes to hang out in their room for a bit when they get home from school, that's totally okay. When you start to feel like they're pulling away from yourself and other people who care about them, then it might be a sign that something's up.
Lapses in Their Personal Hygiene
Sometimes, when a person is experiencing negative mental health effects, everyday tasks can seem difficult. For example, your teen might find it difficult to shower, wash their hair, brush their teeth, or change their clothes. Their bed may go unmade for an extended period, and trash and dirty laundry can pile up in their room because they simply don't have the energy to tidy up.
How can you tell if your teen's room is messy because they're slacking on chores or if they're struggling with their mental health? One way is to make observations and ask yourself questions. Some questions you can reflect on are:
- Have they worn the exact same outfit more than once this week? Is that usual for them?
- Is their personal hygiene behavior noticeably deviating from normal? Do they smell or look less than clean?
- What does their room usually look like? How far from base-level messy is what you're currently seeing?
- What housekeeping chores are they usually good at maintaining? Have they completed those?
If your answers to any of the questions above highlight that your teen is showing significant behavior changes, they may be warning signs that your child is experiencing mental health struggles.
Loss of Interest in Activities
Another sign to look out for is if your teen loses interest in activities they have previously enjoyed. This can play a role in social isolation, but is a distinct factor in and of itself.
This can look like:
- Nothing sounds fun or interesting to them anymore
- They continue to try out their old hobbies but say they're no longer fun
- They no longer participate in the creative outlets they used to
- They want to quit a sports team they've joined or skip practice often
- They want to get rid of or give away the materials they used for their hobbies
Significant Changes to Their Mood
Although diagnosis criteria are unique to every mental health concern, many conditions require a person to experience significant changes for a period of at least two weeks. You can use this as a reference point to help guide you through any noticeable changes to your child's mood.
Some mood changes you might notice in your teen include:
- They experience intense feelings of worry
- They have difficulty concentrating
- They seem sad or low for an extended period of time
- They seem on edge
- They seem more stressed than before
- They're irritable
We can all be irritable, worried, and stressed now and then. However, if the behavior changes you notice in your teen persist for two weeks or longer, it might be time to intervene.
Unexplained Body Aches and Pains
In addition to mood changes, your teen might also experience some physical symptoms that can occur as a result of mental health struggles. For example, headaches, stomachaches, body aches, and other unexplained pain in the body can occur.
If your teen starts to have aches and pains often, it might be a sign to check in with them. Especially if they don't usually experience these kinds of physical symptoms and if there's no clear explanation for why they're happening.
You Notice Alcohol or Substance Use
Many people turn to self-medication as a way of coping. This can look like using alcohol or drugs to help people disassociate and disconnect from their feelings. It can allow people to numb their pain by avoiding it.
If you notice that your teen is using alcohol or other substances, it may be a good idea to step in. Your child may engage in this activity alone, or develop a new "friend" group that allows them access to these substances.
They've Gone Through a Significant Life Change
Life has a way of throwing curveballs at all of us. There are ups and downs and twists and turns, all of which can impact a person's mental health. If your teen - or your family as a whole - has been affected by a sudden, unexpected, or significant change in your life, it can contribute to a mental health concern.
Some examples of significant life changes include:
- Divorce in the family
- Loss of a loved one
- Moving to a new school or new home
- Serious illness or injury to themselves or a loved one
- Witnessing or experiencing something traumatic, such as a car crash, sexual assault, abuse, etc.
Tips to Help Parents Talk to Their Kids About Mental Health
There's no right or wrong way to talk to your child about mental health. As long as you're approaching the conversation with care and concern, you're doing all that you can. There's no perfect guidebook to turn to, so don't put that pressure on yourself.
Take a deep breath. In fact, take several if you need them. Then, plan a day during the week to have a conversation with your child. Try to pick a time where neither you nor your teen has an activity to get to afterward. This way, the conversation won't be rushed, and both of you can have enough time to decompress afterward.
Don't Be Afraid to Start the Conversation
It can be scary to sit down with your teen and have a serious conversation about their mental health. However, your teen may never tell you when they're struggling. They may be suppressing or ignoring their own emotions. They might not want you to worry about them, or they simply might not feel comfortable sharing that information. That's why it's up to you to get the ball rolling.
If you have questions and concerns, don't be afraid to address them. Often, when people are struggling, they hope others will notice and offer support. If your teen is showing any of the warning signs that their mental health might be suffering, it's far too important a conversation to ignore. It might not be easy, but it'll help you protect your child's well-being.
Tone Is Everything
When you start the conversation with your child, they might feel judged, self-conscious, or irritated that you're addressing their behavior changes. They might get defensive, lash out, or say that they don't want to talk about it. Don't take this personally. It's not about you. They're simply trying to protect themselves by avoiding what's really going on.
One way to navigate through this is to be gentle. Use "I" statements so that your kiddo doesn't feel like they're being targeted. Some phrases you can use are:
- I've noticed that you've been eating less the past couple of weeks and I wanted to make sure you're okay.
- I feel like there's been tension between us recently when I asked about how you're feeling. I was wondering where that might be coming from and what I can do?
- I feel like something's been off recently. Is everything okay?
- I want you to know that I care about you immensely and that's why I wanted to have a conversation.
It might seem like a no-brainer, but reassure your child that they're not in trouble. You might be concerned about some of their behavior changes, and you can address those down the line, but if the root cause of those actions is related to their mental health, that's where the focus should remain - at least for the time being.
Break the Stigma
There is a lot of stigma surrounding mental health that can prevent people from addressing their issues, sharing their feelings with others, and seeking help. These negative portrayals of mental health and mental illness can lead people to feel like they're weak for experiencing struggles, or that they'll just "get over it" in time. These beliefs are damaging to the well-being of us all.
However, you can help break the stigma in your own home.
- Share your own feelings with your teen.
- Talk about a time that you felt low or off.
- If you've ever gone to therapy, you can share that with them, as well.
- Note other loved ones that have experienced struggles or that have sought help and offer to connect your teen to them if they ever want to talk.
- Reassure your child that this is a not a sign of weakness, but a part of the natural human experience.
Ask How You Can Support Them
After you've given your kiddo some time to talk and share their feelings (if they choose to do so), ask them what they need from you and how you can best support them.
They might not have any ideas at all, or they might just say they want some space or time to work it out on their own. Acknowledge their suggestions, and offer some of your own:
- Bring up the topic of therapy.
- Offer to help your child find a mental health professional they can talk to.
- If you have an insurance provider, leave your card or information with your teen and encourage them to look up therapy options in your network.
- Remind them that what they discuss in therapy will be kept confidential, even from you.
It might be upsetting that your teen may not want to have these conversations with you. However, remember that what's really important is that they're talking about their feelings to someone, instead of holding them in.
Continue to Check In
Be prepared that even after you've tried to have an open and honest conversation with your child, they might still reply with "I'm fine." If this happens, don't get down on yourself. This is not the only opportunity you'll have to talk to your teen about their mental health. Ideally, it will be just one of many conversations you have on the topic.
Respect their space at this time, and continue to check in with them. You can try to have similar conversations with them once a week, or even more often if that feels right for you.
Sometimes, this can feel like a long and difficult waiting game. You just want your child to feel better, but they might need a particular kind of support that you can't necessarily provide. Be gentle with yourself and your teen. Continue the conversation about therapy and mental health. Every conversation you have brings your kiddo one step closer to healing, and that's a huge accomplishment.