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Parents can play a central role in the prevention and treatment of mental health problems in adolescents

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More than 44% of teens reported lingering feelings of sadness and hopelessness in the first half of 2021, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The early 2022 report, based on an online survey, also found that almost 20% had seriously considered suicide and 9% had attempted suicide.

The COVID-19 pandemic is likely contributing to these startling numbers, but rates of mental illness among teens have increased over the past decade.

A crucial factor that has received little attention in supporting adolescent mental health is the role that parents can play.

This is surprising, since research has clearly established that a caregiver’s involvement in their child’s mental health treatment is directly linked to a positive outcome. One of the main reasons for this is that parents typically interact with their teen on a daily basis and can model and cultivate coping skills.

Yet for mental health professionals, it can be difficult to include parents in the treatment of adolescents when there are discrepancies between the perspectives, goals and expectations of adolescents and parents. Additionally, consent and confidentiality laws sometimes limit providers’ ability to disclose key details about an adolescent’s mental health to parents.

As researchers studying childhood trauma and adolescent development, we see parents and caregivers as a critical link in addressing the pressing adolescent mental health crisis.

Parents often dread adolescence, anticipating mood swings, risky behavior and endless arguments. Some of this is normal developmentally: adolescents develop their identity, test their limits and assert their autonomy. These factors combined can lead to hostility and a lower quality parent-adolescent relationship.

Physically, teens are sleep deprived, in part because of early school hours and hormonal changes associated with puberty. As a result, teens can be irritable and sensitive to stressors. Nor have they developed the self-control to manage their reactions.

And it is important to note that half of all mental illnesses appear around the age of 14 and 75% around the age of 24, making adolescence a very sensitive period for the prevention and treatment of problems. of mental health.

Signs and symptoms

Mental health problems in adolescents can sometimes take unexpected forms. Depression and anxiety can manifest as irritability and nonconformity, which parents may reasonably view as disrespect and laziness. Understanding what is behind these behaviors is difficult. Teenagers are quite secretive, so they can’t divulge the extent of their difficulties.

Traumatic experiences such as bullying, dating violence, and sexual harassment and assault are unfortunately all too common in adolescence and can lead to drastic changes in behavior and affect.

Although anxiety is a normal emotional response at any age, about one-third of teens suffer from some type of anxiety disorder, and about 10% suffer severe disorders as a result. Teens struggling with chronic anxiety may experience restlessness or irritability, sleep problems, perfectionistic tendencies, or may try to avoid stressful things altogether.

Among teenagers, 17% suffer from depression. Depression usually involves a loss of interest or pleasure in daily activities, but it’s more than a bluesy feeling. For teens, symptoms of depression can feel like withdrawal from family or social activities, shut down during conversations or conflicts, lethargy, difficulty concentrating, hopelessness about the future or negative feelings of self-esteem.

To determine if a teen has a mental illness, parents need to consider how the behaviors affect their teen’s daily life and plans for the future. Those who fall behind in school, harm important relationships, or engage in high-risk behaviors are more likely to have a mental health problem, as opposed to typical adolescent problems.

Despite the growing need for mental health care, the United States is sorely lacking in professionals to meet the demand. Insurance companies create barriers to accessing mental health care by limiting the number of in-network providers and approved sessions. As a result, many providers prioritize patients who will pay out of pocket.

Parents and teens can wait months for an appointment, and the quality and effectiveness of the services they receive vary widely. All the while, the symptoms can get worse, putting a strain on the family and compromising the teens’ social and academic opportunities.

Powerful role

This is where parents come in, as they can serve as role models for adolescent adjustment and emotional development.

Keeping a journal, exercising regularly, and maintaining a sleep routine are three ways teens cope with stress.  (Stock)


Keeping a journal, exercising regularly, and maintaining a sleep routine are three ways teens cope with stress.

Although good sleep, consistent physical activity, and quality meals can often be the first line of defense in preventing and managing symptoms of mental health problems, there are several behavioral strategies for troubled teens. Indeed, foster parents deal with children with complex histories of trauma, and many of the behavior management strategies taught to foster parents can also be helpful in traditional family settings.

When teens are mean or disrespectful, parents can take it personally. But parents who are aware of and able to deal with their own triggers can respond calmly to challenging behavior, creating opportunities for effective communication with their teen.

Building and maintaining the parent-teen connection, such as watching a TV show together or other low-pressure opportunities to be together, is key. These experiences create safe spaces and opportunities for adolescents to communicate about difficult emotions or situations. Parents who help teens recognize, talk about, and deal with difficult thoughts and feelings help them understand how their thoughts and feelings can affect their behavior.

Parents can also help their teens deal with negative emotions by building self-esteem and strengths and encouraging self-efficacy. Parents who praise their teens for working hard to overcome challenges — instead of just focusing on results — can help teens see their worth beyond their accomplishments.

At the same time, adolescents need boundaries that allow them to develop their autonomy, exercise their independence and make compromises in certain situations. Behavioral contracts — in which teens and their parents agree to certain terms in writing — can provide a structured way to establish shared expectations.

When consequences are necessary, natural consequences allow adolescents to learn without parental intervention. For example, if a teenager stays up late the night before a big softball game, his coach may bench him for playing poorly. Parents can help teens connect the frustration and disappointment they are feeling with their choices about sleep, which may be more helpful for their future decision-making than arguing with a parent about their decision or receive a parent-imposed consequence, such as the removal of telephone privileges.

When natural consequences are not an option, discipline should be specific, time-limited, and focused on a specific outcome, such as not allowing favorite activities until homework and chores are completed.

It is also important for parents to avoid power struggles with their teens by modeling respectful communication without trying to manage the teen’s reaction or perspective. Teenagers are unlikely to admit they’re wrong – especially in a hot moment – and while the point is made, there’s rarely any benefit in insisting on a particular reaction such as a forced apology.

Parents can best support their teens by maintaining connection while enforcing structure and discipline. Although challenging behaviors may be the status quo of adolescence, parents should be on the lookout for signs that could reflect a pervasive mental health problem, as early detection and treatment is crucial.

This article is republished from The Conversation, an independent, nonprofit source of news, analysis, and commentary from academic experts, under a Creative Commons license.

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