There’s no doubt that teen mental health can ebb and flow.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned as a child and adolescent psychiatrist, it’s that some times of year are always tough. The back-to-school transition is one of them.
A lot of parents I work with say they want to support their teens through this transition but they don’t know where to start.
My advice for them is always the same: Start by asking your teen directly what they need from you. While mental health may have been a taboo topic in the past, teens may not feel the same sense of stigma as their parents.
“These past couple years have been better, with people voicing how they’re really feeling -- even celebrities,” said, Ava, a 13-year-old from California. “I hope in the future we can continue to talk about it openly without it being a bad thing.”
To help you get started and understand what’s top of mind for teens, I went straight to the source.
I interviewed teens from the teen mental health platform BeMe’s Teen Advisory Board (note: I’m the Chief Medical Officer) to hear what advice they have for parents out there.
Here’s what they had to say.
1. We don’t want you to fix us. We want you to listen.
A common mistake parents make -- albeit one that’s usually well intended -- is jumping into solutions when the first thing their kids want is instead acknowledgement, validation, and a listening ear. For many kids, offering advice and solutions right away can feel invalidating of their experience, and even frustrating.
“We don’t always want advice,” says Ava. “We just want someone to know what we’re going through.”
If your teen shares that they’re having a hard time with a friend at school, for example, instead of telling your teen to stay away from that person, try saying something like, “it sounds like that really hurt your feelings.” Those pieces of validation can give your teen a big dose of empathy that can instantly help them feel better in the moment.
2. Mental health isn’t a phase that we are going to snap out of. Trust us when we say we need help.
Almost all of the teens I spoke with shared this sentiment. “Mental health isn’t just something a kid can brush off automatically or a phase that will pass on its own,” says Jose, age 12, from California. “It’s something your kid is going through, and something that needs to be worked on.”
Hazuri, age 17, from Puerto Rico says that respecting and honoring what your teen says they need is especially important: “If [your teen] says they need help, trust them on that even though you may not see it as a big deal.”
Aliza, age 17, from New Jersey strongly suggests staying away from telling your teen that they are “overreacting” when they share how they’re feeling. “It can be invalidating and dismissive and make them feel worse in the moment,” she shares.
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A few teens shared that in some families and cultures, mental health symptoms might be questioned if the teen has basic needs met. “If you’re from a Caribbean household, you might hear things like ‘you’re fed, clothed, and have a roof over your head so you have nothing to be depressed about’,” says Jada, age 17, from New York.
If your teen comes to you sharing they need help and you find yourself questioning it, the first step should be to pause, take a breath, and ask them to explain more. Getting them the help they need in that moment may be the most important thing you can do.
3. We’re already under a lot of pressure. Help lessen it, don’t pile onto it.
Blair, age 16, from Colorado says she wishes parents knew how much pressure kids feel going back to school, and how much anxiety that can sometimes bring. “It feels like the time to be a kid is up and we need to get our resumes in order and apply to a college major right now,” she shares.
“There’s so much pressure to do well in school and it’s only getting worse for younger generations,” says Anna, age 17, from Florida. She says that for some it can cause a lot of stress and anxiety.
Anna also notes that some teens might feel depressed but not look depressed on the outside. “A lot of parents assume that depression means wearing dark clothes and always being tired, but these are stereotypes, and kids have sadly gotten good at hiding their symptoms.”
Patience and understanding can go a long way during this back-to-school time, says Kinnari, age 16 from California. “Mental health is a long process, and helping yourself takes time,” she notes. “Sometimes it even takes a community.”
Blair also notes not to take it personally if your teen has another trusted adult, like a teacher, who they feel comfortable turning to for support before you. “It’s okay if you’re not always the one they go to right away when they need help,” she says. She also suggests that if you are the teen’s go-to trusted adult, try having conversations in new environments outside of the house, like at a coffee shop. It can help break up some of the negative associations of being home and create a healthy, new dynamic.
4. It helps when you show understanding and positively reinforce our efforts.
Positive reinforcement might help with encouraging teens despite all of the pressure from other sources, especially when school is back in full force. “Recognize when we are trying our best,” says Blair. “I feel like that is often overlooked. It means a lot when our parents tell us we are doing a good job or let us know they see how hard we are trying to manage everything.”
Jose shares that he used to worry that his parents may not be receptive to talking about mental health, but he actually found the opposite was true, and it really left him feeling supported. “Latinos usually think their parents will say to suck it up or snap out of it, but that’s not always true,” he says. He was pleasantly surprised to find out that they wanted to listen and were very understanding. “It felt really good,” he adds. “For any culture, if anyone is afraid of talking to their parents, just try it out.”
5. Mental health is as important as physical health.
Unlike previous generations, teens are much more attuned to the fact that mental and physical health go hand-in-hand and are both equally important parts of the broader definition of health.
“I always say, if you’re going to get a yearly physical, why not a mental health [check-up]?” asks Anna. “Your brain is just as important as your body.”
Annabel, age 15, from New York suggests some parents don’t believe that mental health is real, and it can hurt their kid. “I suggest that they try to educate themselves,” she says, noting that education on what mental health is and why it matters can be an incredibly helpful starting place to become familiar with a concept that you may not know much about.
“I’m from a Caribbean background, and although my parents get it, I know friends whose parents don’t believe in mental health,” says Aaliyah, age 16, from New York. “They should spend time learning more about mental health or asking their kids about it,” she recommends.
Many mental health conditions have a biological basis and can be passed down through genetics, at least in part. Jose reminds parents that it’s not their fault if a teen is struggling. “Some parents think that kids are a reflection of their behavior, but that’s not always the case,” he says.
Hazuri agrees. “I have friends who have expressed mental health concerns to their parents and they won’t let them get help because they think it reflects poorly on them, but getting them help is so important,” she explains.
By recognizing that mental health is important and getting your teen the help they need, they’re more likely to be set up for success. If you’re a parent and have never talked about mental health with your teen before, in the words of Jose: just try it out. You might be surprised at where it takes you both.
If you are experiencing suicidal, substance use or other mental health crises please call or text the new three digit code at 988. You will reach a trained crisis counselor for free, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can also go to 988lifeline.org or dial the current toll free number 800-273-8255 [TALK].
Neha Chaudhary, MD, is the Chief Medical Officer of BeMe, a mental health resource for teens, and a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.