It’s Never Too Early to Talk to Your Teen About Mental Health

pretty Latinx mom sitting on couch at home with her preteen or young teenage daughter, while they look at a laptop together and talk casually - teens and mental health

Teens & Mental Health

All teens go through rapid physical development, experience a rollercoaster of emotions, and explore various perspectives. So now is the best time to talk to your teen about being aware of their mental and emotional health and how to find proper resources.

They Need Our Help

For many people, addressing mental health issues as teenagers didn’t happen unless something truly catastrophic occurred, such as a suicide attempt or extreme trauma. But the symptoms appear far earlier than that.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), a teenager’s brain keeps developing until they reach their 20s. “All the big changes the brain is experiencing may explain why adolescence is a time when many mental disorders—such as schizophrenia, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and eating disorders—can emerge,” NIMH notes. Teens also respond to stress differently than adults, and societal and environmental influences play a part, too.

The National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities encourages teens between the ages of 16–18 to write essays about mental health. The contest, “Speaking Up About Mental Health: This Is My Story”, featured students all across the U.S. expressing their challenges and hopes, all designed to create stronger awareness for youth mental health issues.

Some had multiple adverse childhood experiences that triggered their disorders. Others noticed the disparities in the BIPOC community and proper mental health care as they struggled to find help. Still others revealed their conditions in order to break the stigma surrounding mental illness.

However, there’s a pressing need to be proactive. In 2022, the The New York Times reported that “from 2001 to 2019, the suicide rate for American youngsters from ages 10 to 19 jumped 40 percent, and emergency room visits for self-harm rose 88 percent.”

Signs Your Teen Is Struggling

Penn Medicine indicates that symptoms of mood or mental health issues vary depending on the condition, but many teens display the following:

  • Sleep troubles, including being easily fatigued and lacking energy
  • Feeling irritable, on edge, restless, or wound up
  • Unexplained changes in appetite or weight
  • Extreme muscle tension or mysterious aches
  • Having difficulty being around or talking to people, feeling judged by people, and avoiding social situations
  • Experiencing nausea, sweating, blushing, or trembling in social situations
  • Feeling excessive worry, pessimism, or hopelessness
  • Struggling with friendships
  • Lack of interest in hobbies, school, and extracurricular activities
  • Difficulty with concentration, decision-making, and memory
  • Expressing feelings of emptiness, sadness, or despair
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

Now, some people might look at this list and think, “Ah! Typical teenage stuff!” But only you know if any of these signs are out of the norm for your teen.

Have a Transparent Talk About Mental Health

If you’re an adult managing a mood or mental health disorder, what do you wish someone would have done for you when you felt the most vulnerable and didn’t understand how to process your thoughts and feelings? More importantly, how different would life now be if only someone had listened and helped early on?

As young people try to navigate myriad thoughts and emotions, they often don’t know how to say something is wrong because they’re not sure how to articulate it—or if it’s something to be concerned about, since they don’t have a basis of comparison. Your best option is to be candid and direct about what might be happening to provide an opening for discussion.

Start by taking the parent test on Mental Health America (MHA) that allows you to answer questions about what you’ve observed with your child. MHA indicates your powers of observation are truly an advantage for starting a casual, non-confrontational conversation. Then, do some research into certain topics so the two of you can learn and make an action plan together.

Next, MHA recommends opening your talk with the following, which we provide verbatim. “In a non-judgmental way, let your child/teen know that you’ve noticed…

  • They don’t seem to be hanging out or talking to their friends as much as usual.
  • That their school work seems to be suffering. This may be indicated by slipping grades, assignments going undone, or a general lack of interest in anything school related. Offer extra help if it’s simply trouble with the subject matter.
  • Their mood seems to have ‘darkened.’ For instance, they may be talking about death or dying, giving away belongings, or posting pictures…[of] dead celebrities or other morbid topics.”

If they open up to you, listen first. Then establish a hopeful, normalized tone, pointing out that like any other medical illness, there are specialists and treatments available. If you or a family member have experience with particular conditions, this background might be beneficial as well.

Some teens might feel something isn’t quite right but wouldn’t be as receptive to a direct conversation. Focus on more quality time together, assuming the role of an active listener as different conversation points happen naturally. This allows you to reflect back to your child what they say, as well as how they feel and think, about other issues, laying the groundwork for them to be more comfortable opening up about serious concerns.

Cottonwood Has Resources That May Help

Please review other articles in our blog to help with your research into various mood and mental health topics. Hopefully, you’ll gain more information that will help you and your child move forward.

If you or someone you know needs help today, it’s available by text or phone, 24/7, for free:

  • Text “HELLO” to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
  • Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
Considering mental health treatment in Arizona? For more information about Cottonwood Tucson, call (800) 877-4520. We are ready to help you or your loved one find lasting recovery.

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