By Heather Riggleman, Crosswalk.com
I often joke that if I survive the teen years then I can handle anything like implementing world peace. Especially when you’re navigating the challenges of your teen’s mental health. It’s tough enough that they’re going through hormonal changes, have attitudes, and learn to perfect the eyeroll that literally drives you up the wall; but add in the pandemic, isolation, and navigating friendships—and it’s the perfect recipe for a mental health crisis.
As a mom to kids ages 22, 15, and 13—I’ve dealt with more than my fair share of navigating the rough waves of anxiety and depression. At one point, both of my teens were barely treading water as we made emergency appointments. We eventually got through the crisis with the help of the support team, counseling, medications, prayer, and a lot of conversations.
Now my teens are at a point where they talk openly about their struggles. And now that we are in a better place, I went straight to the source to get the 4-1-1 on what teens wish parents understood about mental health.
Photo Credit: © Unsplash/Christopher Campbell
1. They Need Your Light in Their Dark
Hormones fluctuating, new feelings raging, bullies saying vicious things--it's no wonder teens struggle with mental health. Despite these obvious factors, teens often have no idea why they feel bad or why they feel like ending things. They don’t know why the sky is painted black. They don’t know why they have so much rage, hurt, or pain inside them. They don’t understand why they feel so much pressure: to live up to their own standards, our standards, the school’s standards, and their friends' standards. They may have had the perfect childhood and they know other individuals have it way worse than they do, but that doesn’t change how they're feeling.
Teens wish their parents would support them more than ever during dark days. They need your light in their dark. Support can look like prayer, hugs, understanding, and praise for their accomplishments. Light and love can look like going to the movies together, playing a board game, or getting active outside. Support is different and unique to every teen but just being aware they need you will help you look for ways to show up at their darkest times.
2. They Need Boundaries
They need your boundaries, but more importantly, they subconsciously want them. Giving your teens clearly defined lines of what is appropriate and expected creates security they rely on—especially when they are already struggling with their mental health. However, just because you put boundaries in place doesn’t mean your teen won’t push against them. They will push these boundaries because that's what young adults do as they discover right and wrong. They will test your parameters because that’s how they know if what you say is true. It’s your job to say no and stick to it. Believe it or not, the word "no" is a way to nurture them with consistency, love, and compassion.
3. They Need You to Understand They Don't Know Why
Do you remember a time when you were in the deepest of valleys and you were scared God wouldn’t help you find your way out? Your teens feel the same right now. Their core self and identity aren’t developed or grounded yet. They may act a certain way around you and be entirely somebody else on Friday night. It doesn’t mean your teen is acting fake—it just means they don’t know who they are yet.
They need you to remind them they are God’s sons and daughters. They need to be reminded God is the author of their stories and they don’t need to have it all figured out yet. Your teen desperately needs you to be a safe and encouraging shelter.
4. They Need Space
Sometimes they just need some space—a quiet place to reflect, listen to music, pray, or just be alone. Before launching into questions about their day or running errands, give them a chance to decompress and let them come to you when they are ready to talk. Their headspace is already wild and there's no need to add to the uncultivated thoughts.
5. They Need It to Not Be about Their Depression and Anxiety
Navigating the waters of depression and anxiety involves counseling, scheduling appointments, taking medication, and ensuring they take their meds. But this can make teens feel like they are under a microscope as you analyze behaviors, eating, and sleeping habits. This is because we as parents are scared and want to help them get better. What they need most is for you to be normal. They need life to not be about their depression and anxiety all the time. They want to watch movies, go to school, even do chores—they want their parents. Find ways to be normal as a family.
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6. They Need Your Help to Love Themselves
We know just how precious our teens are. Especially at this age, we marvel how God created their innermost parts in the womb. The color of their eyes, their spunk, their talents, and personality. We have the incredible privilege of watching them grow into young adults. Research shows teens who have self-compassion and learn to love themselves the way God created them (flaws and all) are better prepared to handle mental health pressures. As silly as it sounds, I still have my kids stand in front of a mirror and repeat affirmations: God created me with love. I am deeply loved. I am strong. I can do all things through Christ, etc.
7. They Home to Be a Sanctuary
It’s noisy out there. There’s so much pressure from peers, teachers, coaches, and social media and they’re looking for a safe space. Imagine the dread your teen may feel if they know they are coming home only to be nagged about chores, homework, and attitudes. And imagine the dread they feel if the home is an unstable environment.
With that in mind, work on creating a stable, solid, loving, clutter-free environment. Studies have shown that a messy environment creates more stress. (Now is the time to de-clutter and organize your home one room at a time starting with their bedroom.)
They also need to know they can count on us. They need us to be their rock and their sanctuary—a place to feel safe, loved, and to decompress. Just as Jesus is our sanctuary, our safe space in the storm, they need home to be a sanctuary too.
8. They Need to Try Different Coping Skills
What may have worked yesterday may not work today, and your teen wants you to know this. They need to be armed with a variety of coping skills from four categories: distraction, calming, processing, and physical. Encourage your teen to try new techniques like guided prayer, journaling, going for a walk in nature, or talking to someone they trust. Every coping strategy isn’t the right strategy for every teen and they will get frustrated. It’s up to us to help them recognize what works and what doesn’t while practicing patience, grace, and unconditional love.
9. They Need Help to Find Joy
Finding joy isn’t a losing battle for teens even though we wonder if they will ever grow out of their moodiness. Every once in a while they need us to help them find their joy. Teens wish their parents understood they can’t always see the bigger picture, nor can they get past the pain, but they want to. They want and need help to find joy.
Aside from opening the curtains in their dark cave of a room, we can inspire them to look for the positive. When the unexpected happens, instead of reacting in fear or anger, we need to teach our teens to find a solution, to find joy in the little things. Countless others like Jacob, Moses, Paul, Peter, and even Jesus, have experienced the ups and downs of life. Yet, they were resilient because they had the ability to anticipate what God was going to do next. And in the midst of the waiting, in the midst of healing from the pain, they learned that gratitude in the little things led to joy.
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10. They Need You and Your Story
While you can take them to the skate park or stop by the ice cream shop for a spontaneous treat, what will bridge the gap between you, your teen, and any misunderstandings around mental health, is you. That's right, you. Though everyone isn't plagued with clinical anxiety, depression, or other mental health diagnoses, us adults can't say we've lived our entire lives worry-free, fear-free, able to navigate the unknown with total ease and grace.
As a parent, you want to be a positive example for your children, you want to be the physical embodiment of what to do. But may I let you in on a secret? Sometimes, you need to be vulnerable, dig deep into your own skeletons in your closet, and share your hardships with your teen. That's not to say you should be graphic or explicit with details, no need for excess in that department. But if you struggled with anxiety, let them know. If you battle depression even as an adult, let them know. As much as you want them to see you navigating life like a champ, they are aware of your flaws too. No need to hide them when you could use them to bridge the gap so your teen knows they aren't alone in their own mental health battles.
Together, you can hold one another accountable to not only seek help on earth but to ask for heavenly wisdom from God as you look for ways to thrive amid a mental health trial.
More than anything, your teen needs you--not just who you are on a good day, but who you are in the hard times when God's strength is what gets you through the day. Your vulnerability is your testimony to your children. Use this gift wisely.