Navigating Your Teen’s Mental Health Struggles

When teenagers struggle with their mental health, it’s often hard to know why and how to help. Their difficulties could be due to a variety of reasons: harm done to them, choices they have made, inherent struggles and brokenness, and learned behavior (just to name a few). In any struggle, we want our kids to know they are not alone. The One who created them always goes with them, goes before them, and is in the midst of their battles. They also need to know that regardless of what they are facing, we will support them. They desperately need mature, loving voices in their lives to help them navigate their emotional struggles.

Staying in Tune with Your Child’s Mental Health

Teens are increasingly facing mental health issues. They are likely to face (or have peers who are facing) anything from anxiety, depression, suicide, identity issues, hopelessness, addiction, and more. Parents who regularly talk with their children, pursue them, and engage with them are far more likely to pick up on these kinds of struggles. A teen who is committed to keeping things from their parents will find ways to do so, but it will be much harder if parents are proactive and in tune with their kids’ lives. Talk to your kids about recognizing when they’re feeling sad or depressed or might be struggling with body image issues or an eating disorder. Again, the more you talk to them about these things, the less fearful and stigmatizing it will seem if they come to you with their struggles.

As a parent, pay attention to your instincts when you are concerned. Parents and other close mentors likely know their teens better than anyone else. Very few people will be as committed to knowing and understanding a teen’s mental health then a parent or close adult. They spend the most time and energy on their relationship, they have the most conversations with them, so they will also be among the first to notice a change in behavior.

Wise adults intuitively read a child’s face, body language, and silences. Parents often pick up on signs that something is amiss because they have spent years observing their children. It is discernment born out of multitudes of moments watching how their kids respond to moments of sadness, frustration, hurt, anger, and joy. It comes from thousands of big and small moments and life experiences parents have lived with their children. It is noticing what looks like “normal” reactions from their children and things that seem out of the norm. While parents are the ones to most quickly pick up on signs that something is amiss, any close mentor or family member who knows the teen well can also be attuned to changes in how a teen responds to moments of sadness, frustration, hurt, anger, and joy.

This does not mean you can catch every abnormality in their behavior or mood, nor does it mean you always know the reasons why a teenager may be “off.” It simply means you often sense something before you are able to articulate the reasons why—and you shouldn’t be afraid to take notice. It also doesn’t mean a parent or youth worker should take the blame for missing a teen’s behavior. Kids who really want to hide or deceive can do so. No matter how in tune you are, you could miss what they’ve kept deeply hidden.

If you suspect your teen is at risk, do not hesitate to get help. Get the teen talking, especially to trustworthy adults. Whether a counselor, youth leader, mentor, parent, or a trusted adult, pursue people who will speak into this teen’s life. If you believe your child is in immediate risk, call 911, get them to a hospital, and get them professional help.

When Your Child’s Friends Are Struggling

It’s also important to talk to your teenagers about what to do if they are struggling emotionally—or if their friends open up and admit they are struggling. Sometimes your teen may be doing well, but as they interact with a peer who is struggling, they find themselves adopting similar emotional struggles.

Friends may open up to your child about feeling depressed or even suicidal, but they may ask your child not to share that information with anyone. Your teen will want to be a good friend but will feel overwhelmed with helping or knowing what to do. Your teen may find that in order to connect with a peer, they take on their struggles as their own or begin to empathize too much with a peer. We see this happen in issues such as self-injury and suicide. Teens begin to influence each other in negative thought patterns and behaviors.

What should they do in those moments? Talk at length with your child about what it looks like to be a good friend and how they can know whether something is serious enough to bring in adult intervention.

Here are some questions you can ask to help evaluate the severity of their struggles (or a friend’s struggle):

  • Do you feel unsafe? Discuss what type of things might make them and/or a friend feel unsafe. For example, are they hurting themselves or are they avoiding food or medical care?
  • Are they engaged in destructive behaviors (cutting, drugs or alcohol, etc.)? Do they seem to talk at length about guns, wanting to kill animals, or harm others? Are their behaviors increasing in severity or frequency?
  • Are they willing to seek help?
  • Are any mature adults in their life aware of what is happening?
  • Are they being bullied, and have you witnessed it? Has any- body been able to effectively intervene? How is it impacting them and are they sharing with anyone?
  • Are they withdrawing from normal activities, giving away their possessions, making statements online or publicly about wanting to die or life being meaningless? Are any of these things increasing in frequency?
  • Do they have a support system and how helpful are those individuals?
  • Trust your instincts.

Help your son and daughter grow in courage to share what they are feeling and doing, even when they know others may be upset or angry with them. Talk about how they may not appreciate it in the moment, but when help and resources are given, and they feel a renewed sense of hope and support, they may even thank you. Even when they aren’t thankful, they can be confident that what was done was for their good, even when they were unable to see it themselves.

Here is where helping your kids understand what real support looks like, giving them the courage and boldness to make hard decisions that will be unpopular in the moment, but are wise, loving, and will rescue them. It also raises their expectations of how to respond to their friends. It becomes a win-win when we are willing to have these conversations with our teenagers.

If your child has a friend who is struggling, discourage your teen- agers from trying to rescue their friends on their own. There are many kids who feel like it is their job to function as a counselor or therapist for one of their friends, to be available twenty-four hours a day if their friend is hurting, or they feel the weight and pressure of resolving their friend’s struggles or bearing their burdens. What young person has the wisdom and insight to be able to help one of their own peers through hard, broken places? Many adults feel ill-equipped to do so. It is a burden they were never meant to bear, nor do they have the resources to effectively intervene in a friend’s experience. Instead, point them to skilled people who can help. Perhaps this is a guidance counselor at school, a trusted adult at school, or another parent. Your child’s best role is to simply be a caring friend without taking on the responsibility of resolving their problems.

Consider talking through these scenarios with your kids:

  • What would you do if a friend of yours said they felt suicidal? (Option: Go with them to one or two caring adults and share how they are feeling.)
  • How should you respond if one of your classmates posted on social media that they were selling drugs? (Involve a parent, adult, or guidance counselor, talk to your friend, and express your concern.)
  • If a friend confided they were hearing voices and the voices were telling them to harm someone, what would you say or do? (Ask them to share this with a parent or adult, offer to go with them, continue to be a good friend.)
  • If a friend admitted to having an eating disorder, how would you respond? (Express concern, offer support, invite in mature influences—discuss who that might be.)
  • Have you ever known a friend or classmate who struggles with depression? What do you notice about them? What could you say or what would you want to say to them? (Talk about how to encourage, offer hope, and get help from a mature, caring adult.)
  • If you thought a peer was in serious trouble, who would you go to? (Who do you trust? Who might be closest to your friend? What type of trouble might it be?)
  • What could make teenagers feel more comfortable going to their parents or an adult? (A guarantee of support, not being in trouble, listening well, etc.)
  • Who would you go to if you ever felt depressed, struggled with an eating disorder, or wanted to harm yourself? (Give them room to have a variety of good choices and offer them people you would trust to help.)
  • Have you ever been worried for one of your friends? Why? (Talk through signs and behavior that they have learned to evaluate that tell them someone is in trouble.)

Make up your own questions, listen, and ask more questions. Your kids will talk if you take time and show patience. Both teens and parents need help making sense of their experience and finding hope in the midst of an upsetting battle for a child’s well-being. A godly, wise perspective gives you the ability to remember what is true, what is momentary, and what is eternal. It shapes what you do with your heartache and emotions, and reminds you where your confidence truly lies. It also helps you point your teen to hope and the one who will carry and equip them in their struggle, as well as struggles they are exposed to by their peers.

In the minibook, Teens and Suicide, I remind parents:

Life includes a multitude of joys and much heartbreak. Christian homes are not immune to the trials of this world; they fall on believers and unbelievers alike. However, God promises to deliver us from the evil of it. A godly hope positions us in the center of God’s will. It reminds us that we live for something better than what is temporary. It gives us a vision for eternity. That means I can trust God with a teen’s struggles as well as my own.

Your teens’ (and their friends’) mental health struggles are not outside of God’s care and concern. God is watching and keeping them and will be their help and yours in the trouble you are facing with them.

Excerpted from Safeguards: Shielding Our Homes and Equipping Our Kids © 2022 by Julie Lowe. Used with permission of New Growth Press. May not be reproduced without prior written permission.

Safeguards Frontcover

Safeguards: Shielding Our Homes and Equipping Our Kids

Julie Lowe helps parents and caregivers teach the safety skills that will help protect their children from mistreatment, unsafe situations, violence, bullying, cyber-crimes, predatory behavior, sexting, abuse, and other kinds of danger that they might encounter. The safety skills that are needed at every stage—preschool, elementary-age, teens, and college-bound—are discussed and applied in an age-appropriate way.

About the author

Julie Lowe

Julie Lowe is a faculty member at the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation (CCEF). She holds an MA in counseling from Biblical Theological Seminary. She is a licensed professional counselor with more than twenty years of counseling experience. Lowe is also a registered play therapist and has developed a play therapy office at CCEF to better serve families, teens, and children. She is the author of Child Proof: Parenting by Faith, Not Formula and Building Bridges: Biblical Counseling Activities for Children and Teens, Safeguards: Shielding Our Homes and Equipping Our Kids as well as the minibook Teens and Suicide.

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