How parents and caregivers can support the teens and young adults in their lives

Mental health is a key component of well-being and happiness and it affects every aspect of life, from learning and relationships to physical health and self-esteem. While good mental health is important for everyone, young people face unique challenges and stressors. 

Peers, family members, and social media, coupled with worries about big life decisions, academic pressure, climate change, the economy, and social justice issues can weigh heavily on youth, who may turn to substance use or self-harm to manage emotional distress, or disengage altogether. 

Mental health conditions such as mood and anxiety disorders can also emerge during the teen years and early twenties. 

Sara Stewart, a social worker in The Royal’s Youth Psychiatry Program, says it’s important for parents and loved ones to keep a thoughtful, watchful eye out for changes in habits and keep communications channels open as much as possible. 

Behaviours to watch out for and what to do

Feelings of anger, low mood, and stress are normal and sometimes even beneficial. (For example, stress before an exam can fuel motivation to study.) 

“Feelings and emotions give us important information, motivate action, and can signal a need,” says Stewart, who points out there can be reasons behind signs of apathy as well. Adolescents may seem apathetic and disinterested but it could just be that they are feeling overwhelmed and paralyzed. 

Ask yourself, are they isolating themselves from family and friends, not participating in activities they used to enjoy, neglecting their sleep, hygiene, or self-care, engaging in negative self-talk or projecting a sense of hopelessness? If your teen’s mood interferes with school, work, or relationships for longer than a week or two, Stewart says it’s time to adopt an attitude of “curiosity and caring” and ask some gentle questions. 

For example:

  1. What’s been stressing you out lately?
  2. Do you often feel anxious? If so, what triggers that feeling?
  3. I love you and am worried about you. What can I do to help you – now or in the future? 

If parents feel stressed, scared, or unsure about their teen's situation and need to speak to someone right away, distress and crisis lines can offer timely support.

Stewart says asking your teen if they’re harming themselves or thinking about suicide will not prompt or provoke an attempt. (A good question might be: Have you ever felt so sad or lonely that you wanted to hurt yourself?)

If signs of distress or low mood and anxiety persist, the next step is to make an appointment with your family doctor. If there’s an immediate risk of dying by suicide, Stewart suggests parents take their teen to the emergency department.

Level up the communication skills

A man speaking with a teenager while walking in a park.

Many parents tend to fall into a default “problem-solving mode” when confronted with a challenging situation involving their teen. However, as teens get older, their problems become “more complex and less solvable with quick fixes, because they are emotional problems,” says Robert Nettleton, a social worker in The Royal’s Youth Psychiatry Program.

“It’s ok to simply ask: Are you looking for advice, or do you just want me to listen?” 

Sometimes teens just need someone to listen without judgement and feel heard.

Nettleton says it's important that parents learn how to provide emotional validation to the young people in their lives. “They don't need to understand or agree, just express or relate to how their teen might feel,” he says. (Read more about validation as a communications technique here.) 

What can parents do if their teens don’t want to talk?

“If they just want space and there are no imminent risks we can't really do anything aside from educate ourselves, set a good example, and be open,” says Nettleton. “If they're feeling really overwhelmed, you’re probably not going to have a fruitful conversation anyway.” 

Consider saving a difficult conversation for a time when everybody is in a better mood. In the meantime, making and sharing a snack, going out for an impromptu coffee date – and agreeing to talk later ­– could be a good step forward. Don't underestimate the benefits of simply spending time together, even if there aren’t deep conversations happening. Simply knowing that parents are available can be comforting to a teen. Nettleton refers to this as “the power of proximity.” Driving to school or swim practice, or taking the dog for a walk are all good times to start a conversation. If they turn down your offer to talk, let them know you’re available whenever they are ready. 

Nettleton reminds parents that even if their child doesn’t want help it shouldn’t stop them from doing their own research and finding support for themselves.

Name it to tame it 

Normalizing conversations around mental health, expressing emotions, and even the simple act of noticing and naming feelings are all good things to do at home. 

Since young people learn how to process and deal with their experiences from their role models, parents, and caregivers, Nettleton recommends parents be upfront about their own mental health challenges and how they deal with them.

For example: “I had a stressful day at work and I'm feeling overwhelmed and anxious right now. I’m going for a run so I can channel some of that worry into something positive and also take some time to think about how I’m going to delegate some projects.” 

Don’t forget to take care of yourself too

Although the goal is for the teen to get the help they need, don’t underestimate the importance of prioritizing your own well-being. 

Eating a balanced diet, getting enough sleep, and squeezing some movement in your day are the building blocks of good health. On top of that, Stewart suggests parents – and their teens – make time for activities that fill their bucket, whether it’s socializing or solo walks in the park.  

“It’s different for everyone,” she says. “Figure out what actually leaves you feeling calm and also invigorated at the same time. I think that's the best self-care.”

Some takeaways for parents and guardians

  • When asking questions of your teen out of concern, be kind and curious. It makes them feel loved and supported. 
  • Don't personalize your teen’s reactions. It’s not always about you.
  • Find some support for yourself. This could be a local parenting group or professional therapy. “Getting a therapist (for yourself) will pull our kids in the right direction,” says Stewart. If you can find a way to manage your own stress and anxiety, you’ll be in a better place to take care of your teens.

The Royal’s Youth Psychiatry program serves young people between the ages of 16 to 18. We work in partnership with the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) to provide the best possible care for young people with major psychiatric disorders and complex mental illnesses. Click here for more information about the services available at The Royal.