How to Help Your Teen Respond to a Struggling Friend

Remember parents, teenagers aren't equipped to handle the seriousness of a friend struggling with their mental health...

by Nancy Reynolds

This Post: How to Help Your Teen Respond to a Struggling Friend

Written By: Jessica Manning

One night around 10:00 pm, I got a phone call from a student who was concerned about an acquaintance they knew at school. The student shared with me that their acquaintance had been posting “dark” stories on Snapchat for a couple of weeks and that he had posted something especially concerning that night just a few hours prior.

How to Help Your Teen Respond to a Struggling Friend


As a high school counselor, I felt compelled to take action. I called the student’s mother, who answered and told me her son was sleeping in his bedroom. I asked her to check on him and call me back. An hour later, she called from the ER. Thankfully, her son was physically fine, but he was, in fact,  awake in bed and had been contemplating suicide. 

I barely slept that night…

Thank God the student called me. But I couldn’t help but wonder why he waited nearly three hours after the boy posted something on Snapchat to call me. How many other students saw the suffering student’s posts the weeks before? How many saw his concerning post that particular evening and chose to say nothing? 

And, why didn’t the student, who was clearly suffering deeply, reach out to his mother or father, school administrators, a friend, or someone else? I had so many questions and concerns.

I am well aware that many teens (and adults) use social media as a public journal for expressing some of their innermost thoughts. I understand that many of those expressions are cryptic in nature and not always easy to decipher. I know, too, that teenagers often prefer to confide in their friends instead of adults (including their parents) – all of which worries me for the kids who are struggling AND the kids who are trying to help them.

Bottom line, our kids live in an era that speaks more openly about mental health than ever before. Given this, what are we doing to prepare them to respond appropriately when friends or acquaintances are struggling? 

Have you ever asked your teen about their friends’ mental health? The majority of referrals I’ve gotten for teens struggling with suicidal thoughts and thoughts/acts of self-harm come from their friends. Typically, these friends have been trying to counsel them for some time, and it has become a burden that weighs heavily.

For this reason, it’s essential that parents have direct conversations with their teens not only about their mental health but also their friends’mental health. To help guide your conversation, consider the following:

Ask What They Already Know

When I was in high school, I remember learning about depression and suicide. However, I don’t recall learning about anxiety, I’m certain I never heard of cutting, and I couldn’t name one person who took medication for their mental health. In essence, our teens’ exposure to and experiences regarding mental health are vastly different from ours. 

With so many kids today struggling with anxiety and mental health issues, the topic of depression and suicide has become far less taboo than it used to be. Still, when you’re a teenager whose friend or acquaintance appears to be struggling, it’s difficult to know if or how you should respond or try to help.

It’s important to get the conversation rolling with your teen by simply asking them what they’ve learned or even what they’ve heard. It opens the door in a non-threatenging way. Ask them if they can list typical warning signs of depression, including things such as apathy, friendship changes, extreme sleeping patterns, agitation, or withdrawal. Ask them if they’ve ever been worried about a friend or acquaintance, and remember to address the topic of self-harm. Don’t assume your kids don’t know someone who cuts; it’s far more prevalent than you might expect. 

Tell Them to Tell an Adult if They Have Concern

Most teenagers don’t understand and can’t decipher the difference between their friends’ and acquaintances’ normal teenage ups and downs versus having an actual diagnosable depressive or anxiety disorder. They just recognize that “something is wrong.” 

Thus, when a student comes to me about a friend they’re worried about, I always advise them that it’s not their job to decipher the level of seriousness of someone else’s mental health. If they ever find themselves asking, “Should I tell someone?” the answer is always, always, “YES.” Too many what-ifs exist not to say something. 

It’s important to recognize, though, that our society’s misunderstanding (and in some cases, ignorance) about mental health has led to far too much self-diagnosing – even among teenagers. Kids toss around and claim words like depression and anxiety without fully understanding the clinical signs or symptoms and they joke about killing themselves. No wonder their friends don’t know how to accurately judge if they truly need help or if they’re merely messing around.

Teens need to hear that it’s inevitable that they will face times of loneliness, boredom, failure, rejection, feeling down in the dumps, embarrassment, etc. It’s not necessarily an indication that they require professional help. 

Explain Why it is Not Their Responsibility to Counsel Their Friends

I have never met a teen equipped to handle the seriousness of helping someone who is struggling with their mental health. Many don’t understand that there’s a difference between counseling and simply having a conversation.

Teens are so well-meaning when it comes to supporting their friends. They want to listen, encourage, advise, and be there for each other. It usually starts innocently when teens confide in one another. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had students come to my office after months of supporting a friend because it has become consuming, stressful, or scary.

Also, unfortunately, some teens use their mental health as a way to manipulate friends. That’s why you should tell your teen that it’s OK to tell their friends that their problems are beyond their ability to help and that it’s time for them to reach out to an adult. 

Explain that Reporting is Not Betraying

No teen wants to betray their friends’ confidence. They often don’t report the problem, because they worry their friends will be mad. Also, the sheer angst of not knowing what will happen if they tell an adult often prevents them from telling at all. But their openness could quite literally save someone’s life. 

Every school year, I talk to our students and share exactly what will happen if they come to me to report a concern. I tell them that their name will never be revealed. (In some situations, the other student might be able to figure out who told. But in those cases, again, the reporting student needs to consider the possibilities if they don’t tell.)

I remind students that teenagers’ brains are not fully developed. Their spontaneity and inability to see the big picture – that life might not always feel this way – is why it’s so important to involve an adult who can help them view life through a broader lens, guide them through their struggles, and help them determine the next step(s) to take. 

Even if you don’t suspect that your teen knows peers who are struggling with their mental health, ask them. Talk to them about what to do if a friend or acquaintance, snaps, texts, posts or verbalizes concerning thoughts. How they choose to handle it could literally save a life.


About Jessica Manning

Jessica is a high school counselor with over 20 years of experience working with teenagers. She earned an M.A. in school counseling and a B.A. in English and secondary education. Jessica is married to a high school principal and has three teenage boys; her current life revolves around all things teen. When not working or following her sons’ sporting events, Jessica appreciates any opportunity she gets to veg at home with her family and her dog, Phyllis. 


If you enjoyed reading, “How to Help Your Teen Respond to a Struggling Friend” you might also enjoy reading these posts:

Teenage Mental Health: Red Flags Every Parent Should Watch For

Are You Negatively Labeling Your Teen? Here’s How to Tell and Why You Should Stop

Parents, Here’s Why Your Teen Needs You to Stop Calling All the Shots

Why Not Join Us?
I agree to have my personal information transfered to MailChimp ( more information )
Join over 3.000 visitors who are receiving our newsletter and learn how to optimize your blog for search engines, find free traffic, and monetize your website.
RAISING TEENS TODAY is a resource and safe zone for parents to share the joys, challenges, triumphs and frustrations of raising our oh, so imperfect (but totally awesome) teens. PLUS, sign up and you'll receive my FREE e-Book "Scoring Scholarships!"

You may also like

Leave a Comment