4 Things Parents Should Know About Teenage Mental Health

Is your teen experiencing normal teen angst or something more? Here's how to tell...

by Nancy Reynolds

This post: 4 Things Parents Should Know About Teenage Mental Health

Written by: Jay Elliott, Ph.D.

Emotional outbursts, grumpiness, isolating themselves, and partaking in risky behavior – if this sounds like your teenager, take comfort in knowing you’re certainly not alone. In fact, the vast majority of teenagers struggle through the adolescent years (to varying degrees) often experiencing a huge range of emotions and behaviors that can be perplexing to them and us. 

But, as parents, if we reflect back on our own teen years, chances are we’ll remember similar struggles. Like we did at their age, our kids are navigating a whole new world that, at times, can seem completely foreign to them.

The transition from childhood to adulthood has its share of ups and downs as teens try to gain independence and develop their own identity, all while learning to manage deeper emotions, more responsibilities and complex relationships.

Additionally, because their brains continue to mature and develop throughout their childhood, adolescence and well into early adulthood, according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), the stress and/or anxiety they may encounter presents itself at a particularly vulnerable developmental time in their lives. 

With unpredictable mood swings and major shifts in hormones, it’s not always easy for parents to determine if their teen’s behavior is normal and will eventually resolve itself in time or something more serious, like the start of a mental health condition.

What makes it particularly challenging is if your teen is closed off or reluctant to confide in you about how they feel. And, even if they are open and willing to express their feelings, vulnerabilities and emotions, it can still be challenging to tell the difference. 

So, how can you determine if your teen is experiencing normal teen angst or a mental health problem? And, if you suspect an issue, what can you do to help?

You can start by strengthening your understanding of teenage mental health. Here are 4 things parents should know about teenage mental health.

4 Things Parents Should Know About Teenage Mental Health


Normal Adolescent Challenge or Mental Health Condition?

The GeneSight® Mental Health Monitor, a nationwide survey of parents and young adults ages 16 to 24 years old, found that only half of parents with children ages 16 to 24 said they are very or completely confident they can tell the difference between normal adolescent challenges and a mental health condition. What makes that distinction even more challenging is that anxiety can look different in every teenager.

However, there are things parents can and should look for. For example, AACAP indicates that anxiety symptoms could include things like “excessive fears and worries, feelings of inner restlessness, and a tendency to be excessively wary and vigilant. Even in the absence of an actual threat, some teenagers describe feelings of continual nervousness, restlessness, or extreme stress.”

Taking the time to understand the warning signs of a mental health issue can help parents decide whether they should intervene and seek professional help – or sit back and weather the storm.

Learn more: Teenage Mental Health: Red Flags Every Parent Should Watch For

There is a Difference Between Worry and Anxiety.

Nearly one in three parents believe that “anxiety” and “worry” are the same thing, according to the GeneSight Mental Health Monitor. Yet, this isn’t correct, according to experts.

“Anxiety and worry are not the same thing. Worry is typically more situational and is more about our thoughts. Anxiety is often experienced in the body, and is usually persistent and excessive – and it doesn’t go away when the specific cause of stress or distress is gone,” said Debbie Thomas, EdD, APRN, based in Louisville, KY.  “Every day in my practice I see children and young adults and/or their parents who have unintentionally ignored or minimized the symptoms of anxiety until they become a crisis. The best outcomes occur when we don’t wait until anxiety becomes all-consuming and life-disrupting. Worry can be just one component of anxiety.”

Knowing the difference can help parents figure out if their child is temporarily worried about something simple like an upcoming school assignment, or if they are experiencing anxiety that should be evaluated and treated by a mental health professional.

Communication is Key

We know our kids don’t always tell us everything, no matter how open and supportive we try to be (or how hard we pry). This lack of communication can make it difficult to know what’s really going on in their lives. On top of that, mental health can be a particularly touchy subject.

According to the survey, just over half of parents think their child would be comfortable talking with them about their mental health struggles. This is confirmed by the 16- to 24-year-olds surveyed – only one in five said they wouldn’t tell anyone about their struggles with mental health.

Dr. Thomas says it is important to have these conversations. While it’s important to respect their privacy, if teens are facing a mental health challenge, parents need to know what their teen is really feeling and experiencing in order to make sure they get the help they need.

“But don’t just ask, ‘What’s wrong?’ That sets up the likely response of ‘Nothing’s wrong,’” Dr. Thomas tells WebMD.

Instead, parents might find it more helpful to ask “what happened” or ask more specific, probing questions – like asking about a particular class, a relationship with a friend or partner, or a situation that you know has bothered them in the past. 

If your child won’t open up to you, encourage them to talk to another adult they trust or ask if they are willing to talk to a healthcare professional.

They Likely Want You to Seek Treatment For them

Three in four young adults surveyed who have experienced a mental health challenge indicated at least some of their challenges occurred before age 18, yet half said their parents never sought treatment for them.

Nearly three-quarters of these young adults wish that their parents would have. When asked why:

  • 67% said they wouldn’t have suffered as much during their teenage years
  • 66% said they would be better equipped to handle their current problems
  • 64% said it would have better prepared them for adulthood

“Transitioning into adulthood is enough of a struggle – no one should have to battle their mental health at the same time,” said Dr. Thomas. “Give your child the gift of mental health treatment if they are experiencing anxiety so that they can become successful, caring, and well-adjusted adults. This also lets them know it is okay, normal, and optimal to seek help at other times in their life if needed – and is another positive step in destigmatizing mental healthcare.”

If you notice changes in your teenager, including shifts in the way they manage their anger, changes in eating habits, being less social, struggling in school, or isolation – it’s best to dive in deeper. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. A good place to start is with your child’s physician or other healthcare professional.

Fortunately, the stigma surrounding mental health is declining and there are many effective mental health treatment options specifically tailored to teens. By watching out for signs of mental health issues and seeking help when needed, your teen can manage their mental health and grow into a happy, healthy adult.

About Jay Elliott, Ph.D.

Jay Elliott is vice president of Medical Affairs at Myriad Neuroscience, makers of the GeneSight test. Dr. Elliott holds a Ph.D. in biological psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and completed postdoctoral training at the Medical University of South Carolina. He has dedicated his career to advancing patient care in mental health and other areas of medicine by leading collaborative research and scientific communication initiatives. Dr. Elliott lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, and is the proud dad of a teenage daughter and son. 

For more information on how genetic testing can help inform clinicians on the treatment of depression, anxiety, ADHD, and other psychiatric conditions, please visit GeneSight.com.

If you enjoyed, “4 Things Parents Should Know About Teenage Mental Health,” you might also enjoy reading: 

Teenage Mental Health: Red Flags Every Parent Should Watch For

Healthy Coping Skills for Teenagers: 10 Ways to Relieve Stress & Anxiety

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