Adolescence is usually a complicated stage. It is a transition phase between childhood and adulthood marked by physical, emotional and social changes that pose a great challenge. Teenagers begin to develop their identity, want autonomy and try to find their place in the world, but they still lack maturity and find it difficult to manage their emotions properly. It is, therefore, not surprising that half of all lifetime mental disorders develop by age 14, meaning that adolescence is a highly sensitive period for the prevention and treatment of mental health problems.
Teenage mental health has never been so bad
In fall 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry joined their voices to declare a national child and adolescent mental health emergency. In Spain an emergency was not officially declared, but they are experiencing it anyway.
The latest report on suicidal behavior and mental health in childhood and adolescence by the ANAR Foundation is worrying. The number of cases with suicidal behavior has skyrocketed by 1,921.3% in the last decade, especially after the pandemic, when suicide attempts increased by 128%.
The Spanish Association of Pediatrics has also warned that the mental health of children and adolescents has deteriorated considerably in recent years. Before the pandemic, it was estimated that approximately 20% of adolescents suffered from mental disorders whose consequences could last throughout their lives.
However, in the last two years, eating disorders have increased by 40%, depression by 19%, and aggressiveness by 10%. In addition, the cases are more serious, the patients are younger and they need more hospitalizations. For that reason, it is important that parents are aware of the importance of mental health in adolescents.
If your child has a fever, you’ll likely react immediately by seeking medical help, so if you find him sad, irritable, or less interested in activities he used to enjoy, don’t think it’s just a phase or something minor that you can ignore without major consequences. When it comes to our children’s mental health, it’s critical not to lower the guard.
Untreated mental health problems interfere with learning, socialization, self-esteem and other important aspects of development, so that adolescents can carry their repercussions for a lifetime. In extreme cases, mental health disorders can even lead to suicide.
How to take care of the mental health of teenagers at home?
Parents often dread the onset of adolescence because they anticipate its mood swings, risky behaviors, and endless arguments, but it’s actually also an opportunity for bonding. In fact, at this stage parents can serve as role models for emotional development and help their adolescent children implement effective and adaptive coping strategies that allow them to become self-confident people. How to achieve it?
• Establish healthy patterns for family life
Structure and security are essential pillars for psychological stability, but they play an even more important role in the lives of teenagers as they continue to need clear limits and guidelines to grow and learn to care for themselves as adults. For that reason, mental health begins with a well-structured family life based on healthy habits.
Try to get everyone at home to follow a healthy and nutritious diet, prioritize good sleep habits and establish routines for rest and disconnection from technology that help you relax and replenish energy. These habits will contribute to giving order and balance to your child’s life and will favor his psychological well-being.
• Spend quality time together
Adolescence is a stage of search and reaffirmation, so it is normal for your child to want to spend more time with the group of friends or alone. As a parent, you need to respect his space and give him some freedom to discover and explore the world, but you also need to make sure that the time you spend together counts.
Finding a common passion and sharing it will become an opportunity to be together without pressure, just to enjoy each other’s company and get to know each other better. These types of experiences also create safe spaces and new opportunities for your child to open up and tell you about his problems or concerns.
• Encourage him to share his feelings
When parents help teens recognize and express their feelings, they support their mental health. Therefore, you should find ways to communicate with your teenager. You can ask him to help prepare dinner or lend a hand in the garden to chat together. Take the time to ask him how his day has been and what he has done.
If you notice him sad, frustrated or anxious, ask him what has happened and help him manage those emotions. It is important that your child understands that it is not necessary to run away from negative emotions and that the solution does not consist in ignoring them either, but in learning to manage them. Activities such as painting, physical exercise, keeping a diary or talking about what is happening to him are very effective outlets for releasing tension and gaining perspective on problems.
• Turn your home into a judgment-free safe haven
One of the keys to fostering open communication is to be free of judgment. Your son should know that you love him unconditionally and that you will always support him. He should feel that his parents are a strong support system that he can rely on when things go wrong.
To achieve this, it is important to practice emotional validation; that is, avoid the tendency to minimize his feelings, fears or frustrations. Your son should feel that he can talk to you about any issue that worries him or ask for your advice, knowing that you will not judge him. That does not mean that you have to agree with everything, but that you will assume an empathetic and understanding position to approach the subject in a mature way, without shouting or recriminations in between.
• Teach him to use technology rationally
It is almost impossible to expect your child to live without technology, but it represents serious dangers for teens mental health, so they must learn to use it properly and protect themselves from the risks it entails. Establish disconnection times at home and organize activities without technology so that your child understands that there is a wonderful world beyond the screens.
It is essential that you explain to him that actions on the Internet have consequences, which often extend to real life, and that he must be careful with what he publishes because it will be difficult to delete it from the network. Also teach him to use privacy filters, address topics such as cyberbullying, sexting and grooming, and help him to separate his self-esteem and value as a person from the number of “likes” or visualizations that he can get on social networks.
• Promote strong self-esteem
Probably the greatest gift you can give your child is to help him build a bulletproof self-esteem, especially at a stage in life in which feelings towards oneself depend a lot on the acceptance of the group and popularity in social networks.
Don’t just scold your child when he does something wrong, praise him for his good behavior as well. For that praise to become fertilizer for his self-esteem, focus more on the effort than on the result. So your son will understand that he has intrinsic worth. Including him in important family decisions will also make him feel heard and valued, giving him the confidence to use his voice and advocate for him in other contexts outside of the home.
• Solve conflicts together
In a relationship with a teenager, parents have to prepare themselves to face the differences, conflicts and power struggles that will arise. Remember that you also went through that age, so it is better that you be honest and transparent with your child. Listen calmly and empathize with his new needs, although that doesn’t mean you have to give in.
However, avoid power struggles by modeling respectful communication without trying to control his reaction or perspective. A teen is unlikely to admit that he was wrong when he’s upset, so it’s better to talk when things calm down. Try to find win-win solutions and, if necessary, reach compromises in which your child accepts certain conditions and responsibilities in exchange for more independence.
• Become an example of emotional management
Taking care of the mental health of adolescents involves teaching them to manage negative emotions. This often means that parents must also embark on an emotional learning path that leads them to avoid arguing when they are too angry or to be more empathetic and understanding in situations where they would normally panic or lose their temper.
Sharing your emotions with your child will also do him good. If you’re under an unusual level of stress, let him know. It’s not about overwhelming him with your problems, but about making him understand that we all have difficulties. When your child sees how you deal with these complex emotions, he will understand that it is not necessary to run away from these feelings, but to learn to manage them, so you will be reducing the risk of self-harm or suffering from anxiety or depression.
• Cover your back
Even if you do everything in your power to take care of the mental health of your child and protect him, there are many situations that are beyond your control. Adolescence is a stage of great vulnerability, so many situations can leave a deep psychological mark that leads to trauma or mental disorders.
As a parent, it is important that you do not lower the guard and ask for the help of a psychologist or psychiatrist as soon as you detect the first warning signs. Remember that receiving treatment on time is essential to prevent a mental disorder from worsening.
(2021) AAP-AACAP-CHA Declaration of a National Emergency in Child and Adolescent Mental Health. In: American Academic of Pediatrics.
(2022) La Fundación ANAR presenta su Estudio sobre Conducta Suicida y Salud Mental en la Infancia y la Adolescencia en España (2012-2022). In: Fundación ANAR.
(2022) La pandemia ha provocado un aumento de hasta el 47 % en los trastornos de salud mental en los menores. In: Asociación Española de Pediatría.
Kessler, R. C. et. Al. (2005) Lifetime prevalence and age-of-onset distributions of DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication. Arch Gen Psychiatry; 62(6):593-602.