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How to Help Your Teen: 5 Top Tips from a Teen Therapist

Updated: Sep 7, 2023

Parenting is hard work at the best of times. Parenting a teenager who is struggling with their mental health is even harder.



Many parents feel a huge amount of fear when their teen is struggling with their mental health. Issues such as substance abuse, self harm & other risky behaviours are particularly scary for parents who understandably worry about the possible long-term impacts.


So what can parents do to best support their teens with their mental health? Here are my top 5 recommendations based on over a decade working with teens:


1. Listen More & Talk Less: Many people feel the role of a parent is to give advice to their kids, & at times this can be valuable. However, with teens it is always more effective to listen more & talk less.


One of the most common mistakes parents make is talking to their teens as if they (the parent) 'know better'. Now a parent may indeed know more about something, or have some personal experience the teen lacks.... but this is never received well by teens!


Let go of being right, & instead focus on maintaining a good relationship with your teen. Listen & ask lots of questions. Refrain from giving advice unless specifically asked. Ask your teen what they think they might do about problems that may be arising, & support them in those identified solutions.


2. Get Your Own Therapy: This should actually be #1 on the list! If your teen is struggling with their mental health, model healthy help-seeking behaviour. This tells your teen some very important things, including:


- You are willing to work on your own stuff

- You're not pathologizing your child or sending the message they are the 'problem'

- You take accountability for your own reactions & behaviours

- It is healthy & normal to seek help for mental health


Additionally, getting your own therapy can help deal with the stress & triggers you may be finding for yourself in dealing with your teen. A skilled therapist will give you tools to communicate with your teen calmly & in a way that does not do more damage to the relationship.


Yes it costs money & requires time, but surely your relationship with your child is worth it.


3. Have a Friendly & Respectful Relationship With Your Teen's Therapist: Your teen will tell their therapist things they won't want to tell you. That's the beauty of a good therapeutic relationship- it's safe enough to share intimate thoughts & feelings. Don't ask your teen's therapist to breach this confidentiality (they likely won't anyways, but it leads to an awkward conversation).


Trust that your teen's therapist knows what they are doing & don't try to direct their treatment. By all means, let them know about any behavioural concerns you may have via email (so you don't take time away from your teen's session), but trust them to do their job which they are well trained in doing.


Remember that your priorities as the parent may be different from what your teen wants to work on in their lives. For example, you may be concerned about them speaking to you in a disrespectful way at times. Your teen may be more concerned about a friendship conflict, or intense anxiety symptoms. Let them work on what they see as the priorities, & trust their therapist will keep any risky behaviours top of the list for treatment.


Try to avoid criticising your teens therapist. If you have a concern, raise it with the therapist privately (again, email is great when everyone is juggling busy schedules). Be willing to listen to the therapist's response with an open mind & try not to get defensive.


4. Pick Your Battles: This is something many parents know they should do, but it's not always easy to put into practice! If you have trouble deciding if something warrants having conflict over, ask yourself:


- Is it immediately life threatening?

- Is it having a severe impact on their daily functioning?

- Is this worth damaging my relationship with my teen over?


If the answer is 'no', that doesn't mean you can't bring up the issue that's bothering you. But choose your timing carefully & drop it if you get a hostile reaction. Your main goal in the teen years should be keeping a good relationship with your teen while they explore the world to a greater degree than ever before.


Your teen will experiment with new & sometimes risky experiences. They will develop views that differ from yours. They will push back against you & disagree with you at times. That's not a problem- it's normal & healthy development. Make it safe enough for your teen to disagree with you without it ending in an argument!


5 . Don't Pathologise Your Teen: Psychiatric diagnoses can sometimes be helpful in understanding a group of symptoms & recommended treatment options.

However, sometimes diagnosis can be used to blame, shame or judge a person or their behaviour.


It's important to understand that any psychiatric diagnosis assigned to your teen needs to be taken with a large grain of salt.


Many mental health conditions (such as personality disorders) by definition cannot be diagnosed in those under 18. It's also important to understand that unless a diagnosis is done in a way that is thorough & gathers a range of corroborative history across multiple settings & time, it may not be entirely accurate. Many mental health conditions have overlapping symptoms with other conditions- it is not an exact science.


Instead of focusing too heavily on diagnosis, focus instead on your teen's experience of themselves, their relationships & the world. Not everything your teen is experiencing will be related to their mental health diagnosis, that's only one part of their life experience.


It's important teens feel seen as themselves, & not put into a 'box' due to diagnosis.


Final thoughts....


If you or your teen are concerned about their mental health, reach out now. Don't wait until things get really bad- most issues are better dealt with sooner rather than later.


Feel free to reach out to the Mindful Recovery Services team for help & advice- that's what we love to do!!!


Alex.


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