Approximately 50 percent of adolescents meet the criteria for a psychiatric diagnosis at some point, and we’ve all heard about the unmet teenage mental health problems and associated suicidality rates. As young adults crave autonomy, the prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain responsible for flexible thinking and impulse management — continues to develop through age 25, which means your teen, as mature as it may seem, needs help adults need when it comes to regulating emotions and dealing with crises.
Still, I’ve seen even the most well-meaning parents panic when their child is struggling with mental health issues, and then accidentally say the wrong thing, like, “You’re overreacting.” Sometimes they give kids too much space in which to Assuming their teenager comes to them with a problem. But there are effective ways to empower your teen, including working on managing your own emotions, asking the right questions, and helping to determine the level of support they need.
Practice being kind and non-judgmental: To increase the likelihood that your teen will open up to you in difficult times, it helps to be open and warm in ordinary moments. It can also help to remember that feeling stressed is part of being a young adult, says psychologist Lisa Damour, author of Under Pressure and co-host of the podcast Ask Lisa: The Psychology of Parenting “. “Part of the way we can support young people is to normalize stress,” she says.
Don’t be a “snowplow parent”: It is not your job to eliminate potential problems your youngster is facing. Experiencing and coping with mistakes and failures can prove to be a “hidden curriculum” that helps young adults grow and find their purpose, say Belle Liang and Timothy Klein, authors of How to Navigate Life.
Many of the parents I treat, especially those who suffer from anxiety themselves, are eager to save the day when it comes to non-urgent issues such as: B. to help her teenager catch up on a late assignment. This only prevents their young adults from learning from the consequences and developing better problem-solving skills. Instead, Damour recommends listening and empathizing, which reduces the intensity of negative emotions. Instead of going into fix-it mode, the goal should be “to help your young person build a broader managerial repertoire,” advises Damour. This may include talking about healthy habits like getting enough sleep, exercising, and avoiding substances.
Give them hope: If your teen is struggling with issues that are more severe than average stress, like depression or anxiety, let them know that what they’re experiencing isn’t permanent and that feeling better is possible and within reach. “Symptoms of depression don’t define you, they are part of your life experience and will change with effort, adaptive coping skills and finding the right support,” advises Jessica Schleider, a psychologist and assistant professor at Stonybrook University. Schleider developed short, one-to-one session interventions that are free online that help reduce hopelessness and depression, especially when you’re waiting to meet with a professional.
Ask about thoughts of self-harm: However, if you’re concerned that your child is considering suicide or self-harm, “the most important thing is to collect yourself and find a way to ask about it directly,” David Jobes, a psychologist and professor at the Catholic University, tells the Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicidality, an evidence-based clinical intervention for suicide prevention. He encourages parents to gather their strength, approach their loved one at a good time when you have their undivided attention, and then be upfront: “Are things ever so bad that you’re thinking about suicide? Have you ever thought about doing things to hurt yourself?” — and make sure you’re ready to hear the answer. “You have to listen and just hear it and hold it, rather than invalidating, anticipating, or pointing things out,” says Jobes. “They want to convey the message that we are here, be it physically or emotionally; on the phone or by SMS. We have you.”
Many young adults are afraid to bring up their parents’ suicidal thoughts, which can result in suicidal thoughts being addressed only when necessary. That’s why it’s so important to lay the groundwork to make your teen feel comfortable about sharing. Also keep in mind that suicidal thoughts are fairly common, with nearly 10 percent of people having these thoughts at some point in their lives.
“We can all have thoughts that feel scary, they’re just thoughts, and we can talk about them together,” Schleider says, adding that it’s crucial that your teen knows they can come to you. Suicidal feelings can feel frightening and warrant seeking professional help, but remember you need to be someone your child can turn to, so don’t overreact. Instead, try to come into these conversations prepared with potential resources.
Rely on research-based approaches: As a parent, Jobes says you can call crisis hotlines and use tools like the Stanley Brown Safety Plan and share them with your teen to give them some agency, which they find helpful. Some of the resources Jobes is encouraging to explore while waiting to meet with a professional include the crisis text line, the national 988 hotline, research into dialectical behavioral therapy — an evidence-based approach to treating suicidal feelings — Content on Now Matters Now or DBT-RU, or participation in the Lived Experience Academy or the peer-led Alternatives to Suicide. In any case, take precautions and remove access to deadly means.
Contrary to popular belief, if there is no risk of suicide, medications such as SSRIs or hospitalization may not be necessary. Instead, Jobes encourages understanding the drivers that lead your child to consider suicide and offering your child a range of options, including psychotherapies known to reduce the risk of suicide, such as After decades of experience in the field of adolescent suicideology, Jobes has found that “at the heart of most suicide struggles are relationship issues.” These can include anything from problems at home to bullying at school to romantic breakups, and medication or hospitalization generally don’t improve these concerns as much as good psychotherapy, says Jobes.
One of the suicide prevention studies I think about often in my work is psychiatrist Jerome Motto’s simple but life-saving finding that clinicians who send short, caring check-in messages that show that someone is in the well-being of a person is invested can significantly reduce the risk of suicide. Communicating that you genuinely care and are there, repeatedly and without judgment, is a profound gift.
No matter what lies ahead for the young adult you love, think about your role as Jobes dictates: “Like a beacon, just keep sending the message: I’m here. There are stones out there. I will continue to send out a beacon to help guide you, but you are the captain of your own ship and together we can get you safely to shore.”
Jenny Taitz, PsyD, ABPP, is a clinical psychologist and clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California at Los Angeles. She is the author of a forthcoming book on stress: “How to be single and happy,” and “Stop emotional eating.”
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