How to Educate Your Teen on Mental Health Disorders

When children are young, parents usually teach them how to keep their bodies healthy. For example, you probably taught your child that he or she needs to eat vegetables, get enough sleep, and get some exercise each day. As your child grew into a teenager, you might have talked about why it’s important not to smoke, the dangers of alcohol and drugs, and how to know which type of over-the-counter medication to take for common cold symptoms or a headache. An important facet of health that you must not neglect to teach your teen about is mental health. Read on to find out why it’s vital to teach your teen about mental health disorders and ideas on how you can approach the various topics.


Anxiety and Depression


Many teens go through periods of depression and anxiety. The adolescent years can be overwhelming, and while some mood swings and anxious feelings are normal, a full-blown anxiety disorder or clinical depression lasting more than two weeks are conditions that need professional evaluation.


Your teen should know the signs of depression and anxiety so they can recognize the symptoms if they occur. Because it’s sometimes difficult to recognize symptoms of mental health disorders when you are going through them, your teen might also use this knowledge to help a friend who is struggling.


Talk to your teen about the symptoms of anxiety and depression. Ask them if they’ve experienced what they thought were physical symptoms but might actually be symptoms of a mental health condition. For example, a teen going through an anxiety attack might think that the racing heart, breathlessness and shaky feeling were caused by a physical problem. Or an adolescent getting headaches and experiencing a loss of appetite and difficulty getting out of bed in the morning might not realize that these are symptoms of depression. Let your teen know that they should go to you or another trusted adult if they have concerns.


Suicidal Thoughts and Ideation


One topic of mental health that can make a parent’s blood run cold is that of suicide. As it is the third-leading cause of death in young people aged 15-24, it’s important to discuss suicide prevention with your teenager. They should know that any suicidal thoughts or ideation (a plan for how they might commit suicide) is a medical emergency and needs to be talked about immediately. Let your teen know that if a friend threatens to commit suicide, they should get help right away in the form of an adult or, if the danger is imminent, by calling 911.


Your teen might be at an increased risk of suicide if:

  • your family is going through difficult times, such as a divorce, a job loss, or even a move to a new city or state
  • your teen uses drugs or alcohol
  • your teen is being bullied

It’s important to be particularly vigilant if any of these situations apply to your teen, but even adolescents who have not experienced any hardships need to be educated about suicide.


Substance Abuse and Addiction


Chances are good that your teen has learned about different types of drugs and their dangers in their health class at school. While it’s important to know what the various types of drugs can do to the body, it’s also important for your teen to stay away from temptation and how to say no if confronted with illegal or dangerous substances when out with friends or at a party. This is something that you should talk to your teenager about regularly.


Many teens will experiment with drugs or alcohol, but if you make your feelings about these substances known, it might be less likely that your teen will be one of them. Teenagers do care about disappointing their parents, even if they pretend that they don’t. Also, having a specific boundary drawn (for example, “do not drink at all”) can give them a reason to refuse when put on the spot.


If your teen does experiment with alcohol or drugs, however, it’s important for them to know that they can come to you. Preventing or treating substance abuse and addiction is more important than worrying about getting into trouble for trying a beer at a party. Be sure to talk to your teen not only about the rules but also about the importance of keeping you in the loop so you can intervene before there is a serious problem.


Family History of Mental Health Disorders


There are many types of mental health disorders, and some are passed along in families. In some cases, this is a matter of biology, but in many others, it’s because certain behaviors might be witnessed and accepted by teens. For example, if a mother has an eating disorder, it’s very easy for her teenage daughter to pick up on those unhealthy behaviors and adopt them as her own. Anxiety can also be passed along because teens might not learn healthy coping methods from their parent or other loved one.


If you have any mental health disorders in your family, it’s important to be upfront with your teenager about them. If you yourself are struggling with any type of mental health condition, get help for it. This not only sets a good example for your teen, but it will also help you cope with and rise to the challenge of raising and educating your adolescent. It’s very hard to parent effectively when you are dealing with an untreated mental health condition, so seek counseling or other mental health treatment.


It can be difficult to approach sensitive topics like mental health disorders with your teenager. Keep in mind that the sooner you introduce these topics, the easier it will be for your child to come to you with concerns that he or she might be having. Be sure that your teen has several adults in his or her life that they could go to if they feel they’re developing a mental health issue. Your teen’s doctor is a great resource for them; a favorite aunt or uncle or even a trusted teacher at school can also help guide your teen. Don’t think that you have to educate your teen on your own, and don’t be afraid to reach out for help if you need tips on how to discuss these vital topics with your adolescent.