Why Mental Illness in Teens Can Go Unnoticed

Sadly, mental health is not always a primary focus for parents. Sure, parents might be looking out for the general wellbeing of their teen, but they may not notice signs of depression, anxiety, or other forms of mental illness in teens. This is especially true if parents experience depression or anxiety themselves. Instead, families might focus on physical health, success in school, behavior, and achievements as a sign of how well a teen is doing. Yet, a teen may be hiding their mental illness symptoms symptoms from their parents, which can lead to more difficulties later.


Untreated Mental Illness in Teens


Teens who experience symptoms of mental illness may not know that what they’re experiencing is a problem which requires professional help. For instance, a teen who experienced trauma and then subsequently experienced symptoms but never received treatment might be suffering from depression, anxiety, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) without knowing it. It’s easy to dismiss certain emotional experiences as part of adolescence. Furthermore, it can be hard to identify mental illness in teens if it seems to be a “normal” part of one’s experience. Common reasons why parents may not see that their teen is struggling with a mental illness includes:


Parents want to give their teen space. When teens come home from school, they might immediately go into their room. AWhen parents interact with them, teens might come across as angry, demanding ,or withdrawn. Some parents might back off a bit to give their teen the emotional space they need to find their own way. However, this emotional distance might get in the way of noticing a deeper struggle in their teen. Parents might find a way to give their teens the space they need while maintaining emotional closeness.


Mental illness is so common in the family it’s hard to see. If there is addiction, divorce, domestic violence, or other challenges in a family’s history, and especially if these events haven’t been spoken about, there may be symptoms of mental illness that more than one family member is experiencing. If this is the case, especially if it’s not being treated, the symptoms teens have might also go unnoticed.


Mental illness is so uncommon in the family, it’s hard to see. The opposite can be true too. If there hasn’t ever been mental illness (depression, anxiety, or others) then parents might not be aware enough of what to look for in order to identify it in their teen.


Parents may not be emotionally attuned with their teen. Attunement is the ability to feel into the inner experience of another person. It can take some practice for parents who haven’t experienced this before. Furthermore, if parents never experienced attunement with their parents when they were children, it may be difficult for them to attune to their own children. With emotional attunement, a parent could more easily pick up on the cues that their teen is feeling sad even though their teen is saying they’re “fine”.


There may be other factors that can prevent a parent from being able to see that their teen is suffering emotionally or psychologically. To begin to notice signs of mental illness in teens, parents may benefit from developing awareness around psychological health. Sadly, there are many teen mental health articles online that point to a common theme: teens taking their lives or hurting themselves without their parents knowing about the struggles they faced. To help prevent these tragic events, parents can develop awareness around mental illness and how it might show up in their teen.


How Parents Can Develop Awareness Around Mental Illness


Many teens are vulnerable to mental illness because of the life stage they are in. They may experience symptoms of depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, or others. Parents might have to take extra measures to ensure that their teen is mentally healthy. Here are some steps parents can take to develop their awareness around teen mental health:


1. Educate yourself. Get to know the symptoms of common mental illnesses. Find out what can trigger certain types of mental illness. Read about the connections between mental illness and drugs, trauma, social experiences, and a child’s early history. Learn about the protective factors that can help a teen stay mentally healthy, such as maintaining a healthy lifestyle (exercise, eating well, right amount of sleep, etc. ).


2. Look for symptoms. Once you become educated on the basics, look to see if your teen may be struggling with symptoms of mental illness. Learning about mental illness in teens can help you become aware enough to see symptoms that your teen may be experiencing. Some symptoms can include:

  • sleep disturbances
  • restlessness
  • inability to concentrate
  • over or under eating
  • low grades
  • frequently getting into trouble
  • aggression
  • social isolation


3. Whether you see symptoms or not, give your teen coping tools. Even if your teen is not struggling with depression or anxiety, having coping tools that can help regulate their emotions can always be useful. For instance, many teens begin cutting because they do not have any other way of coping with strong or overwhelming emotions. You and your teen can practice relaxation techniques, mindfulness, and deep breathing together as a way to develop a regular routine of utilizing coping tools.


4. Adopt styles of parenting that promote relationship and connection. Positive parenting and attachment parenting are styles that make your relationship with your teen the primary focus. With a stronger relationship and by staying connected to your teen’s peers, hobbies, interests, social outings, experiences at school and use of social media, you can become more aware of where your teen might struggle. Be careful not to become a helicopter parent.  This style of parenting is when a parent constantly hovers over their teen as a means of protection. However, it can be taken to an extreme and a parent can control every aspect of a teen’s life, undermining their empowerment, self esteem, and competence.


5. Use mindfulness with teens. Mindfulness is a coping tool. However, mindfulness is also a tool for developing awareness. The technique invites an individual to slow down and notice what’s going on within and around them. If parents were to practice mindfulness with teens, they might begin to notice subtle differences in their teen. Parents might also notice subtle differences in themselves. Furthermore, with mindfulness, teens can learn how to do the following:

  • regulate emotions
  • focus
  • develop presence
  • grow compassion
  • develop empathy
  • reduce impulsivity
  • strengthen their ability to be aware of themselves


6. Have your teen assessed. Of course, if you do suspect that your teen is struggling with symptoms, it’s essential that they see a mental health provider.


7. Get assessed yourself. If you feel that you struggle with any symptoms, it is important for the health of your family to see a mental health professional. Getting help for any symptoms you may struggle with can help you with supporting your teen to do the same.


The suggestions listed above are meant to support parents in developing their understanding and awareness around mental illness in teens.