There is nothing quite as rewarding as being a parent. It is a vocation full of incredible inspiration, joy, surprises, and rewards; every day presents new opportunities to grow and learn from your children. But equally, there is perhaps nothing quite as arduous. Being a parent demands unconditional love, patience, support, and an endless supply of energy that can challenge any parent, super-parent, or humble human.

“The funny thing about kids is, they are the reason we lose it and the reason we hold it together.”

– Anonymous

Watching a child grow into a tween, teen, then a young adult can be paradoxically beautiful and harrowing. Parenting a teenager, or young adult, requires an entirely different approach to parenting a child; the sudden change in the relationship as a child hits puberty can take one by surprise.

The daily pressures teenagers face include the process of defining their identity, a perceived need and pressure to conform, confusion, curiosity and insecurity about sex and sex preference, alcohol and drugs, and the demands from school, amongst hundreds of other stresses and traumas. Yet, ironically, it seems that when teens might need the most support, they inevitably start to distance themselves from their parents as they assert their identity and independence.

Talking to teenagers on their terms in the context of the challenges they face, the seemingly sudden parameters and boundaries they impose, and needs that may not be in line with established family norms can be daunting. Though, contrary to what many parents feel at the onset of the perplexing teenage years, most teens want to talk to and need the support of their parents yet may struggle to reach out for fear their parent may be out of touch with or unapproachable on specific topics. 1

Equally, your teenager may not know how to ask for help or explain what they are experiencing. Their struggle may extend beyond existential youth angst. According to a Mental Health America report published this year “3.84% of youth (age 12-17) report suffering from at least one major depressive episode (MDE) in the past year”, it continues “9.7% of youth (or over 2.3 million youth) cope with severe major depression. Depression in youth often co-occurs with other disorders like substance use, anxiety and disorderly behavior.” 2

While a small percentage of youth experience a MDE, the incidence rate was on the rise even before Covid, so it’s essential to be attentive, observant, and present to recognize the signs that your child may need additional support or outside help. The earlier you can identify what is troubling them, the better you’ll be able to guide and support them through their challenges.

How can I tell if my child is struggling?

  1. Mood swings
  2. Changes in Behavior
  3. Low self-esteem
  4. Social isolation
  5. Sudden outbursts of anger
  6. Lack of energy
  7. Pronounced negativity
  8. Erratic behavior
  9. Changes in sleeping Patterns
  10. Withdrawal from normal activities
  11. Weak academic performance

How can I help?

A survey of over 1,000 teenagers published in 2014 by the American Psychological Association, approximately 30% of teenagers polled reported feeling “sad, overwhelmed or depressed.” 3

We’ve listed below some essential tips for supporting your teen. While your love and empathy are crucial to your child’s wellbeing, it’s vital to be mindful that some symptoms lasting more than two weeks may signify that your teen is struggling with underlying mental health or substance use issues. If so, professional support may be necessary.

  1. Unconditionality
    A child’s relationship with their parents invariably impacts their self-esteem, self-image, confidence, and how they relate to others. While other factors come into play, an accepting, stable, supportive, and loving home environment is essential for their emotional recovery and wellbeing.
  2. Lay the Groundwork Early
    Parents who actively communicate with their children from a young age are better poised to support their teens through a crisis. In addition, establishing healthy communication and instilling healthy negotiation skills when your child is younger will strengthen communication and make them amenable to approaching you during times of crisis.
  3. Be Patient 
    Identifying that your child needs support and getting them to talk openly do not always go hand in hand. While you may think you have the solution to their woes, they may not be ready to begin problem-solving. Moving from crisis mode to resolution mode is a process. It’s important to avoid rushing your child through their process; allow them to set the pace and the process within reason.
  4. Listen more, talk less.
    While your teen may lack life experience, no one has more insight into their needs than they do, despite any uncertainty they may be feeling. So provide your child the space to express themselves, follow their lead, and let them guide you to what support they need from you.
  5. Be Direct
    If you’ve detected your teen may need support but has not reached out, it may be up to you to broach the subject. While often uncomfortable, breaking the wall of silence is crucial for moving beyond crisis. How to approach this depends not only on their frame of mind but also on your communication to date. If you are unsure how to proceed, ease into the conversation by asking general questions, then gently guide them by asking more direct questions.
  6. Be Present
    Being present means slowing down enough to share moments and allow time to be, connect, interact, and be together – in good times and bad. Although life’s increasingly fast-pace is stressful for parents and children alike, pausing to take a moment can create an emotional and psychological oasis that may foster mutual empathy and understanding.
  7. Role Model Self-Care 
    It is difficult to separate our feelings from our child’s as we watch them struggle as a parent. It requires nothing less than mustering all the strength, wisdom, empathy, and patience possible to shelter them from harm. Nonetheless, it’s vital to be aware of your needs, remembering that their emotions can influence yours. By role modeling self-care and putting yourself first, you’ll be better prepared for whatever comes your way.
  8. Get Support
    You are not an island. Despite our best efforts, sometimes our children need more than we can provide. Looking outside the family for help can deliver new opportunities for healing and growth and provide the perspective and objectivity that we can lose sight of when stressed.
  9. There are hundreds of support options for your child, your family, and you. The right one, whether it be individual or family counseling, substance use support, mental health counseling or therapy, or peer group support, depends on your needs and preference. It’s crucial to seek help early, proactively, when possible, to best support your child. Doing so may be the life and support line you both need to navigate this journey together.