(BPT) - It’s not uncommon for teens to experience heightened levels of stress, anxiety and depression during the school year as they contend with known stressors like bullying, peer pressure, and academic and extracurricular demands. However, recent research, “Family Matters: Report on the State of Family Mental Health in the U.S.,” conducted by MDLIVE, a leading virtual care provider, finds there are many more issues beyond the classroom walls that are affecting teens’ mental health.
What’s stressing teens today
According to the report, teens are just as likely as adults, if not more than, to be concerned today about the job market, family financial stability, and the impact of inflation on food and housing costs. What’s more, the report shows a disconnect between the issues teens say are affecting them, and what parents think they know about what’s impacting their teens’ mental health. More than half of teens say LGBTQ+ rights affect their mental health, while only 42% of parents think it affects their kids. Similar gaps exist for the impact on mental health of social media and news of spikes in cases of COVID and other infectious diseases.
The good news is that teens wish that there was more family discussion around many of these issues, including LGBTQ+ rights, school safety and social justice in the U.S. While it is not always a comfortable or natural situation for parents, it is important that they find opportunities to talk with their kids about the issues that are troubling them.
“Parents may be uncomfortable talking about certain current topics because they may not fully understand them themselves, fear they might disagree with their teen's point of view or underestimate the impact of these issues on their kids,” said Dr. Shakira Espada-Campos, associate chief of behavioral health at MDLIVE. “It’s not always easy, but leaning into these tough topics shows teens that open and honest communication is important and can have a positive impact on their well-being.”
Engagement and support
While discussing mental health with your children can seem overwhelming, Espada-Campos outlines five simple and attainable ways parents can address difficult subject matters and pinpoint any other concerns they or their children may have:
1. Do your homework
Talking to teens about significant societal topics requires sensitivity, empathy and a willingness to learn. Before you initiate a conversation, familiarize yourself with the topic, but be comfortable not being an expert. Teens want openness, not necessarily expertise, and they want to know you will listen.
2. Keep your positions in check
Everyone has an opinion, but with your teens, it’s critical to keep your own views in check as the conversation unfolds. They may know your opinion already just from observing you. You don’t have to hide your views, but be sure not to downplay or dismiss their position or concerns.
3. Tune into social media
Consider social media as a window into your teen’s world. While respecting their privacy, ask them about their favorite content creators or news channels they follow and start tuning into those channels yourself. This can give you a better understanding of the themes or ideas resonating with them, and, in turn, help you determine the topics worth discussing.
4. Consider the approach
Rather than scheduling a specific time to talk, which may place undue pressure on them, consider initiating the conversation during a shared activity, such as cooking or hiking, to allow for a more natural and relaxed dialogue. Try asking specific questions like “What was the best or most difficult part of your day?” or “Which one of your friends do you feel you have the most in common with?” which prompt answers that reveal their current mindset. And be consistent with these conversations, which will let your teen know they have consistent support from you.
5. Recognize the signs
Unlike a physical ailment, mental health struggles might not always present obvious signs. It's often the subtle shifts that may signal an issue, including changes in behavior, body language, academic performance, sleep or eating habits. If your child seems to be withdrawing from previously enjoyed activities or from friends and family, it can also be a sign they’re struggling, and time to talk to them about professional support.
Know your support options
Remember, the ultimate goal is to ensure your child feels heard, understood and supported. There are many options available for getting your child support from a mental health professional. Virtual therapy services are a convenient and flexible option for teens — the comfort of being in their own environment can facilitate open dialogue, while also accommodating the often-hectic schedules of teens and parents. Always contact your health benefits plan to check what behavioral services may be covered.