How to know when your teen needs help

teen in a bedroom on his phone

By Katelyn Bolte (MA, LPC)

 

Your teens are spending quite a bit of time alone right now. Their activities are cancelled. The friend they were going to meet up with has to quarantine, so plans changed. School and homework are online, sequestering your teen to his or her bedroom. He or she spends many more hours alone than “normal.”

 

When your teen does emerge, you ask, “How’s it going?”

 

“Fine.” 

 

How do you know if your teen is really “fine?” How do you know if the prolonged pandemic and its effects are impacting his or her mental health? How does a parent recognize the difference between “normal” teenage behavior and deteriorating mental health?

 

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

Different patterns of engagement. We can’t expect a teen to spend every free hour of the day out and engaging in the family home. Watch for a change in typical behavior: If your teen used to spend more time out of his/her room and in the community areas of your home, and now only leaves his/her room to use the restroom or get food, that’s concerning.

 

Loss of interest. There are reduced opportunities for your teen to be involved in hobbies and activities. Band concerts may be cancelled, but if your teen who is interested in music is no longer practicing at home, that’s a warning sign. Or perhaps your teen declines to stay connected through video chats with friends. That is also concerning.

 

 Physical changes. Take note of changes in sleep and eating patterns: Increased napping or loss of normal appetite are physical indications that something is not right. Be concerned if your teen complains about physical pain without obvious causes. You might also notice an increase in “purposeless physical activity” like foot bouncing. A decrease in speed is also concerning: climbing the stairs slower, or taking longer to respond to questions. And of course, an increase in reckless behavior is a warning sign: experimenting with drugs or alcohol, sneaking out of the home, risky driving, or physical aggression.

 

Avoidance of situations: Perhaps friends are finally going to venture out together and your teen declines to attend. Or perhaps your teen was very involved in the youth group and is no longer interested once it re-opened. School moves back to face-to-face instruction and your teen wants to continue distance learning. Your teen used to eat dinner with the family and now prefers to isolate in his or her room. These are all signs that change and uncertainty are taking its toll on your teen’s mental health.

 

WHAT PARENTS CAN DO

First of all, be observant. Parents are battling many of their own stressors such as virtual work and changes to normal life patterns. It is easy to miss what might be happening to your teen. It’s important to take time to observe and communicate.

 

I know that can be difficult for many parents right now. One of the best things you can do for your teen is take care of yourself – physically, mentally, spiritually. You are a role model for your teen. In addition, you need the energy to be observant and engage with your teen.

 

Here are some activities that you and your teen could do together or encourage in your household:

 

  • Take deep breaths, stretch. Use intentional breathing exercises.
  •  Meditate, reflect, pray. Consider this helpful exercise to focus on positive thoughts. If you are a Christian, use this quiet, meditative time to pray or read a Psalm. Your strength comes from the Lord, and he will sustain you (Psalm 59:17).
  • Maintain routine throughout the day. Consistent wake times, consistent bedtimes, weekly activities, intentionally planning a new routine each time a new change occurs. COVID quarantines, increased restrictions and the loss of sports and activities might make life feel random and out of control. Be sure to create routines in your daily life.  
  • Stay connected with others. This could be in your family, by having certain touchpoints throughout the day. For example, make and compare music playlists. Or have your teens share their favorite meme-of-the-day at an appointed time.  
  • Eat regular meals. Be sure everyone in the household eats breakfast, lunch, and dinner. 
  • Engage in meaningful physical activity. Intentionally go for a walk, shoot hoops, or play a game outdoors.  

 

WHEN TO CALL FOR HELP

If your teen’s situation does escalate, familiarize yourself with the typical levels of care available. Call a pastor or a counselor and discuss the situation and explore options.

 

Of course, be sure to reach out for immediate help if in crisis. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a national network of local crisis centers that provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, at  1-800-273-8255.

 

Mental Health America has additional crisis resources available.

 

Christian Family Solutions also has a helpline available when you call 800.438.1772, option #1, any time. During business hours, our helpful intake staff will talk with you about options available at CFS, including outpatient counseling, mental wellness and skills groups, as well as day treatment for teens – a higher level of care that provides the necessary intervention when symptoms are escalating.

 

WHERE TREATMENT AND FAITH IN GOD INTERSECT

Christians are encouraged to pray and trust God in times of trouble (Psalm 50:15). When troubles escalate, God’s answers may come in the form of resources and people. When our needs pile up and become more than we can handle on our own, it is wise to seek help.

 

Most licensed professional counselors will provide you with good quality care. If you are a Christian, and you seek out Christian counseling, then you have a tremendous opportunity. If you so desire, your professional counselor can integrate your Christian faith with your treatment, and the results are powerful! God is providing for you through the vocation of the counselor and his or her expertise. When a Christian counselor adds God’s Word into the discussion, the Holy Spirit is also present with you in your treatment. There is nothing more powerful than that for true healing and hope. In fact, research has acknowledged that integrating one’s faith with counseling has strong outcomes.

 

This research has acknowledged what we as Christians know – that when we invite God to be a part of everything we do – including our mental health care – the outcome will be blessed.

 

“Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve my life” – Psalm 138:7a.

 

Katelyn Bolte (MA, LPC) is the Child and Adolescent Services Program Manager in the CFS Mankato clinic. She supervises the ARMOR Day Treatment for Teens program and specializes in working with adolescents and adults with anxiety, depression, trauma, and grief.

  

Other helpful resources:

MENTAL HEALTH RESOURCE LIBRARY: https://christianfamilysolutions.org/resources/

DISTANCE LEARNING STRATEGIES FOR TEENS: https://christianfamilysolutions.org/toolkits/strategies-for-managing-distance-learning/

 PSYCHOLOGICAL FIRST AID: https://christianfamilysolutions.org/2020/04/14/5-principals-of-psychological-first-aid/