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Understanding Your Child's Mental Health: Is it a Phase or Something More Serious?

It's just a phase! Kids are just being kids. Back when we were teenagers, we didn't have all these mental health problems! People just need to get it together. Parents are way too soft on their children these days. Everything is so dramatic now.

Do any of these cliched statements sound familiar? If so, you may be guilty of mistaking a mental health crisis for just a 'troubled teen' or young person having a hard time.

The truth is that youth mental health represents a national emergency. Many teens and young adults are struggling and at risk for problems like substance use, severe mental illness, and suicide. Here's what families need to know:

Is It Just Another Teenage Mental Health Crisis?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), almost 10% of young people have ADHD or anxiety. About 5% meet the criteria for depression. And in many cases, children and adolescents have these conditions concurrently.

The number of people reporting mental health problems has increased over the last decade. Experts haven't exactly pinpointed why this is the case. Some argue that we have more education and awareness about mental health, and more people are choosing to speak out about their problems. Others state that there are significantly more stressors in modern society contributing to crisis issues.

Parents of middle and high school students need to be aware of the key warning signs that their child might be struggling. They include:

Loss of Interest in Usual Activities

It's one thing to have a bad mood. It's another thing if your child no longer seems interested in their typical recreational activities, passions, or hobbies.

Children with depression, in particular, often withdraw from the things they love. This can happen due to general apathy, but it can also coincide with low self-esteem or existential dread.

Evident Signs of Depression

Depression can look like sadness, but it can also manifest as irritation, fatigue, poor concentration, and body aches and pains. People may conceal their depression due to shame.

Some teenagers glamorize depression on social media. They may talk about their symptoms without really having their feelings attached to them. This is also a cause for concern. Parents should be aware that depression can worsen over time, particularly if it's untreated.

Worsening Anxiety

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illnesses worldwide, affecting 284 million people. In your teen or young adult, anxiety can look like avoiding social situations, experiencing panic attacks, refusing to go to school, or diminished self-care.

Explosive Anger

If your teenager always seems angry, pay attention. Their anger may be indicative of underlying issues like unresolved trauma, depression, or low self-esteem.

Explosive anger can result in mental health issues related to physical abuse, violence, and difficulties at work or school. It's important that your child learns healthy coping skills to avoid projecting their feelings onto themselves or others.

Substance Abuse: When to Take It Seriously

It's normal for teens to experiment with drugs and alcohol. Peer pressure and curiosity are real, and many people are highly influenced by their friends during this time.

That said, consistent substance use could indicate a deeper problem.

Here are some signs that your child might be in more immediate danger:

They Suddenly Have All New Friends

This can happen for two reasons. First, a teenager might withdraw from their usual friends because they feel ashamed about their substance use (or because they worry about being judged).

However, your child might also gravitate towards new friends who use drugs because these people will implicitly or explicitly enable their behavior.

They No Longer Care About School

Substance abuse often goes hand-in-hand with a decline in academic performance. If your teenager is skipping school, no longer studying, and seems to just not care, that's a cause for concern.

Suicidal Thoughts: When to Take Them Seriously

Fewer things are scarier than suicide when it comes to your child's well-being. And as a parent, it's an intensely difficult topic. How do you avoid overreacting? How do you prevent underreacting? What are the right things to say or do?

First, it's important to know the warning signs of suicide:

They Talk, Joke, or Glamorize Death

Any positive discussion about death is a red flag While it doesn't mean they are inherently about to attempt suicide, it may mean they've made peace with the idea of death. At such a young age, that often represents a mental health crisis.

They Engage in Self-Harm

Self-harm doesn't always contribute to suicidal behavior. However, people who attempt suicide often have histories of self-harm.

Even if your child doesn't intend to end their life, self-harm indicates difficulty with regulating emotion. It means they lack the mental health resources to appropriately intervene with challenging thoughts or feelings.

Their Feelings Seem Unpredictable and Erratic

Does your child have concerning or strange mood swings? Do they seem down and depressed in one moment only to be laughing and silly the next?

Mood swings might indicate another mental illness, such as bipolar disorder. But they can also coexist with suicidal thoughts. Some people feel sad and depressed during heightened moments. But they also feel relief thinking there's an "end" to their crisis.

They've Made a Suicide Attempt

If your teen has attempted suicide in the past, it's important to remain vigilant. Suicidal thoughts can be chronic.

What to Do When You Suspect a Loved One Has Mental Health Struggles

It's normal to be worried about your child's emotional well-being. But instead of getting consumed by worry, it's better to focus on taking action. Here are some practical steps you can take to support yourself and your child.

Educate Yourself About Mental Illness

Learn about what your child is experiencing and be open to challenging your own biases or assumptions. Remember that, even if you have your own mental health struggles, your situation is not the same as your child's.

Get Other Adults on the Same Page

As much as possible, unite with your child's other caregivers or support system. Talk to their teacher, primary care physician, and school counselor. If everyone knows what's going on, your child may have less access and ability to hide.

Familiarize Yourself With Additional Resources

Many organizations exclusively focus on providing crisis intervention services for adolescents, teenagers, and young adults.

For example, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers confidential support from a trained counselor to help individuals or their loved ones. Their partner, the Crisis Text Line, provides chat options to help people experiencing mental health crises.

These resources are not considered a substitute for professional therapy. However, they can provide immediate relief and offer strength and hope for individuals and their loved ones.

Take Care of Your Own Mental Health

Loved ones sometimes avoid looking at their own issues when they are preoccupied with a teen mental health crisis. This makes sense. If you're worried about your child, your mental health challenges may seem insignificant or unimportant.

But mental illness is often viewed within a systemic framework. So while you aren't responsible for causing your child's mental health issues, parents undoubtedly play a role in strengthening their family relationships.

If you're struggling, consider reaching out for your own resources or treatment. Individual therapy or support groups can help you feel better during this time.

Assess for Immediate Risk

There's a significant difference between someone having a bad day and someone being in immediate danger of harming themselves or someone else.

A mental health crisis often feels urgent and overwhelming. Your child may not be able to articulate themselves very well during this time. They might be experiencing immense depression or anxiety.

Take Your Child to The Emergency Room

If you're concerned about your child's life (or their imminent safety), go to your local hospital. This may be especially important if your child:

  • is displaying active signs of psychosis

  • has access to weapons or other life-threatening items

  • identifies being in a crisis situation

  • has considered attempting suicide or has recently attempted suicide

  • is not receiving treatment

Families play an influential role in supporting a teen or young adult's mental health. So, when in doubt, if you are concerned your child is in a serious crisis, it's better to be safe than sorry.

The staff at the emergency room will thoroughly assess your child's emotional state. If they meet the criteria for a 5150, they may be held involuntarily for up to three days.

This does not mean you have failed as a parent! Mental health is extremely complex, and parents are not necessarily equipped to cope with supporting their children through an acute crisis. Just as you wouldn't take responsibility for fixing a broken arm, it isn't your responsibility to fix their mental health.

How We Help Support Your Child's Mental Health

If you've seen the warning signs and feel concerned, we're here for you. Your child's mental health treatment is our top priority.

We offer everything from acute crisis intervention services to long-term structured support. Our mental health services are one-of-a-kind and completely customized to your loved one's needs. We believe including the family makes a significant difference in our treatment.

Contact us today to learn more about how can help you!

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