What You Need To Know About Adolescent Mental Health
A sullen teenager slams the door in your face for the 10th time this week. An energetic fifth grader bounces off the walls of the classroom, a bundle of energy that won't be contained. Your 12-year-old child is afraid of the dark and performs a nightly ritual to ward off the "monsters."
These scenarios are likely to pop up in the household of concerned parents. The questions for many, however, are which behaviors represent typical adolescence and normal development, and which may be caused by mental illness?
It's not always so easy to tell, which begs another question: Where should a parent start?
"Any time that a child or adolescent's behavior shows a dramatic change, primarily with things like isolating from friends and family, changes in eating or sleeping patterns, and any significant changes in their usual activities, like things that they used to really enjoy they don't enjoy now," that's when to consider getting a child extra help advises Texas-based psychotherapist Margery Boucher.
Parents should think twice if a child is isolating away from friends as opposed to withdrawing from family to spend time with peers. Other warning signs to watch out for are being secretive versus wanting more privacy or losing interest in all activities instead of evolving from childhood interests to teenage activities. Also, be on the lookout for extremes, even when they might seem to be unlikely causes for concern.
"They used to never want to hang out with friends and now all the sudden that's all they want to do, which might seem counterintuitive," Boucher says. "But sometimes if there is drug behavior … suddenly they'll want to hang out with a certain group they've never wanted to be around before."
While these differences in behavior can be subtle or hard to detect, Boucher says that most parents know their kids and they should trust their gut when questioning a child's behavior. If caregivers have suspicions something more than developmental angst may be going on, it's critical to reach out for professional support because "you just never know what a kid could be going through."
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In addition, mental illness in those under the age of 18 isn't uncommon. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 20 percent of young people between ages 13–18 live with a mental health condition. For those 14 and older with a mental illness, 50 percent will drop out of high school. And if left untreated, mental illness can be deadly — suicide is the third leading cause of death among 10–24-year-olds.
Mental health for young people is different than adults, from diagnosis through treatment. For this reason, when seeking professional support for a child, look for a specialist through resources such as Psychology Today's therapist network, an insurance provider's directory or by reaching out to MusiCares if you're a music industry professional.
"It's very, very important for parents to make sure that they find a clinician who specializes in diagnosing, assessing and treating children or an adolescent, not just any therapist," Boucher underscores. "Parents need to be informed consumers. … [Don't] be afraid to call a therapist or a psychologist up and ask, 'Hey, can I ask you some questions?' and interview them. That's very important."
In the meantime, there are ways parents can help protect a child's mental health, especially in teaching children about emotions.
"Kids often times don't have a label for the feelings they're having and so they don't really know how to express that feeling," Boucher says. Parents can reflect emotions back to kids so they can label and manage feelings in a healthy manner.
"If a kid comes to a parent and they're obviously upset about something, label those feelings for the kids," Boucher explains. "Say, 'Gosh, you're really angry about this.' And then talk to them about that emotion and say, 'It's OK to be angry but it's not OK to slam doors. Let's talk about how to really express your anger.'"
Another great way to support kids' mental health? Activities. Outside playtime, sports, and particularly music and the other arts provide a creative outlet for energy and emotions that keep children's minds healthy.
"[Give] kids avenues for letting out various emotions," Boucher says. "Art is a great thing for anyone to be able to express feelings."