Teenagers today are facing unprecedented levels of stress. In a recent study, researchers from the Health Resources and Services Administration found that anxiety and depression among young people have drastically increased over the last five years.
This data doesn’t surprise me. In my work as the wellness director at Geffen Academy at UCLA, I’ve witnessed students struggle to regain their footing since the pandemic began. Some kids lost years of social interaction, gaining new social anxieties or behavioral problems in their place. Others struggled to re-learn how to focus and study in-person again. Everyone has needed time to reconnect and adjust. But even before 2020, young people needed help. In fact, since 2007, mental health problems have been on the rise, fueled in part by growing social media use and academic pressures.
My students are no exception. Kids as young as 12 regularly complain to me about pressure to get into a “good” college. High school students anxiously talk about posting their own college admissions news on social media. Outside of school, kids tell me they can’t log offline because they need to keep up with what their friends are doing. My students feel constant pressure to look like their social lives are filled with fun and interesting events. Students tell me they feel socially isolated, and others have said they post online even when they feel sad — to create the appearance that they are having fun.
Teenagers have always been angsty, but today’s teens are facing problems that can seem puzzling to a generation of parents that grew up without the same pressures. However, it’s crucial that parents don’t turn away from adolescent mental health. When teens feel alone, feelings of depression and anxiety are more likely to be amplified. The best way to combat this is through open discussions.
I’ll be honest. These sorts of conversations won’t always be easy. If your own parents once sat you down for a talk about the birds and the bees, it’s likely that you cringe even thinking about that memory (I know I do). But, if you’re lucky, you may also have come away with some information and resources. Just because our kids aren’t always receptive to talking to us about sensitive subjects doesn’t mean we should avoid difficult conversations.
Following are some tips on how to start.
Treat your teen as an expert
Teenagers want to be seen and heard; they want their experiences to be validated and believed. As a parent, there’s a natural inclination to want to lead a conversation, but sometimes the best thing you can do is ask your kid what they know.
Instead of lecturing them on the dangers of vaping or telling them what to do if they feel stressed, try asking some questions first: What have you heard about stress? What are some ways you see people dealing with stress? How do you typically deal with stress, and how does it impact you? Affirming your kids’ expertise on their own mental well-being is the first step toward empowering them to take care of themselves.
Talk about mental health the same way you do physical health
We’ve made a lot of progress on destigmatizing mental health since I was a teenager, but the topic can still be taboo.
To help kids feel more comfortable talking openly, it’s important to explain that mental health is similar to physical health. Just like with physical health, it’s helpful for kids to understand signs and symptoms of problems before they appear — and to get regular checkups. By framing mental health as similar to physical health, parents can also help teens understand that
mental health fluctuates throughout life and is sometimes impacted by challenges and changes such as stress, lack of sleep, loss, rejection and other external factors.
Provide a calm, stable presence for your child
As a parent, there’s nothing more anxiety-producing than seeing your kid struggle, but it’s important that we leave our own emotions at the door when starting conversations with the young people we care about.
Anxious energy can cause teens to close up or feel anxious themselves. Your teen may share information that is surprising or concerning in conversations about mental health, but it’s important to remain calm and nonjudgmental. In doing so, you can model what it looks like to cope with an emotion and provide a stable presence for your child. After the conversation, continue to foster a sense of safety at home by providing a space that feels emotionally predictable.
Model vulnerability for your kids
I didn’t grow up in a home where people talked about their emotions, which was part of why it was so hard for me to reach out to my family for help when I needed it as a teen. While it’s important not to let our own emotions dominate conversations with young people, adults don’t have to pretend to be perfect. Instead — as in conversations about sex, drinking or drugs — we can share vulnerable moments from our own lives to help illustrate lessons. When being vulnerable, it’s critical to make sure you share things you have already processed. Remember that the story should provide insight, and that the conversation isn’t about you. You’re being vulnerable so your kid can connect with you.
Recently, a student privately expressed to me that he feels very nervous at the start of the school year, but fears that his peers will judge him if he expresses his worries. I responded by sharing more about my own back-to-school jitters and let him know that being anxious during periods of change is normal. I told him that in my own life, when I feel nervous, I try to focus on what I can control. I then asked him what factors he might be able to control right now. Our conversation was vulnerable, honest and productive. Once the student understood his problem was not unusual or shameful, it became easier for him to address it directly.
Keep lines of communication open
The mental health talk can and should be an ongoing discussion. Make sure your child knows they can come to you with questions. Continue to check in regularly — even when it feels awkward.
Parents can also consider taking some of the burden off themselves by investing in mental health education. By giving kids the tools they need to understand and address mental health — through helping them develop healthy coping mechanisms and a more expansive vocabulary to discuss emotions — we can destigmatize mental health concerns and provide kids with the support they need. Talking about mental health can be tough, but if kids can do it, parents can, too.
Ross Szabo is an award-winning mental health speaker, advocate and speaker. He serves as the wellness director at Geffen Academy at UCLA and CEO of Human Power Project.