Teens’ mental health is as important as their physical health. It’s not always obvious when a teen is struggling emotionally, but recognizing the symptoms and seeking early and effective mental health services are important to prevent more serious mental health issues.
Parents should talk to their teens and foster a relationship based on open communication. Seek to understand how your child is feeling, without judgment, before you try to fix the problem.
As a pediatric psychologist at CHOC Children’s Hospital, Dr. Mery Taylor helps teens and their families who are facing a variety of mental health challenges. Typical concerns or issues teens seek treatment for include:
- Difficulty coping with stressors such as: chronic illness, a life or family change, a social or school concern, and grief and loss
- Disruptive behavior disorders, including attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and oppositional defiance disorder (ODD)
- Eating disorders
“Throughout my ten years at CHOC, a majority of teens I have worked with have come to me for pain issues, anxiety, depression, eating disorders and difficulty coping with stress,” says Taylor. “I have also seen an increase number of transgender youth and parents seeking services.”
What is mindfulness?
Practicing mindfulness, or relaxation techniques can help teens build coping skills to address issues, such as anxiety disorders. It’s very easy to get wrapped up in our emotions and not see our way out of them, says Dr. Taylor.
“The more we attend to the fear, the more power it gets and we can become paralyzed about what to do, or avoid aspects of our life in attempt to manage the anxiety. We can get stuck on a cycle of trying to avoid our anxiety and forget to live life. At times, we allow our negative thoughts and emotions to dictate our actions without stopping to assess if they are valid and irrespective of the consequences. For example, we might avoid going to school because we don’t feel we have studied enough for a test and then end up missing out on important instruction for another class. Mindfulness makes us stop for a minute and check in with ourselves,” says Dr. Taylor. “Mindfulness asks us to be curious of our thoughts and feelings without judgment or action—to just be in the moment. Developing acceptance and compassion for the painful parts of our inner emotional life can weaken the power of the anxiety. Once weakened, we can better manage our fears.”
Tips for practicing mindfulness:
- When something is bothering you, shift that attention to yourself, rather than what you’re reacting to.
- Stop for a moment to center yourself, by addressing and labeling those sensations (fear, worry, anger). Validate these feelings to ourselves can help to lessen our fight or flight reaction.
- Now turn to your attention to your body. Identify the sensations going on in your body. All emotions are experienced as sensations in our body.
- If you find yourself attending to the thoughts or feeling again, gently bring your focus to your body sensation (e.g., muscle tension, heartbeat, etc.).
- Practice relaxation techniques to calm the nervous system, to stop the nervous reaction and respond more cognitively. For example:
- Autogenic relaxation. Autogenic means something that comes from within you. Visualize a peaceful setting. You can repeat a phrase such as, “I am relaxed” to invoke muscle tension release. Focus also on breathing slowly and evenly.
- Progressive muscle relaxation. In this relaxation technique, you focus on slowly tensing and then relaxing different muscle groups in your body. You can start with clenching your hands into a fist and then relaxing them. Focusing on the difference between muscle tension and relaxation, will help you become more aware of physical sensations.
- Form a mental image of a place that find to be peaceful and calming. To relax imagine yourself exploring this place. Try to incorporate as many senses as you can, including smell, sight, sound and touch on your journey. If you imagine relaxing at the beach and feel the cool sand on your felt, and sound of the crashing waves
- You probably already know other things that calm you (e.g., listening to music, taking a shower, walking your dog, etc.). You can do those things too.
Parents can help facilitate mindfulness.
“Being non-judgmental is a big part of mindfulness,” says Taylor. “It’s important to accept that we do what we can, and that we have limitations. It’s important to acknowledge everything you have going on in your life that’s happening at once, and to give yourself a break.”
“A parent might acknowledge and normalize the anxiety associated with college applications as a way to show compassion and thereby minimizing the urgency that the teen feels. Once more calm, the teen can focus on the college application, instead of attending to the distressing thoughts and feelings.”
Parents hoping to teach mindfulness practices to their teens are also encouraged to model the behavior themselves, says Taylor. Remind teens that practicing mindfulness can also improve concentration at school and improve performance.
CHOC believes mental health treatment should be fully integrated with physical health treatment. Our psychology team works closely with patients’ medical teams to attend to emotional, behavioral and developmental needs through inpatient and outpatient therapy. Our goal is to foster the whole well-being of the teen and family.
CHOC psychologists have recorded a library of guided imagery audio tracks to help children and teens relax, manage pain, ease fears and anxiety, fall asleep easier and more:
- Meet Dr. Esther Yang, a pediatric psychiatrist at CHOC Children’s,
- Three pediatric experts from CHOC Children’s discuss the teen brain and offer advice for parents on how to better understand and connect with their teen.
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