Supporting Teen Mental Health

Teen Mental Health: How to Support Growing Pains

From experiencing big emotions and hormonal changes to navigating major life events, teenaged years are tumultuous by nature. Unfortunately, this can make it difficult for parents to differentiate normal adolescent behaviors from signs of mental illness. Here, we explore five signs that a teenager in your life could be struggling with their mental health and share advice from local experts on how to support them.


Depression is one of the most prevalent mental health disorders among teenagers. Depression symptoms include persistent sadness, loss of interest in activities, changes in appetite or sleep patterns, fatigue, feelings of worthlessness, and thoughts of suicide or self-harm. Depression can show up as a variety of symptoms and behaviors, but the common signs include withdrawing from social activities or hobbies, declining performance in school, struggling with self-care or personal hygiene, and notable changes in behavior or personality.

Anxiety Disorders

Anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety disorder, panic disorder (and accompanying panic attacks), and specific phobias such as agoraphobia, affect millions of teenagers worldwide. Symptoms can manifest as excessive worry, restlessness, irritability, difficulty concentrating, muscle tension, and sleep disturbances.

teen mental health | graphic illustration of mother comforting distressed teen daughter

Teenagers with anxiety disorders may avoid certain situations or experiences that trigger their anxiety, leading to impaired social and academic functioning. Anxiety can manifest as hypervigilance and perfectionism, but overwhelming feelings of worry can also cause teenagers to shut down and be unable to function.

Substance Abuse

Many teenagers experiment with drugs and alcohol as part of their developmental exploration. However, substance abuse can escalate into a serious mental health problem characterized by dependence, addiction, and associated psychological issues. Signs of substance abuse in teenagers may include changes in behavior, declining academic performance, withdrawal from family and friends, secrecy, and physical symptoms such as bloodshot eyes or tremors.

Eating Disorders

Eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder, disproportionately affect adolescents – particularly girls. These conditions involve changes in eating behaviors and disturbances in body image perception. Warning signs include dramatic weight loss or gain, obsession with food, preoccupation with body shape or weight, secretive eating habits, and frequent trips to the bathroom after meals.


Self-harm, or non-suicidal self-injury, is a maladaptive coping mechanism often associated with underlying mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, or trauma. Teenagers may engage in self-harming behaviors such as cutting, burning, scratching, or hitting themselves to alleviate emotional pain or gain a sense of control. Signs of self-harm include unexplained injuries, frequent wearing of long sleeves or pants to conceal wounds, and isolation from peers.

Recognizing Mental Health Problems in Teenagers

Many people with disorders like depression and anxiety try their best to keep these feelings to themselves for fear of being different or making their loved ones worry. Luckily, there are several steps you can take as a parent to support your teenager through these difficult times. Some effective strategies include:

Increased Awareness: Educating parents, authority figures, and teenagers themselves about the signs and symptoms of common mental health problems can facilitate early recognition and intervention. Paying attention to any changes in behavior, mood, academic performance, or social interactions can provide valuable insights into a teenager’s mental health status.

Open Communication: Creating a supportive environment where teenagers feel comfortable discussing their struggles can encourage them to seek help earlier. If you notice a change in your teenager’s behavior, it’s important to ask about it without judgement. For example, “I’ve noticed you’re sleeping more during the day, are you feeling okay?” is kinder than “It’s noon and you’re still asleep, what’s going on?”

Seeking Professional Help: Encouraging teenagers to seek support from mental health professionals, such as therapists, counselors, or psychiatrists, can ensure proper assessment and appropriate treatment. However, it’s important to address the topic of professional help in a sensitive, empathetic way – not during an argument or in a heated moment.


It is important for both teenagers and their parents to know that there are many treatments available for common mental health concerns. Once an issue has been identified, prompt intervention is essential to prevent worsening symptoms and improve outcomes. Treatment options may include:

Certified Addiction Professional: Certified Addiction Professionals (CAP) are experts who focus on addictions and additive behavior and provide direct, clinical counseling to persons affected by substance use.

Psychotherapy: Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), and other forms of psychotherapy can help teenagers develop coping skills, challenge negative thought patterns, and address underlying emotional issues.

Medication: In cases of severe or persistent mental health disorders, medication may be prescribed to alleviate symptoms and stabilize mood. However, medication should always be used in conjunction with therapy and under the close supervision of a qualified healthcare provider.

Supporting Your Teenager

Support systems are crucial for teenagers, especially if they are experiencing mental illness. In some cases, involving family members in the treatment process can strengthen support networks, improve communication, and address family dynamics that may contribute to the teenager’s mental health problems. This can include attending joint therapy sessions with your teenager or asking their therapist for advice on how you can offer support outside of therapy sessions.

teen mental health | graphic illustration of rainy clouds

Ask an Expert

How can parents offer support for a teenager with anxiety?

“Have the conversation in an area that makes the teen feel safe and supported. Allow them to express themselves openly and reflect what you are hearing them share, both so that you can validate their feelings and have clarity. Make supportive statements that attempt to normalize their feelings. Encourage them to allow themselves to feel the anxiety while they are in this safe space. Create a plan with the teen’s input and agreement to break down the situations causing them anxiety into smaller, more manageable amounts. This will build confidence in their ability to complete the task or face the situation.”
Kristin Smith, LPC-MHSP, MHA
Director of Physician & Provider Relations, Parkridge Valley

How can parents support a teenager with an eating disorder?

“Trying to support a child who is struggling with an eating disorder can be overwhelming and exhausting, so getting professional help from an eating disorder specialist is crucial. Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses, and you cannot support your child and their recovery alone. Even if your child is not completely ready, you can play a vital role in their recovery journey by staying compassionate. Compassion for yourself and for your child is key. One of the most important things you can do is create an environment that emphasizes healthy eating behaviors, such as anti-diet and ‘all foods fit.’ Model a healthy mindset about body image by abstaining from making comments about your body and the bodies of others. Supporting a child with an eating disorder takes energy and patience; recovery is a long process, and there will be setbacks. Remember that eating disorders are not a choice.”
Addie Bramlett, RDN, LDN, CEDS-C
Director of Eating Disorder Programs, Focus Treatment Centers

How can parents offer support to a teenager who may be struggling with depression?

“Teenagers who struggle with depression will need support and connection, first and foremost. A natural inclination of a teenager will be to internalize and probably not be expressive about their pain. They will likely hibernate, isolate, not want to share very much with you, and may start acting differently around family and friends. This doesn’t mean they want you to go away – on the contrary, teenagers need their parents more than ever. As a parent, make sure you are available to listen and connect without advice-giving. Most people want others to hear and understand them over ‘fixing them.’ If you are noticing that your teenager continues to struggle even through your attempts at communicating in their language, I would recommend therapy. Often, teens can feel nervous and afraid of therapy, but once they start attending, it can be a really helpful and expansive thing for the entire family.”

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