Positive Mental and Emotional Health in Teens: Proactive solutions for longterm health and wellbeing
Updated: Mar 29, 2019
I will never forget the afternoon that I received a text message from my son while the horrible shooting was occurring at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida last spring. Though we live far from Florida, my then 15 year-old son had a connection with a student in that school, and had been sent an upsetting audio message from the shooting. My son was visibly shaken and upset, and we spent a long time that afternoon talking about and acknowledging the horror and overwhelming sadness we both felt for the students, teachers, and families involved. Unfortunately, the events of that day came on the heels of two scary lockdowns within my son’s own high school the same school year, and I’m sure within schools all across our nation.
As I processed this awful event and my son’s reaction, I spent a lot of time considering where we are in this county when it comes to emotional health and development. What else can parents, educators, health care professionals and communities do to assure proactive supports are in place that reduce the incidence of significant mental disorders, and increase overall wellbeing? It is estimated that a staggering 1 in 5 teens are impacted by a mental health disorder and nearly half never receive treatment. By the time teens reach college-age and young adulthood, the incidence climbs to 1 in 4, with 50% of lifetime cases occurring by age 24. We hear many discussions about the need for more mental health support, better screening measures, access to care and affordable solutions, and yet year after year people struggle to find or afford adequate treatment, or their symptoms are written off or missed completely.
It seems we are often in a reactive mode when it comes to responding to the needs of individuals with considerable social and emotional difficulties, particularly children and teens. Perhaps we also fail to pay enough attention to the proactive measures that support healthy mental health in the first place. We must make sure that we are creating an environment for our kids that supports positive and protective solutions for healthy development; in order to decrease the impact of the most common and disabling conditions such as depression and anxiety. On a positive note, I see many changes being implemented in the schools, where my own kids attend, and across the country. Schools are spending more on training that focuses on healthy social and emotional development and safety. They are recognizing that more can be done, and teachers are better equipped with skills to support positive development and identify students who may be at risk. However, the real task lies in us as families and communities to make sure we are also creating environments that give our children a strong foundation and solid life skills to support them through life’s inevitable ups and downs.
Here are some suggestions to encourage emotional health in your child:
1) Encourage self-efficacy – Adolescents who develop a strong belief in their ability to problem solve and execute behaviors, in order to meet their goals, are better equipped with skills and strategies to navigate life’s challenges as they enter young adulthood. Self-efficacy is directly tied to problem solving, motivational habits, emotional regulation and decision making. We encourage self-efficacy in our children and teens by giving them plenty of opportunities and support to try new (developmentally appropriate) tasks, experience failure, and try again. Our kids also learn from observing the experiences of parents, teachers and other adults as they model their own coping skills when dealing with challenging tasks and situations. Talk to your kids about how you worked towards a goal or handled a difficult situation, and the problem-solving skills you used to help you succeed or cope. There is a very strong relationship between a high sense of self-efficacy and one’s ability to handle the emotions that may trigger anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems. Self-efficacy provides a protective factor that increases one’s belief that they can work through challenges and come out stronger in the long run.
2) Improve Physical Health– Good nutrition, adequate sleep, and regular exercise are key components of mental health.
· Kids and teens should participate in family meal planning and preparation. Work together to create a shopping list of healthy meals and snacks that will support good nutrition, a positive mood, and energy throughout the week. Avoid food and beverages that are highly processed and/or high in sugar. It’s possible to eat fast and healthy meals on a budget, but the key is to plan ahead.
· Sleep– Teens need about 8-10 hours of sleep to function at their best. Sleep is a critical part of mental health and overall wellbeing. Inadequate sleep can significantly impact mood, self-esteem and symptoms of anxiety and depression. Getting teens to stick to a routine can be especially challenging when it comes to sleep, but it is very important. Discuss a routine that helps them to wind down before bed. Help them to be reflective about the habits that seem to work well or interfere with getting a good night’s rest. This is a good time to discuss the use of electronics and their impacts on sleep and overall mental health too. It’s important that your teens can begin to regulate their own behavior and tune into what their bodies need to feel their best.
· Exercise– If your teen is not involved in a daily sport it is still possible to get enough exercise. Try to encourage plenty of movement throughout the day. Perhaps it’s walking to/from school, or getting outside to shoot hoops, throw a frisbee, or walk the dog. The exercise and fresh air are important to both overall mental well-being and will also aid in a good night’s sleep. Plan family outings that include plenty of movement on weekends or during free time and enjoy the benefits of both exercise and quality time together.
3) Support stress management– Teens need to develop effective tools for managing stress. Stress and anxiety are a normal part of life, but we aren’t usually taught this and often don’t develop effective tools to help us manage it. Unfortunately, things can get out of balance easily for teens as they juggle challenging classes, extra-curricular activities, family responsibilities and social lives. If they don’t have some tools to manage these feelings it can escalate into more critical issues down the road. Developing solid time management, organization skills and study habits, along with good practices for physical health will increase self-efficacy and help your teen become an adult who can roll with the ups and downs of life’s stressors. Regular exercise, good nutrition and adequate sleep are integral for managing stress, as well as engaging in activities that calm the mind (such as journaling, arts/crafts, playing an instrument, participating in a sport/exercise, utilizing mindfulness apps).
4) Listen– Encouraging teens to share their thoughts while actively listening to them with empathy and an open mind is extremely important. As parents, it’s easy to lecture and give advice, but try to hold back on that unless your child asks for your opinion. They need to know that you hear them and that you are a safe person for them to share their thoughts and concerns with. If you have a suggestion or advice that you would like to share, ask them if they would like to hear it. They may just want to express themselves and then process on their own for a while.
5) Set clear expectations and boundaries– Teens are great at testing the boundaries and turning our hair grey. In fact, sometimes breaking the rules and making mistakes is a normal and healthy part of their development. Raising teens is not for the faint of heart and can often cause us to throw up our hands wondering where we’ve gone wrong as parents. It’s important to remember that fair rules, boundaries and expectations are a way we show our kids that they are loved and cared for. Show your teens respect by engaging them in the process of creating rules (including expectations around technology use) that everyone can be happy with, and know when you might need to reign things in when lines have been crossed. Here are some great additional tips.
6) Engage the community- Help your teen identify caring adults and mentors in their life who they can also talk to. There are many studies that look at resiliency and prevention in at-risk youth and preventive factors. Mentoring relationships have been shown to have a protective effect and encourage positive social, academic and health-related behaviors. It may be a trusted adult friends, counselor, teacher, neighbor, aunt, uncle or coach. Regardless, when our kids can identify trusted adults in their lives who they know will be there for them, it provides a layer of support and awareness that they are cared for by many.
Creating safe, caring environments at home and in the community that encourage behaviors for strong physical and emotional health are extremely important for long-term wellbeing in our kids. It can sometimes be difficult for us as parents to know when our child/teen’s struggles go beyond what is a part of normal, healthy development. Pay attention to signs and symptoms that your child may need support from a mental health specialist. Don’t wait to seek out help from a professional if you see behaviors that concern you. Early intervention is key! Talking to a school counselor, psychologist or family physician can help you get started.
Yvette Morton is a master certified wellness coach and former school psychologist. She specializes in how the mind body connection influences overall health and wellbeing, and guides clients to break free of thought patterns and behaviors that are barriers to long-term success. She works with adolescents, young adults, women and families.