Learn about three common mistakes parents make with adolescent mental health and how to fix them.
Missing Warning Signs
The saying kids will be kids is problematic. I mean, I get it: Sometimes kids will be kids. But unfortunately, where adolescent mental health is concerned, adopting this mindset creates significant blind spots for noticing potential warning signs. Historically, 20 percent of children have a diagnosable mental health condition; that’s pre-pandemic; pre-quarantine; pre-new-normal. It’s safe to say that the number of children suffering (even situationally) is dramatically higher. When kids begin to be more aggressive, or sleep more, or quit sports, or isolate themselves from family and friends, where some parents might instinctually chalk it up to kids being kids, I ask them to reconsider and assume these are warning signs of a larger, deeper, often totally treatable, mental health condition. To clarify, this is a holistic, pragmatic approach. I suggest monitoring and evaluating several weeks, or even months, at a time with a trained third-party professional to help differentiate typical behaviors from those of warning signs.
Generationally, mental health is facing less stigma. This is great in the sense that younger people are more likely to acknowledge their mental health struggles to themselves, and more importantly, others. Yet this information often never leaves the walls of the home or the office of the local clinician. Why? Parents are still facing their own insecurities with mental health, and calling conditions by their name. And the biggest place this causes mischief in a child’s life? You guessed it: school. As a high school administrator, I was privy to student mental health needs, yet more times than not, this information came screeching in at the 11th hour. Commonly, parents resist providing mental health information to schools based on fear. They fear their child will be treated differently, their file will somehow leak to colleges, or their coaches or directors, etc. will remove them from their positions or roles. Instead, I encourage parents to drip relevant information in as it comes, similarly to how they do it with other medical conditions. Transparency beckons both accommodations and trust. More so, it teaches children that their mental health is part of whole health and worthy of validating communication protocols.
Marginalizing Their Child’s Statements
When “I feel anxious” is met with “just don’t think about it” — the foundational trust between a parent and child is eroded. Unfortunately, the last attendee to the party that is addressing adolescent mental health is often the parents themselves. Perhaps driven by optimistic bias (not my child) or learned behavior (mirroring responses received in one’s own adolescence) this practice vastly decreases the likelihood of honest communication, while increasing the risk of self-harm, self-medication or suicide. Enter therapy. If feasible, children should see a therapist at the cadence of the dentist: at least twice per year. We don’t generally wait for a child’s teeth to fall out before we have them cleaned and evaluated. In fact, dental care is largely proactive, while our society’s relationship with adolescents and therapy is overwhelmingly reactive. Small communication changes can yield big results. Practice active listening, validating children by repeating their statements and asking clarifying questions. Quite possibly a child will prefer to speak to a trusted adult before a professional. That said, the first should never wholly replace the second. Introducing children to mental health care early and often changes the way in which they will view that field, as a supportive mechanism, rather than a last resort.
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Daniel Patterson is an administrator, advocate, author and speaker. He currently serves as the director of education for both a therapeutic high school and a college recovery program in Los Angeles. The author of “RECOVER[edu]” (2020) and “The Assertive Parent” (2018), he worked as an assistant principal and English teacher for 14 years. Patterson is dedicated to bringing awareness and transformational programming to mental health, substance use and authenticity within education. www.pattersonperspective.com