Your teenage girl has been diagnosed with a mental illness.
As a parent, you want to do everything you can to understand the mental health condition and help your loved one.
You might feel relieved to have an explanation for why she’s shown a lack of interest and has been withdrawn, lashing out, experiencing mood swings, and other warning signs — but you’re unsure about what you’re supposed to do next for her well-being.
These are typical reactions when learning about mental health conditions and their diagnosis. In the end, you want to know what you can do to make things better for your child.
Does Mental Health Look Different in Teen Girls than in Teen Boys?
Even in a world where we recognize gender falls on a spectrum, there are still some clear differences between males and females when it comes to mental health. Most parents who’ve had boys and girls will agree.
Genetics and hormones shape everything from physical development to brain physiology and thought processes, even while each person is an individual who is shaped by their life experiences.
Neurophysiology and why it matters
Functional MRI studies have shown that different areas of the brain light up when processing emotional situations for men and women.
For example, during the study, when males continued to process a negative memory, the brain activity in a certain area grew less intense over time. The intensity of the emotion lessened.
Females in the study activated a part of their brain where positive memories were stored. They were balancing out the negative emotions with positive ones.
As you can imagine, it’s harder for teenage girls with depression, anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, or another mental illness to access those positive experiences. Even positive memories don’t feel as good.
The researchers1 (McRae, K., Ochsner, K. N., Mauss, I. B., Gabrieli, J., & Gross, J. J.) compared this to research that showed men tended to respond better to therapy that helped them solve their problems, while women responded better to therapy that provided emotional support and listening. This means that different neurophysiology can lead to different approaches in therapy.
So, what can you do, as a family member, to support your teenage daughter after a diagnosis?
How to Help While Your Teenage Girl is in Treatment for a Mental Illness
1. Start with the basics. Provide solid structure in their day-to-day.
Teenagers thrive under a certain level of structure. Knowing when to wake up, when to eat, when it’s time to go to school, what the rules are (and what the penalties are for breaking those rules), and what time to go to bed creates a solid framework for each day.
When there’s a mental illness involved, good food and good rest provide a necessary foundation for healing. Nutrition and sleep are just as important for the mind as they are for physical health.
When schedules, meals, and other daily commitments are automatic, your teen knows what to expect, which gives them a sense of security.
It also means fewer decisions — “What time should I wake up? What should I eat? What do I have to do today?” When these questions are already answered, they don’t have to devote energy to planning the basics in their day.
2. Lessen the load of activities and responsibilities.
Teens need activities and responsibilities. Activities that your teen is passionate about, like theatre, sports, art, etc., give them something to look forward to when other things feel like a burden.
But teens have a lot on their plate these days. Between studying and activities, many teens will go to school early in the morning and stay until 5 or 6 p.m. for after-school practice and other activities. After school, they might also have a job and need to get homework done.
During her teenage years, your daughter might need to do less, especially as she’s facing the demands of maintaining school performance with a challenging curriculum and trying to get into college.
3. Be involved with your teen’s treatment plan and treatment options, including finding the right mental health professional.
Rob Gent, LPC, Embark Behavioral Health’s Chief Clinical Officer, recommends:
“Look for professional help from somebody who sees your teen through a developmental lens. As your teen is developing a relationship with the therapist, the therapist needs to be attuned to what’s happening with your child and not just going for ‘the fix.’ That might help in the short-term, but not the long-term.”
When asked what kind of therapy works best for teen girls, “Look for a therapist that understands experiential therapy,” Rob Gent suggests.
Experiential therapy works better for adolescent mental health than extensive talk therapy because teens are still making language/emotion connections in their prefrontal cortex. This type of therapy also gets them involved in an activity that can temporarily lift them out of their depression or anxious state. The more they can be spontaneous, the more they can see outside of their mental illness.
You might be familiar with a few types of experiential therapy, such as:
- Art therapy
- Wilderness therapy
- Equine therapy
- Music therapy
Keep in mind there are many other experiential therapies that could match your teen’s interests or introduce them to new activities, especially if they’ve dealt with a loss of interest elsewhere.
Experiential therapy addresses so many things necessary to teenagers, including:
- Appealing to their interests.
- Focusing on activities that provide a sense of accomplishment.
- Providing moments of spontaneous play, which is good for both boys and girls. If girls counter negative emotions with positive experiences, spontaneous play helps.
4. Make sure there’s space for you and other family members while getting help.
At Embark, we deeply understand the importance of the parent and child relationship. Whatever therapy, support group, or program you choose, make sure it includes family work.
A mental illness diagnosis means the whole family needs to be on the same page with processing their emotions and understanding the dynamics behind it. It’s critical for you to be involved, so only choose therapists who value your role in healing mental health problems.
If You Have Questions about Mental Illness and Teen Girls, Ask for Help
Mental illness can affect anyone, just like physical illness can. Sometimes we enter stages of life where things don’t feel right, and we need help.
You have options when it comes to mental health care, so don’t hesitate to reach out to your pediatrician, mental health professional, or other professional help.
Citation: 1 McRae, K., Ochsner, K. N., Mauss, I. B., Gabrieli, J., & Gross, J. J. (2008). Gender Differences in Emotion Regulation: An fMRI Study of Cognitive Reappraisal. Group processes & intergroup relations : GPIR, 11(2), 143–162. https://doi.org/10.1177/1368430207088035