When things seem to come unraveled, and your teen needs mental health care, it’s hard to know what to do and how to seek help.
Parenting a child who struggles with mental health can elicit a range of emotions, some of which can lead to counterproductive outcomes. When you feel out of control, helpless, and uncertain about your child’s future, that often comes out as anger and shame. This is exacerbated when your best efforts only seem to make things worse you may double down on trying to control what feels out of control or you may feel the need to disengage altogether.
As a father, you want to be part of your child’s well-being– and you are. Here are a few ways you can effectively support your teen as they encounter mental health challenges:
Staying Involved and Engaged in Your Child’s Life is Crucial
Even when stress levels are high, or it seems like your teen is pushing you away, spending time with your teen is needed now as much as ever. You play a critical role in their healing process.
How can dads participate in their teen’s mental health care?
We asked Josh Nordean, LPC, about what dads need to know about their role in their teen’s good mental health. Nordean is the clinical director of Embark Behavioral Health’s The Forge School, a short-term residential treatment program and school for adolescent boys.
“What teens need from dads is engagement […] In their developmental process, teens are pushing away from childhood and becoming more independent. Mom represents childhood, so kids will push away from Mom. They need dad to step in and be an active parent – an engaged parent.
“And that can be tough if a dad’s been less active in early childhood because they have to figure out ‘how do I talk to this person? And how do I learn how to be in a relationship with them?’”
What mental health therapy should look like with your teen
A good therapy program incorporates family members, as well as individual and group therapy.
With teens, a big part of therapy is experiential. That means it’s easier for teens to process their experiences and build their confidence through doing things like art, physical activity like hiking, fishing, music, working with animals, etc. They can’t just be told loved ones support them. They must feel it, experience it.
A teen’s prefrontal cortex isn’t completely developed yet, so sometimes it’s hard for them to express themselves via words, but just like young children process their experiences through play, teens process their experiences through what they do.
So, when health professionals and therapists ask dads to be involved in treatment, it doesn’t mean you’re sitting in an office together and staring at each other. The mental health professional should give you and your teen activities, like fishing, hiking, playing a game, etc. These activities build bonds and give you opportunities to interact naturally.
Families are systems
Family Systems Theory works on the idea that everyone in the family is connected. When one part of the family is under stress, that pressure shows up in other members of the family, too. And different people release some of that stress in different ways.
Your teen’s therapist should work with your whole family, so when your teen starts healing, the entire family knows how to support them and also how to deal with the other ways family stress might show up.
When dads disengage or don’t participate in mental health care, the root issues in the family system can’t be addressed. Teens might interpret this lack of participation as an indication that they’re broken or not worth the effort.
“If dads aren’t engaged,” Nordean says, “then kids feel that. Kids are like little aliens with thousands of antennae that are picking up information from people all the time […] and they pick up on it pretty quickly. It’s discouraging.”
Dads should be in therapy and seek professional help, too
Nordean shares three compelling reasons why dads need to be in therapy, too:
1. Your individual therapy is a safe place to explore your thoughts and feelings about what’s going on
When you have a teen who needs mental health care, you have emotions to work through, too.
“Dads often feel like it’s a failure on their part,” Nordean explained. “I had a conversation with a dad last week who said, ‘When my kid struggles, I take that as I failed as a parent, and I don’t like that feeling, so I’m going to fight against that, and it creates this kind of contention.’”
Understanding your feelings means you can approach your family therapy more aware of these feelings, and what they mean so those sessions can be more effective.
Dads need to understand that it’s not their fault.
“When their kids need therapy, it doesn’t mean dads are failures. It means their kids are human,” Nordean adds. “If we can accept our kid’s struggle and also share that with them – and share our own struggle – then we’re going to have a lot better chance of connecting and getting through this difficult time together.”
2. Individual therapy gives dads the opportunity to grieve their “ideal child”
When a baby is on the way, or a couple adopts, it’s natural for new dads to imagine what their child will be like in the future. But the child you get may not match that ideal.
“If you want to play catch and that’s the thing you really looked forward to, and your kid wants to play Legos and Minecraft because they can’t throw a ball very well,” Nordean says, “then that can be kind of heartbreaking for dads. So, they need to be able to let go of their expectations and just see their kid for who they are. That can be a process.”
Part of accepting the child you have in front of you is grieving the ideal child you had in your mind.
Dads don’t envision a teenager dealing with mental health conditions, addiction, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, or learning disabilities. To help that child, you need to see them for who they are and believe that they are doing their best to feel safe and okay in the world that they live in.
3. When you’re in therapy, you remove the stigma surrounding mental health treatment for your teen
If your teen sees you working on your mental health, then it doesn’t feel as shameful when they need to work on theirs. It normalizes therapy and focuses on the fact that we all have issues we need to address.
Everyone needs mental health support sometimes. Your teen needs it now, and you’re showing them that it’s a good thing. We can teach our kids how to care for their health and build healthy relationships by how we care for ours. If it’s a bad knee or high cholesterol, we don’t hesitate to get treatment. Mental health is no different.
What can get in the way of the healing process?
Nordean pointed out a few things that often get in the way for dads and teens as they work through the therapy process:
Don’t try to fix things
When their kids are hurting, parents want to fix it. Without falling into stereotypes, it does seem a more common response for dads to respond to an issue by offering solutions.
“We work on that a lot, on not being ‘the fixer,’” Nordean said. “Allowing their kid to express emotion so they have an experience of feeling heard, understood, and felt, that can be uncomfortable for dads.”
Work on your parenting relationship
Whether you’re partnered or married to your teen’s mother, or if you are divorced and not together, you need to be focused on what’s best for your teen.
“If parents are divorced or are in a contentious relationship with their ex, and they’re not willing to work on that, then the hope is pretty dismal that their kid will be able to do the work,” Nordean said. “So, work on your individual issues first, the parenting relationship second, and then focus on your kid.”
This may seem backward, but these relationships within healthy families lay a strong foundation for your teen. They provide the environment where real healing happens for children’s mental health.
Rewarding Mental Health Care for You and Your Teen
As a dad, you have a significant role in helping your teen heal when they have a mental illness and/or are in need of mental health care, but you may not know where to go or what to do.
Prioritize your relationships: with yourself, your spouse or parenting partner, and your teen. Some of this may be new territory for you or particularly challenging – but this prioritization is crucial for real healing to happen.
When you’re willing to work on your own mental health and relationships and engage in family therapy with your teen, you’re helping everyone lay a foundation for a more solid future.
If your teen and family need extra support with a mental health condition or general well-being, find programs that strengthen those relationships because that’s how sustainable healing happens. It’s an investment that will pay dividends over the long term!