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How Teen Mental Health Struggles Affect the Whole Family

A teenager’s mental health struggles can create stress not only for the teen but also their family. Parents can feel stigmatized for having a child with emotional and behavioral challenges. Siblings can feel pressure to place the teen’s problems ahead of their own. This can lead to anxiety, resentment, and isolation, which can strain a family’s mental health.  

“When you have emotional, behavioral, and mental health challenges around you, any trauma that happens isn’t contained to one person. Family members will be affected,” said Jacob Thomason, a family therapist and licensed professional counselor at New Vision Wilderness, an Embark Behavioral Health wilderness therapy program in Wisconsin.  

In this article, Thomason offered his perspective on the challenges parents and siblings experience during a teen’s mental health struggles. He also discussed how to deal with any resulting stress and strain.

Teen Mental Health Statistics

Teenage mental health issues are rising in the U.S., indicating teens — and their families — are facing a mental health crisis. Recent statistics illustrate the challenges.   

  • A 2023 Mental Health America report showed over 1 in 10 U.S. youths experience depression that severely impairs their ability to function at school, at work, at home, with family, or in their social lives. 
  • The same report found that 1 in 10 youths — over 1.2 million young people — covered under private health insurance don’t have coverage for mental or emotional difficulties. 
  • A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report showed that 57% of U.S. teen girls felt persistently hopeless in 2021 compared to 36% in 2011, a 58% increase. Among teen boys, 29% felt persistently sad or hopeless in 2021, up from 21% in 2011, a 38% increase. 
  • The CDC report also found that 52% of LGBTQ students recently experienced poor mental health, and 22% had attempted suicide in the past year. 

The Impact of Teen Mental Health Struggles on a Family

Parents and siblings can experience intense emotions and stress when dealing with mental illnesses in the family, especially if a teenager has a serious diagnosis, such as bipolar disorder or major depressive disorder. Their struggles can affect family members’ mental health and how well they handle everyday activities. 

“Parents assume they’re supposed to have the answers, and if their child is out of control, they’re doing something wrong,” Thomason said. “Siblings may be pressured to be supportive and not talk about a teen’s mental health outside the family. This can lead to a lot of pent-up emotions, resentment, frustration, and difficulty multitasking.” 

Parents and siblings may: 

  • Constantly worry about saying or doing something that upsets the struggling teen. 
  • Be irritable and argue more often than usual. 
  • Have difficulty sleeping and/or a loss of appetite. 
  • Be so physically and/or emotionally tired they have difficulty keeping up with household chores. 
  • Develop mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression — or have existing conditions worsen. 
  • Turn to substance use and perhaps develop a substance use disorder. 

The impact on parents

Caring for struggling teens can affect parents’ mental health on multiple levels, creating emotional difficulties, relationship issues, financial strain, and work challenges. 

Emotional difficulties

Parents may feel guilty for not identifying their teen’s struggles earlier or getting them help quickly enough, even if there was nothing they could have done differently. If the teenager is acting out, they may feel they’re not doing a good job parenting given, as Thomason pointed out, many people still view emotional challenges as a behavioral discipline issue rather than a mental illness. This viewpoint can compound the guilt, shame, and frustration parents already feel. 

In addition, parents could become burned out by all the time they spend getting — and helping with — their child’s treatment. They may feel their lives would be better if their teen was emotionally healthy.  Thomason noted that some even struggle with anger toward their teenager’s therapist for not “fixing” their child. 

Relationship issues

Parents who don’t agree on how to help their teen may develop tension in their relationship, be it a romantic one or a co-parenting situation. And caring for a teenager with a mental illness can consume the time parents with significant others used to spend with each other, which can strain marriages and partnerships. 

Financial strain

Effective evaluations, medications, and mental health treatment can be expensive depending on a family’s health insurance coverage. Due to the cost, families may need to cut back on vacations, holiday gifts, and eating out. In addition, Thomason noted, because parents focus so much on their teen’s well-being, their work performance can suffer, leading them to miss opportunities for promotions and raises. This can create additional financial stress if their work income can’t keep up with their expenses. 

Work challenges

Parents who need to take time off work to address their teen’s mental health needs may be seen as unreliable and inconsistent by their employers. Splitting their focus between their job responsibilities and teenager can also negatively affect their job performance, creating more strain. 

The impact on siblings

When a teen’s mental health becomes a source of concern in a family, their siblings can experience struggles of their own, including emotional difficulties, relationship issues, and school challenges. 

Emotional difficulties

Siblings may worry they’ll develop the same symptoms as their brother or sister. They can also experience pressure or a sense of responsibility to be supportive and help — or even “fix” — the struggling teenager. If they think they’re not helping enough, they may feel guilty or powerless. 

Siblings may also feel pressured to avoid discussing a teen’s mental illness outside the family out of fear of being stigmatized or to keep the situation private. If they can’t share their concerns with others, they could develop emotional problems of their own. 

Relationship issues

If parents spend a lot of time with their struggling teen, their other children can feel overlooked and undervalued. Left unacknowledged, these feelings can lead to resentment toward parents and siblings, creating additional mental health and behavioral issues in the family.  

School challenges

Just as parents can feel distracted at work over their teen’s mental health challenges, siblings can be distracted at school. Thomason likened this to having multiple screens open on a computer, requiring these young people to split their attention between school, extracurricular activities, and family. 

“Humans don’t multitask well,” he said. “If a sibling is worried about their brother or sister, their own safety, or their parents’ safety, that’s going to take a lot of bandwidth. All that divided focus will impact their schoolwork and activities.” 

How Parents Can Nurture Their Family When a Teen Is Struggling

Given the physical, mental, and emotional strain a family can experience when a teen has mental health challenges, taking care of the entire family’s well-being is imperative. Thomason shared a few ways parents can support themselves and their children. 

Parents need to take care of themselves

It’s critical that parents acknowledge and address their mental and emotional stress. Doing so allows them to be better partners, spouses, co-parents, and caregivers. 

However, Thomason emphasized that effective stress management does not mean simply relaxing or taking the day off. Instead, it should leave parents feeling stronger, more confident, and better prepared to deal with future stressful situations. Effective stress management practices include:  

  • Cutting back on commitments: If parents have overpacked schedules, they should cut back on activities when possible. For example, they could volunteer less if volunteering is leaving them exhausted. On the other hand, activities that leave them feeling better — and better supported — should become a priority.      
  • Engaging in self-care activities: Thomason noted proper self-care can include any empowering activity, from reading a book to exercising. In addition, parents should make sure they get enough sleep and maintain healthy diets. For example, the CDC recommends adults ages 18-60 get at least seven hours of sleep a night.  
  • Leaning on support networks: “Tell your friends about your teen’s mental health struggles,” Thomason said. “Surround your family with other families who can talk about mental health. If your kids see you talking with your friends, they can talk with their friends. Building community is one of the biggest antidotes to preventing more mental illnesses.” 
  • Talk to a therapist: Parents can benefit from participating in individual therapy sessions. “You’re asking your teen to be open, honest, and vulnerable with a therapist to deal with their mental illness,” Thomason said. “It’s only right that you as a parent display that same openness, honesty, and vulnerability.” 

Parents needs to connect with the entire family

Spending time together with spouses or partners and all children is key to nurturing the family when a teen has a mental health condition. Sharing feelings with each other is also essential during this time. 

Thomason encouraged parents to be creative when relating to their children and listening to their concerns. He noted that including other members in the family dynamic — such as therapists and trusted adult figures — can make teens feel more comfortable sharing their feelings.  

To best connect with their family, parents can: 

  • Attend family therapy: “Family therapy is the ideal first step,” Thomason said, noting how powerful the experience can be. Therapists who specialize in family counseling can help with communication issues, strengthen relationships, and provide needed support for parents,  struggling teens, and siblings.  
  • Have family time: Building and maintaining strong, secure, safe relationships between parents and their children is critical to a family’s mental health. Simple activities that involve the entire family, such as taking a walk, going out to dinner, or playing games together, can make a real difference.  
  • Spend one-on-one time with children, partners, and spouses: Going to the movies with children, taking the teen out to lunch, or having a date night with a significant other lets parents connect with family. However, Thomason noted one-on-one time can create pressure for siblings. He’s found it useful to pair them with a trusted adult so they can talk about feelings they may be uncomfortable sharing with parents. “Give siblings a voice — even if that voice means saying something negative about your teen,” he said. 
  • Help the teen’s siblings understand what the teenager is experiencing: Understanding what a teen is going through helps siblings develop and deepen empathy for their brother or sister. Thomason noted, “You have to be creative with the way teens digest information. Video is a popular format for them, so you could consider supplementing your conversations about specific mental health conditions with YouTube videos or podcasts. Just make sure they’re created by credible mental health organizations and providers.” 
  • Attend couples’ therapy: If dealing with their teen’s mental health struggles is placing a strain on parents’ relationships with their spouses or partners, couples’ therapy provides a way for them to work through their issues in a safe environment. 

How a Teen’s Mental Health Affects the Family: Wrapup

When caring for a teenager with a mental health condition, acknowledging that the entire family can feel stress and strain can set parents on a path to caring for everyone’s mental health — including their own. By taking steps including practicing effective self-care, having family time, leaning on a support network, and participating in family therapy, parents can better support the entire family’s emotional well-being. 

“You’re not alone,” Thomason said. “There are a lot of people out there struggling like you. So, be open and communicative with your children and don’t be afraid to build community by being vulnerable. Parents set a good example for both the child in treatment and surrounding family members when they’re vulnerable themselves.” 

Embark is the most trusted name in teen and young adult mental health treatment. We’re driven to find the help your family needs. If you’re looking for support, contact us today.

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Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of outpatient centers and residential programs offering premier mental health treatment for preteens, teens, and young adults. Dedicated to its big mission of reversing the trends of teen and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark offers a robust continuum of care with different levels of service and programming; has a deep legacy of over 25 years serving youths; works with families to adjust treatment in real time to improve results; treats the entire family using an evidence-supported approach; and offers the highest levels of quality care and safety standards. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including virtual services, intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), therapeutic day treatment programs, also known as partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), residential treatment, and outdoor therapy, visit embarkbh.com.