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When Your Teen Is Struggling: A Mental Health Support Letter for Parents

This mental health support letter was written by Katie Holahan, a licensed clinical social worker, child and adolescent trauma professional, and clinical director of Embark at The Poconos, a residential treatment center in Pennsylvania for girls ages 12-17.

Dear Parents,

I see you.

The parents with the teen who struggles with mental health issues.

I see you.

Trying to figure out how to help your child while you attempt to hold it together.

I see you.

Trying to hold your entire family together while you support your child who’s hurting.

I see you.

Forgetting about yourself and giving away every ounce of energy you have.

I see you.

Worrying about finances to support your child.

I see you.

Trying to stay focused at work.

I see you.

Trying to balance your relationships with other family members and friends.

I see you.

Struggling with your own mental health.

I see you.

Struggling with the ripple effects from crises.

I see you.

The late nights, the research, the tears.

I see you.

The path you never thought you’d take.

I see you.

The unconditional love.

I see you.

Where Do You Go From Here?

Each person’s journey of mental health looks different, but many of the signs are similar. If your teen is struggling, it’s important to be able to identify symptoms of mental illnesses, determine when your teen needs support, and know what to do in a crisis. The good thing is that you’re not alone. Your child is not alone. There’s support out there for you and your family. Let’s get started.

What’s ‘Normal’ vs. Symptoms of Something Greater?

From adolescence to young adulthood, many individuals may display symptoms of depression or anxiety, two mental illnesses that are all too common these days. Let’s examine the signs and symptoms more closely to help decipher “normal teenage development” as opposed to issues that may require further assessment by and support from mental health professionals.

Healthy teen development includes fluctuations in mood, such as bouts of sadness or reacting to outside stimuli with anger, irritability, or grumpiness, as well as challenging limits and boundaries. Changes in eating habits and sleeping patterns are also normal as your teen develops physically, neurologically, biologically, and emotionally. A sign of something greater is when these symptoms persist and increase over time and interfere with daily functioning.

If your teen has depression, they may show depressed mood or loss of interest, isolation from their social group, lack of motivation to engage in daily routines or preferred activities, difficulty sleeping, feelings of worthlessness, fatigue no matter how much rest they get, difficulty thinking or making decisions, significant weight change not connected to medical reasons, or recurrent thoughts of death.

With anxiety, your teen may feel restless or on edge, tire easily, have difficulty concentrating or find their mind “goes blank,” be irritable, have difficulty sleeping, worry excessively, feel distressed for a long period of time, and have distress that occurs more spontaneously than usual, causing significant impairment in functioning.

If you’re concerned your teen may have anxiety, depression, or another mental illness, remember not to attempt to diagnose them. Bring them to a professional who can make an accurate diagnosis and provide support.

How Do You Know When Your Child Is In Crisis?

As parents, you want to keep your teen safe, and that includes helping them if they’re experiencing a mental health crisis. So how do you know when one is happening, especially if they’re not openly communicating with you? What can this type of crisis look like?

Has your teen just experienced a major loss, such as the end of a close friendship, a breakup with a romantic partner, or the death of someone close to them? Were they recently exposed to violence? Are they withdrawing from family, friends, and preferred activities? Have you or anyone else heard or read direct or indirect statements of suicide such as “I’m going to kill myself” or “I wish I could fall asleep and never wake up again”?* Are they creating suicide notes or plans, including posting on social media? Are they making final arrangements, such as funeral preparations, writing an obituary, or giving away prized possessions?

If you’ve seen or heard anything along those lines or anyone has brought something like this to your attention, don’t wait to have a conversation with your teen. It’s always better to err on the side of caution, as they tend to be impulsive.

Approach your teen with a gentle manner, doing your best to understand them. Ask “How are you doing? How are you feeling?” It’s important to try and remain calm, as your child needs you to be calm. You’re their safe base.

If there’s any indication your teen has a tool or means for attempting suicide, remove it from the home immediately and supervise and support your child until they can be evaluated by a trained professional. In many areas, emergency departments have their own crisis response plans and can assist you. In some cases, a mobile crisis unit can come to your home.

Where Can You Get Help?

You may not know where to start when it’s time to reach out for help, but there are multiple options.

Your pediatrician’s office, primary care physician, or family doctor should be able to recommend a variety of mental health resources, including who to contact for crisis support. They can also assist you with medication regimens as well as referrals to mental health agencies, psychiatrists, psychologists, therapists, and counselors. Some pediatrician’s offices have social workers as part of their practice, and they can help you locate appropriate services or may offer therapy themselves.

Your child’s school or educational setting may provide emotional support or guidance counseling services. It may also have a contract with an outside agency that provides mental health support. Be sure to ask the school’s administration office what’s available there as well as in the district.

You can also contact your county’s office for mental health services for resources that may be locally funded.

Your health plan can also serve as a resource. When you become a member of an insurance group, a care manager is assigned to you and your family. This individual can provide you with a list of service providers in your network. They can find help not only for your child but for any of your family members, including you.

Other important resources are the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), which has information you and your teen will find useful; the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988; and the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

What About Self-Care for You?

Lastly, don’t forget about yourself. Something that’s very often overlooked or deemed “not important” is self-care. Through working with many parents over my career, I’ve heard statements such as “I’m focused on my family. I don’t have time to think about myself” or “I feel guilty if I do anything that’s not for my child(ren) or family. How could I be thinking about me when my family’s breaking down?”

I understand. I validate your feelings of urgency and your need to love, care for, and support your family members. However, how are you ever to take care of them if you’re not taking care of yourself? Who will take care of you? Please remember your thoughts, feelings, and self-care are just as important in your family unit. You’re setting a positive example for others when you practice healthy self-care, such as attending therapy appointments, eating healthy, exercising, and knowing when to take space from a stressful situation to problem solve.

I Want You To Know

Educating yourself on mental health to help your teen get better?

I’m proud of you.

Falling down but getting back up?

I’m proud of you.

Pushing through tough times?

I’m proud of you.

Getting support when you need it?

I’m proud of you.

Remembering your self-care even though you feel guilty?

I’m proud of you.

Seeing your own worth?

I’m proud of you.

Loving not only your teen but also yourself?

I’m proud of you.

You should be proud of you too.

*This article is for informational purposes only and not to be considered medical advice. If you’re concerned your teen is experiencing suicidal thoughts, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline for immediate support by calling, texting, or chatting 988. You can also text HOME to 741741 — the Crisis Text Line — to speak with a trained crisis counselor right away.

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 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-based approach; and offers the highest levels of quality care and safety standards. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including virtual counseling, intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), therapeutic day treatment programs, also known as partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), short-term residential treatment, wilderness therapy, and long-term residential treatment, visit www.embarkbh.com.