Your teen isn’t light and happy anymore.
Whether your teen is riding the new emotional rollercoaster as a typical teenager, feeling low and going through a bit of a rough patch, or you’re watching them go dark and getting worried.
Sometimes you know why – a change in schools, a change to online schooling, a rift in their friend group, their bodies are changing, etc., and sometimes your teen’s mood decline is a complete mystery.
Watching your teen struggle is like having a part of your heart walking around outside of your rib cage in a hungry lion’s den. Your fight or flight response gets triggered, your body fills with adrenaline and your perception of fear switches you to Ninja, Navy seal mode as you jump in to save your precious child.
Your teen already feels broken.
Although their lower brain, the emotion center, is fully formed by the time they are 12. But their upper brain is growing in random areas at random rates as they form new hardware for their complex computer! And at the same time, their brain is developing new software to run within that hardware. No wonder teenagers experience their brain densification and growth phase as feeling broken or damaged in some way!
In early adolescence, self-esteem is already at an all-time low which compounds the issue. They internalize their struggle as their fault and they’re less than.
The mental health stigma.
We’re making progress, and the stigma still exists. Check your own story about mental health. Normalize mental health in your home through conversations with your teen and talk about seeking help as a good thing. You go to the dentist for your teeth, why wouldn’t you go to a therapist/counsellor/coach for your brain?
Rule #1 – Your teenager is NOT your project to fix.
You are the Best Supporting Actress/Actor and the best you can do is play a stellar supporting role.
Rule #2 – Your teenager’s feelings aren’t your fault or your responsibility.
No matter how your teen is feeling, their mental health is not your fault. Your teen’s current emotional state isn’t a reflection of you as a person or your quality as a parent.
Rule #3 – You don’t need to know why your teen’s feeling this way.
This might be hard to hear….it’s none of your business. Your teen may never share why this is going on for them and they might not know themselves. If you’re feeling really challenged by these foundational rules, read this article first!
What not to do…
Teenagers are highly susceptible to criticism, comparison, and a need to fit in. Telling them they’re being oversensitive or dramatic they feel judged and made wrong. If you’re an intellectual personality style, your teen’s emotions may seem immature or attention-seeking.
Emotionally based personality styles feel first as part of their processing which doesn’t make their feelings or intellectual capabilities lower than normal.
If you have one child that is struggling with their mental health, be cautious not to compare them to siblings or relatives who aren’t struggling (that you know of ?). Comparison isn’t a motivation tactic. It never has been and never will be.
Put down your pompoms. I know your intention is loving and you want your teen to see all the upside. That’s toxic and wildly invalidating. Is this about you not wanting to feel uncomfortable or out of control?
‘Focus on the positive!’
‘You’ve got great grades, good friends, and look at this house!’
‘If they only understood how good they had it, they certainly wouldn’t feel anxious or depressed. They’re just not willing to see everything I do for them and give them.’
Processing your emotions with your teen.
Do your processing away from your teenager with your spouse, partner, coach, therapist, etc. They already feel guilty for not being who they were and responsible for your pain (because they internalize it all).
You’re wired for negativity. Your stressed-out parent brain is telling you this is only the beginning of a downward spiral on a one-way path to horrible consequences with no return. HIT THE BRAKES speedy! Most of those stories aren’t helpful or true so check them regularly.
‘I’m so worried about you! Are you going to kill yourself? Are you going to go goth and hang out with bad influences now? Are you going to do drugs, too?’
Mental health isn’t linear so if they aren’t responding the way you want them to you don’t take offense or get agitated. This is a process with highs and lows and lots of learning along the way.
What you can do…
1) Emotional Boundaries
You need to understand where you end and your teenager begins. That will lower your need to rescue/fix/take responsibility for how your teen is feeling. You have the right to be happy when your teen is sad. You have the right to have a great day when your teen is having a hard day. Being a reflection of your teen is exhausting and codependent.
2) Normalize their struggle
Love your teen unconditionally. Let them show up however they need without commenting on their appearance. Don’t ask them to change or be a different way. Let them express themselves because that’s where they need to be.
‘I really love you. I’m concerned about you. Is there a way I could support you?’
‘I love you when you’re struggling.’
‘It’s ok to struggle. I do sometimes as well.’
‘I love you when you’re sad.’
‘Where you are may feel uncomfortable and you’re okay where you are. You are not alone. I won’t leave you here. I can’t do this for you, but I will be with you. I will walk beside you.’
I wish I had heard some of these things when I was struggling. It’s powerful to hear that it’s normal, even if you’ve never felt this, you can offer empathy.
3) Positive reinforcement
It has been scientifically proven that when you positively reinforce, you help your teen turn their own negativity bias around in their brains, which has a lot to do with low self-esteem and low confidence. Their negativity bias in their brain’s Reticular Activating System supports them to focus on what’s NOT working but don’t get baited in trying to argue with it.
Affirm positive character traits and things they do well. Don’t go over the top or they’ll tune you out and keep saying these even if they roll their eyes.
‘You’re a caring friend’
‘You’re always so polite to other adults’
‘Thanks for setting the table’
Stay away from appearance-based comments for girls. Compliments focused on their clothing, make-up, hair, body shape, fitness level, etc. send a message their external appearance matters most and creates conditional love in having to keep up those external standards.
‘If you speak to a man in a language he understands, it goes to his head. If you speak to a man in his language, it goes to his heart.’
4) Love your teen in the way that works for them
Why exhaust yourself trying to love all over your teen if their brain isn’t getting the message? Everyone experiences love differently and giving love in a meaningful way for your teen doesn’t have to be complicated. Take the free Five Love Languages Quiz and check out your results with your teen. Remember moderation is key, don’t go overboard.
5) Set Tiny Goals
Remember, you are the supporting actress/actor. Help your teen set tiny goals each day that feels like a meaningful measure of success for them. Maybe it’s showing up to a class on ZOOM they haven’t been to for two weeks; on time, no camera, no microphone. Maybe it’s having a shower every 3 days, or just opening a math book without doing any reading or work.
These might be so infinitely small you want to roll your eyes with a ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!’ Get behind it. Don’t come up with a litany of better suggestions. They’re struggling to process everything and the goals you choose aren’t meaningful to them.
6) Find a Passion
Connecting their head to their heart helps them remember who they are or discover who they’re becoming. That is where self-esteem and confidence come from. If your teenager likes to draw, encourage them. Go to the art store and get them some supplies. Sign them up for the sketching class. YouTube is free and filled with tutorials for just about every passion they could have. Maybe it’s dance, cooking, building, whatever! Remember to not take over and just support. It might take a few trials to find one spark.
Finding your own passion project helps you be the best support person and keeps your mental health on the positive side.
7) Support a healthy sleep schedule
Teenagers’ circadian rhythm is changing, and they want to stay up to all hours. Phones play a huge role in this. If you can limit exposure by 11 or 11:30 that’s ideal, while they still have music or meditation app. Show your teen this study about the impact of lack of sleep and keep the conversation going without lecturing. Making this change is their choice and might take time.
8) Eat your Vegetables
The brain – gut connection is real and science shows that mental health and physical health are connected. Ask your teen how they feel after certain meals and have them choose one new food/week rather than fast carbs and candy. Do it from a place of ‘I care about you’, not discipline or shame. I have a picky eater and I know how hard this can be! By building an awareness of how food impacts their bodies and mental state, they’re more likely to make the best choices for them.
9) Breath in fresh air
Fresh air increases oxygen levels and creates healthy hormone balances in their brains with serotonin and other endorphins. Time spent outside doesn’t have to be exercise necessarily; lay on the grass, on the beach, walk around the block, sit on your deck. No need to create fitness enthusiasts and it’s not about weight loss.
10) Create an invitation
You can lead the way with any one of these things and invite your teen to come along. The key is to remove any expectation of them participating with you and keep an open door whenever they do.
Watching your teen struggle is heartbreaking and you don’t have to do it alone. Jump over to my free parenting community and join the conversation, hear what other parents are trying and get the support you deserve in these very challenging years.
There’s no manual for this and I know you’re doing the best you can. Getting the answers you need that work for you and your teen is just a click away. Start below!