Worried About Your Teenagers’ Mental Health? part 1

I respect Kara Powell as much as any Christian leader in the USA. Today, there is an epidemic of kids struggling with mental health issues. No, it’s not easy being a kid today. I think Kara did her usual great job helping us with our kids’ mental health by asking the key questions. This is part one of a two-part series.

Worried About Your Teenagers’ Mental Health?

Here are 7 conversations to start having at home.

“Raise your hand if you would rather be a teenager now than when you were a teenager.”

This has become of my favorite opening phrases when I’m speaking to parents and leaders.

Usually no one raises their hand.

Towards the top of the long list of what makes it challenging to be teenagers today is the unparalleled rise in mental health concerns. In a 53-page report released last month, the US Surgeon General highlighted that while some young people thrived during the pandemic, worldwide youth anxiety and depression rates that were already high before COVID-19 have doubled in the last year.

We’re facing an urgent mental health crisis among young people in America.

Looking specifically at the United States, data from the first 12 months of the pandemic (spring 2020 to spring 2021) indicates the rate of anxiety among all ages tripled, and depression almost quadrupled.[1] Approximately half of US young adults ages eighteen to twenty-four have wrestled with anxiety or depression during the pandemic.[2]

Suicide is currently the second leading cause of death for US young people ages ten to twenty-four. What’s more, approximately two out of every three young people who have suicidal thoughts never get help.[3]

If you’re a parent of a teenager or twentysomething, you’re probably no stranger to this information. You’ve likely seen the emotions and experiences behind these statistics in your family room and your car’s passenger seat as your kid deals with developmentally familiar worries about major exams and being left out of social activities as well as new pandemic-generated fears about social contact, disease, and death.

When our team conducted multiple, in-depth interviews with twenty-seven diverse teenagers for our 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager book, every single student felt anxious at times, and typically far more often than they wished.

We interviewed one eleventh grader who’s active in his church and felt emotionally swallowed up by academic and social pressures: “On school days, I couldn’t even make it until 10 or 11 a.m. My anxiety was crazy. It got to the point that I wanted to kill myself. I called a suicide hotline and was put in a hospital with security guards around my bed to make sure I wasn’t going to harm myself. That was my lowest point.”

Poignantly, the support he received during that hospitalization helped him peer behind the curtain of his emotions and discover what he ultimately longed for: “I finally realized in that hospital bed that I really didn’t want to hurt myself. I just needed someone to be there for me.”

Let’s read that final sentence again: I just needed someone to be there for me.

As a parent of a 21-, 19-, and 15-year-old, I want to be there for them. And I want them to know that I’m there fir them in all times – including their most anxious moments.

If you’re a parent, step-parent, caregiver, or guardian, I know you want that too. We want to be a safe place for our kids to celebrate or commiserate. Yet we might unknowingly have two big blind spots as we try to respond to the stress and anxiety of the young people closest to us.

Blind spot #1: Failing to see or discuss our kids’ struggles

Our kids’ teachers are likely trained, and hopefully ready, to bring up mental health topics in the classroom.

But parents don’t get any training.

While we as parents usually interact with our kids more than any other adult, we often don’t know how to recognize the signs of our child’s distress. In one pre-pandemic national survey, the top challenge cited by parents of middle and high school students in recognizing their child’s depression was their inability to distinguish normal ups and downs from depression. In the same poll, 30% of parents confessed that their child was skilled at hiding their feelings, and 14% of parents admitted that they don’t talk about feelings much in their families.[1]

As someone who feels called to see young people flourish, I’m glad that more teachers are equipped and prepared to talk about mental health in the classroom. I just wish those conversations were also happening at home (and church too for that matter).

Blind Spot #2: Assuming that the best response is to problem-solve

If we as parents and caregivers avoid the first blind spot and pick up on the signs of our child’s distress, we often fall into the second of acting immediately—in the wrong ways. When one of our kids is stressed or anxious, what they usually most need from us at first is to listen to them. In some (often more serious) cases, such as when there are self-harm or suicidal thoughts present, we need to intervene immediately for their own safety.

But most of the time, our kids are not ready for our immediate problem solving. Lisa Damour, an adolescent psychologist with extensive mental health expertise, uses the image of a glitter globe to explain young people’s readiness for problem solving. If the glitter is still swirling, meaning the teenager is still wound up emotionally, they aren’t yet ready to brainstorm best solutions and next steps. While it’s tempting to jump in with our reassurances or suggestions, it does little good if our young person’s emotions—their glitter—hasn’t yet settled down.[2]

So what can we do to help the glitter settle? Sometimes it’s as simple as encouraging them to take a few deep breaths to calm down, offering a glass of water, giving a hug, or just sitting beside them quietly for a few moments. When they’re ready to talk, listen. Only then should we ask a question like, “Do you want help thinking about next steps?”

What to say instead: 7 conversation starters

In the last few months, I’ve journeyed alongside my three kids as they have navigated the stress of …

… learning to drive,

… weeklong final exams,

… wondering if anyone will want to hire them this summer,

… and much more.

Despite having an undergraduate degree in Child and Youth Development, followed by 30 years of hands-on youth ministry experience and academic research, as well as 21 years (and growing!) of parenting, I don’t always know what to say to my own kids when they feel anxious.

Part 2 will be published next Wednesday.

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Kara Powell

Kara Powell, PhD, is the Executive Director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) and a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary. Named by Christianity Today as one of “50 Women to Watch”, Kara serves as an Advisor to Youth Specialties and also speaks regularly at parenting and leadership conferences. Kara is the author or co-author of a number of books including The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family, Sticky Faith Curriculum, Can I Ask That?, Deep Justice Journeys, Essential Leadership, Deep Justice in a Broken World, Deep Ministry in a Shallow World, and the Good Sex Youth Ministry Curriculum.

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