- Be proactive and talk to young people about mental health before problems arise.
- Changes in eating or sleeping patterns may signal mental distress.
- When problems are apparent, adults should listen without judgment and try to keep their own emotions in check.
Like many people my age, I grew up in a household where we didn’t have frank conversations about feelings. We were an outwardly happy clan, but, beneath smiles, there was often discontent and sometimes outright sadness. When you internalize the message that it’s not OK to talk about feelings, it can easily evolve to “It’s not OK to feel feelings.” I received that conditioning from loving adults who were never taught how to recognize emotional issues and engage with them, who received it from those around them—it’s a vicious cycle. Yet, breaking that pattern—by being able to see when a young person is struggling and talk to them about it—is one of the most positive steps adults can take to impact young people’s mental health.
The holiday season, when young people deal with end-of-semester exams, family dynamics, and being separated from friends and activities during the break, can present the perfect storm for mental health challenges. I asked Dr. Matthew Housson, a child and family psychologist who specializes in emotional and behavioral disorders, to share some best practices for adults to be able to identify mental health struggles and help young people move back to health.
How to Prepare
Housson compared parent support for mental health to a fire—it’s best to activate your smoke detectors and have a prevention plan in place because, by the time you see flames, it’s very difficult to extinguish them in time.
“The key is being proactive and talking about changes and what to do about them before they start—this is before you’re smelling smoke,” Housson said. “The parent could say ‘There’s going to be times when you get frustrated or upset—when I recognize it, I’m going to give you some space. But what might be the best way for us to come together and talk about it?’ The proactivity is what can help severed connections to eventually get repaired.”
A young person’s network of peers is crucial to preparation since they can both offer support and bolster mental health and identify changes that may signal distress. Housson noted parents can and should establish rapport with peers so they feel more comfortable talking to the adult if they sense something is awry.
When to Engage
Sometimes even the best-laid plans don’t keep problems from surfacing. Mental health distress often manifests in changes in cycles and patterns, especially in eating or sleeping. While retreating to their room with their favorite media device is normal, Housson noted that if an adult makes mention about the time spent on the device, or why they’re spending so much time in the room and the young person responds with more rigidity or defensiveness that usual—that can also be a sign of emotional trouble.
How to Engage
If a young person is already struggling with their mental health, it’s best for parents to stay open and curious and let the young person know they’re ready to listen without judgment. It’s also imperative adults do their best to try to keep their own emotions in check, which can be difficult in charged situations.
Housson suggested saying something like this: “‘I’ve known you long enough to know that when you’re spending a lot of time in your room, you’re probably having some feelings, and I’m not sure what those feelings are.’ It’s important for parents to recognize what’s happening, resist the pull to talk about behaviors, and instead talk about what they’re noticing and what that may mean.”
If the young person is in crisis or seems to be headed toward one, don’t wait to bring in professional help.
Other Ways to Help
Regardless of whether a young person has experienced mental health challenges or not, the best antidote is what Housson called repair work, or the process of reconnection to support and community. Two ways to grow connection follow:
- Creating space for literal closeness. So many kids use devices and various forms of media to connect with friends and other groups of people their age—Housson said that type of mediated connection is necessary, but not sufficient. “The opportunities for a hug, or a pat on the back, or for someone to sit next to you (and snuggle) in a familial way—those are much more intimate actions that suggest ‘I’m here to take care of you.’ There’s a physiological response that helps to build connection and reconnection that’s difficult to get with technology.”
- Allowing them to be with their friends. “I know congregation has a religious term, but I know when I see my kids’ friends come over to the house and they are so happy to congregate,” said Housson, who is a father of four. “They sit around and it might appear they’re all on their phones, but one person will then show another something funny, and then they’ll all get to laugh and have this shared moment. Congregating for teens equals having fun together, and that’s important.”