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How parents can play a key role in the prevention and treatment of teen mental health problems

Sarah A. Font, Associate Professor of Sociology and Public Policy, Penn State and Toria Herd, Postdoctoral Researcher in Psychology, Penn State, The Conversation on

Published in News & Features

Traumatic experiences like bullying, dating violence and sexual harassment and assault are unfortunately too common in adolescence and can cause drastic changes in behavior and affect.

Although anxiety is a normal emotional response at any age, about a third of adolescents have some type of anxiety disorder, and about 10% experience severe impairment as a result. Teens struggling with chronic anxiety may experience agitation or irritability, issues with sleep, perfectionist tendencies, or may try to avoid stressful things altogether.

Among teens, 17% struggle with depression. Depression generally involves a loss of interest or pleasure in daily activities, but it is more than feeling blue. For teens, symptoms of depression may look like withdrawing from family or social activities, shutting down during conversations or conflict, lethargy, difficulty concentrating, hopelessness about the future or negative feelings of self-worth.

Depression can also be associated with self-harm and suicide.

In determining whether a teen is experiencing a mental illness, parents should consider how behaviors are affecting their teens’ everyday lives and plans for the future. Those who are falling behind in school, damaging important relationships or engaging in high-risk behaviors may be most likely to be experiencing a mental health issue – as opposed to typical teenage challenges.

Despite the growing need for mental health care, the U.S. has a dire shortage of professionals to meet the demand. Insurance companies create barriers to accessing mental health care by restricting the numbers of in-network providers and approved sessions. As a result, many providers prioritize patients who will pay out of pocket.


Parents and teens may wait months for an appointment, and the quality and effectiveness of the services they receive are highly variable. All the while, symptoms may worsen, straining the family and compromising teens’ social and academic opportunities.

This is where parents come in, since they can serve as role models for teens’ coping and emotional development.

While good sleep, consistent exercise and quality meals can often be the first line of defense in preventing and managing symptoms of mental health problems, there are several behavioral strategies for parenting struggling teens. Indeed, foster parents care for children with complex histories of trauma, and many of the behavior management strategies taught to foster parents may be useful for traditional family settings as well.

When teens are unkind or disrespectful, parents may take it personally. But parents who are aware of and able to manage their own triggers can react calmly to challenging behavior, creating opportunities for effective communication with their teen.


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