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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

Building and maintaining the parent-teen connection, such as by watching a TV show together or other low-pressure opportunities to be together, is key. These experiences create safe spaces and opportunities for teens to communicate about difficult emotions or situations. Parents who assist teens in recognizing, talking about and dealing with difficult thoughts and feelings help them to understand how their thoughts and feelings can affect their behavior.

Parents can also help their teens manage negative emotions by reinforcing their self-esteem and strengths and encouraging self-efficacy. Parents who offer praise to their teens who are working hard to overcome challenges – as opposed to focusing solely on the outcome – can help teens see their worth beyond their accomplishments.

At the same time, teens require boundaries that allow them to build self-reliance, exercise independence and practice compromise in certain situations. Behavior contracts – in which teens and their parents agree to certain conditions in writing – can provide a structured way to establish shared expectations.

When consequences are necessary, natural consequences allow teens to learn without parental intervention. For example, if a teen stays up late the night before a big softball game, their coach may bench them for playing poorly. Parents can help teens to connect the frustration and disappointment they experience to their choices regarding sleep, which can be more helpful for their future decision-making than getting into an argument with a parent about their decision or receiving a parent-imposed consequence, such as removing phone privileges.

When natural consequences are not an option, discipline should be specific, time-limited and focused on a specific outcome, such as not allowing preferred activities until homework and chores are complete.

It is also important that parents avoid power struggles with their teens by modeling respectful communication without trying to manage the teen’s reaction or perspective. Teens are unlikely to admit to being wrong – particularly in a heated moment – and if the point is made, there is rarely a benefit to insisting upon a particular reaction such as a forced apology.


Parents can best support their teens by maintaining connection alongside enforcing structure and discipline. While challenging behaviors can be the status quo of adolescence, parents should be on the lookout for signs that might reflect a pervasive mental health issue, since early detection and treatment is crucial.

This article is republished from The Conversation, an independent nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Toria Herd, Penn State and Sarah A. Font, Penn State. The Conversation has a variety of fascinating free newsletters.

Read more:
Strong family ties during teen years can help ward off depression in later life

Why a US task force is recommending anxiety screening in kids 8 and older

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.


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