We’re all familiar with the term “work-life balance.” But it wasn’t always as popular a…
To get a clear picture of the teen mental health crisis in the United States, we need only glance at new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey (ABES), conducted just last year.
According to the survey, more than one in three high school students struggled with their mental health during the Covid-19 pandemic; almost 50 percent of them felt sad or hopeless.1
These statistics are even bleaker—including significantly higher numbers of suicide attempts—for female students and students who identify as part of the LGBTQIA community.
A teen mental health crisis has been brewing for some time. According to the CDC, “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” had increased by 40 percent between the years of 2009 and 2019.2
Add to that the isolation and fear inherent to a pandemic, gun violence happening in schools across the country, and a highly-divisive political landscape. Our young people are capable of understanding what’s happening—and they’re more than capable of picking up on and even absorbing the stress the adults in their lives are feeling.
This can leave teens feeling like their support system is a little shaky.
The Mental Health Crisis Is Affecting High-Achieving Teens, Too
When teens are doing well in school, are active in extracurriculars, and seem to be surrounded by friends, it can be hard to believe they’re struggling.
But young people face a lot of stress and pressures in our world today—many that older generations can have a tough time fully understanding.
Studies have shown that high-achieving teens are an “at-risk” group, alongside young people whose families live in poverty, deal with incarceration, and more.3 And while the experiences of students who are stressed because of high expectations to excel are very, very different from young people faced with poverty, racial bias, or violence at home, they all run the risk of dealing with chronic stress and illness as they grow into adulthood.
It’s a tough pill to swallow for caring, involved parents—that the opportunities they’ve been able to offer their children might actually result in extreme stress.
But our teens want to please us, and they want to please other adults in their life who are vested in their success—like coaches, theater directors, teachers, or school administrators they have relationships with.
Students who want so badly to succeed and please might do just that—while also juggling anxiety, depression, and substance use.
Does My Teenager Have Mental Health Issues?
The signs and symptoms of a mental health crisis in young people vary widely, and it can be difficult to separate these conditions from run-of-the-mill growing pains.
But if you notice significant changes to your child’s behavior, it might be reason to follow up. Keep an eye out for the following:
- New or increasing sadness, moodiness, frustration, or irritability
- Problems within their friend group or arguments that end badly or don’t seem to resolve
- Avoidance of social interactions or withdrawal from social activities they once enjoyed
- A loss of interest in schoolwork or extracurricular activities
- Low self-esteem
- Persistent distraction or difficulty concentrating
- New or increased sensitivity to failure or rejection
Anxiety and depression can impact sleep and eating habits, as well. Be mindful of any major shifts in your child’s behavior where these things are concerned.
And, of course, if you suspect any kind of substance use—including overuse of prescribed medications—consult a medical professional right away.
How To Support High-Achieving Teens Right Now
Our world is changing rapidly, and it’s tough for adults to keep up, too! But our young people look to us for guidance, and the way we handle challenges can have a big impact.
The following strategies can help us support them through their teens years and beyond.
Be Open, Honest, and Transparent About Mental Health
Supporting our young people in their struggles with mental health means laying a foundation where they’re comfortable coming to us when they need help. And little can stop that faster than feelings of guilt or shame.
Be open, honest, and transparent with your teen. Make sure they understand that mental health is never something to be ashamed of, and struggling from time to time is very normal. Our brains need constant maintenance to stay healthy, just like our bodies! When things get tough, there are professionals out there who can help.
Support Teen Friendships and School Connectedness
As young people begin to explore and experience the world, their friends become increasingly important to them—and to their identity.
But social connection for young people is something that well-intentioned adults often downplay, focused more on good grades or success in sports or competition.
According to the CDC, “school connectedness” is one of the most stabilizing factors for young people—and instead of the classes, tests, or homework assignments, it’s the relationships they form there that make the difference.4
If your child has formed strong bonds with peers and adults at school, encourage and support those relationships. Help them work through conflict in healthy ways. This will strengthen their social connections and lead to better, stronger relationships in adulthood.5
Model A Healthy Lifestyle for Your Teen
While it might not necessarily be a cure, a healthy lifestyle is important for all of us when it comes to keeping anxiety and depression in check. Model this for your teen by encouraging regular movement throughout the day and rest when their bodies are tired.
Try new and healthy foods with them, and make sure they understand how nutrition can fuel their bodies and minds. And help your teens create structure and healthy routines that can support good mental health throughout their lives.6
Most importantly, have fun creating that healthy lifestyle—and doing it together!
Help Your Teen Identify and Maintain Boundaries
Perfectionism can be a tough habit to break, especially for high-performers. But we know we’re happier and more successful when we acknowledge and respect our own limitations. Teaching your young person about boundaries and the dangers of burnout can help set them up for long-term success.
Let your young people see you setting and maintaining healthy boundaries. This can have a big impact on helping them do the same!
Model Healthy Social Media Usage for Your Teen
Even if you use many of the same platforms as your teenager, the algorithms behind them might mean you’re seeing a very different landscape.
Modeling healthy social media usage for our young people is critical. Being transparent about your own struggles with it—like overuse or comparison, if you experience them—can help your teen understand that the role social media plays in our lives is really up to us to decide.
Help them recognize that it’s a great tool to support their real-life friendships… But not something to take the place of them.
Don’t Ignore The News—Help Them Understand It
It can be tempting to try and shield young people from the news of the day—especially when it’s complex or scary. But teens will hear about it, either way, and talking through it with them first can help them understand what’s happening and put it into perspective.
Help your child to feel empowered by letting them lead when it comes to getting involved. If they’re moved to learn more or volunteer, help them reach out to reputable local organizations or do some in-depth research together.
Work With a Professional Trained in Teen Mental Health
Therapy with a qualified professional is one of the most effective tools against a teen mental health crisis.
If your child is struggling with anxiety or depression, a clinical psychologist who works with young people can help them identify the roots of their challenges and how to move forward successfully.