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Adults often joke about the moodiness and unpredictable nature of teenagers. As teens go through puberty, spend more time with friends and less with family and discover their own identities, the shifts don’t come easy — for them or their families.

But, as a parent or guardian, when should you be concerned about your teen’s mental wellbeing? How can you determine if your child is going through normal adolescent behavior or is experiencing something more serious like a mental health challenge?

Mental illness in teenagers is common. The United States Department of Health and Human Services estimates that almost 50% of adolescents experience a mental health disorder at some point in their lives. Mental health disorders can include anxiety, depression, eating disorders and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It’s common for mental health disorders to appear in combination. For example, a teenager who is experiencing depression may also develop an eating disorder.

When you notice that signs and symptoms are keeping your teenager from doing daily tasks, such as homework, extracurricular activities or socializing, it’s time to investigate.

First, reach out to your child’s doctor for help. They can do a proper evaluation and give options on the next steps that best suit your child and family. They may also recommend medical treatments, such as prescribed medications like antidepressants, mood stabilizers or antipsychotics.

In addition to talking with a medical professional, there are several actions you can take that will support and encourage your teen — whether they have a diagnosable mental health condition or not.

  1. Encourage physical self-care. Talk with your teenager about healthy habits such as diet, nutrition and exercise and how they’re all related. Several studies, including one published in the American Journal of Public Health, show the positive effects a healthy diet and regular exercise have on mental wellbeing.
  2. Foster mental and emotional care. Share how journaling, creating art or music, or finding a new hobby such as cooking, can vastly improve inner peace and joy. Consider giving your teen a new journal or cooking utensil for that little extra push of encouragement.
  3. Discuss social media usage. Social media apps, such as YouTube, TikTok, Instagram and Snapchat, play an influential role in the lives of young people. In a Pew Research Foundation study, 86% of teens who use TikTok and Snapchat say they are on the platform daily, with a quarter saying they are on the site or app constantly. Talk to your teen about their social media usage and how it may impact their mental health.
  4. Teach healthy boundaries. Teenagers may find it helpful to learn how to set limits. This can help with social media usage, completing homework or socializing. For example, if your teenager doesn’t feel up to hanging out with friends, help come up with some boundary-setting phrases, such as, “Thanks for the offer, but I can’t today. Maybe next time.” Teaching your teenager how to set healthy boundaries is something they’ll practice the rest of their lives.
  5. Talk openly about mental health. The best way to destigmatize mental health is discussion. Talk with your teenager about your own mental health challenges, if any. Point to statistics that can help them understand how common mental health challenges are and that there is no shame in asking for help.

Parents and guardians — and anyone who works or interacts with teenagers — can find more training, support and resources by getting certified in Youth Mental Health First Aid. This evidence-based curriculum teaches parents, adults, teachers, coaches and more how to help an adolescent (age 12-18) who may be experiencing a mental health or substance use challenge or may be in crisis. Find a course and #BeTheDifference in your teenager’s life.



O’Neil, A., Quirk, S.E., Housden. S., Brennan, S.L., Williams, L.J., Pasco, J.A., Berk, M., & Jacka, F.N. (2014, Oct.). Relationship between diet and mental health in children and adolescents: a systematic review. American Journal of Public Health, 104(10), e31–e42.

Mental Health First Aid. (2020). teen Mental Health First Aid USA. National Council for Behavioral Health d/b/a National Council for Mental Wellbeing.

Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health. (n.d.). Mental health for adolescents. United States Department of Health and Human Services.


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