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How to spot signs of anxiety and depression in your teenager and what to do about it
After a year of uncertainty and loss, it’s no surprise that the pandemic has taken a toll on teens, who were already at risk of experiencing poor mental health before the pandemic. Nearly half of parents surveyed for a Mott Poll Report on children’s health said their teen had shown signs of a new or worsening mental health condition since last March. “The teenage years are a phase of exploration, identity formation and connections,” says Karen Yakimchuk, an Inkblot counsellor and expert in adolescent mental health based in Calgary, Alberta. However, she says the pandemic has disrupted that development, potentially causing or worsening symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Despite this, Yakimchuk says there are ways for parents to recognize signs of anxiety and depression and offer their teens support.
While there are many types of anxiety disorders, Yakimchuk says that generally anxiety stems from a fear of the unknown. Anxiety is a survival-based instinct and can be categorized into healthy, tolerable and toxic stress responses. Healthy stress is your body telling you to be careful, like when you’re on a roller coaster or watching a scary movie. Tolerable stress is more like the temporary jittery feeling you get when you take your driver’s test. But persistent toxic stress that causes rumination and behaviour changes, is when anxiety can become a problem.
Depression is when an individual sees the world and their place in it through a lens of hopelessness. Depression goes further than your teen being discouraged by what’s going on around them. “It’s consistent, it’s extreme, and you see it across all domains...it's an internal stance that there’s no point to move forward,” Yakimchuk says.
Engage in open and transparent communication: Open communication is foundational to supporting your teen through this difficult time, says Yakimchuk. “It starts with creating an environment where mental health topics are spoken about freely.” Parents should regularly make space for teens to talk about what’s troubling them on their own terms.
But sometimes kids just aren’t comfortable opening up to their parents. That’s why it’s also important to discuss your child’s circle of support, says Yakimchuk. Brainstorming who your child is comfortable speaking to about their mental health can give them space to be open with those they trust about their issues with a bonus of reassuring parents that their child is supported.
Don’t go into fix-it mode: Parents often want a quick solution to their teen’s mental health struggles. But jumping straight to advice-giving can be diminishing to a young person’s experiences. “Questions like ‘Why don’t you just do this, why do you worry so much?,’ convey a sense of judgement,” says Yakimchuk. “It stifles (your child’s) exploration, their discovery of themselves and of the world.”
Instead, Yakimchuk suggests inviting your child to share their perspective by asking open questions like: “What’s on your mind?” or “How can I help you with what’s going on?”
When your child isn’t in the mood to talk about their mental health, try simply spending quality time. “Not every conversation needs to be about struggle,” Yakimchuk says. “Every child deserves someone that will...appreciate their skills, innovation, creativity and expression.”
Help find the resources they need: If your teen wants to seek therapy or additional support, Yakimchuk says to first validate the insight and courage it takes to ask. From there, she suggests shortlisting three or so professionals and taking advantage of free consultation sessions to see who they click with.
If your teen isn’t as willing to accept help, Yakimchuk acknowledges that’s a difficult position for parents to be in and that respectful persistence is key. “It’s not necessarily banging on the door, it’s about knocking on the door.” She says to ask about their reservations and try to address them periodically. Parents can also suggest self-directed resources like podcasts and audiobooks.
If your teen is expressing thoughts of self harm or suicidal plans however, it’s time to get emergency support. It’s is important that parents take all threats of suicide seriously. Stay with your teen and get help.
Yakimchuk also notes that teens are stronger than they’re given credit for. While it’s hard to predict when, with consistent and professional support, your teen will eventually bounce back.
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