“Raise your hand if you would rather be a teenager now than when you were a teenager.”
This has become of my favorite opening phrases when I’m speaking to parents and leaders.
Usually no one raises their hand.
Towards the top of the long list of what makes it challenging to be teenagers today is the unparalleled rise in mental health concerns. In a 53-page report released last month, the US Surgeon General highlighted that while some young people thrived during the pandemic, worldwide youth anxiety and depression rates that were already high before COVID-19 have doubled in the last year.
We’re facing an urgent mental health crisis among young people in America.
Looking specifically at the United States, data from the first 12 months of the pandemic (spring 2020 to spring 2021) indicates the rate of anxiety among all ages tripled, and depression almost quadrupled. Approximately half of US young adults ages eighteen to twenty-four have wrestled with anxiety or depression during the pandemic.
Suicide is currently the second leading cause of death for US young people ages ten to twenty-four. What’s more, approximately two out of every three young people who have suicidal thoughts never get help.
If you’re a parent of a teenager or twentysomething, you’re probably no stranger to this information. You’ve likely seen the emotions and experiences behind these statistics in your family room and your car’s passenger seat as your kid deals with developmentally familiar worries about major exams and being left out of social activities as well as new pandemic-generated fears about social contact, disease, and death.
When our team conducted multiple, in-depth interviews with twenty-seven diverse teenagers for our 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager book, every single student felt anxious at times, and typically far more often than they wished.
We interviewed one eleventh grader who’s active in his church and felt emotionally swallowed up by academic and social pressures: “On school days, I couldn’t even make it until 10 or 11 a.m. My anxiety was crazy. It got to the point that I wanted to kill myself. I called a suicide hotline and was put in a hospital with security guards around my bed to make sure I wasn’t going to harm myself. That was my lowest point.”
Poignantly, the support he received during that hospitalization helped him peer behind the curtain of his emotions and discover what he ultimately longed for: “I finally realized in that hospital bed that I really didn’t want to hurt myself. I just needed someone to be there for me.”
Let’s read that final sentence again: I just needed someone to be there for me.
As a parent of a 21-, 19-, and 15-year-old, I want to be there for them. And I want them to know that I’m there for them in all times—including their most anxious moments.
If you’re a parent, step-parent, caregiver, or guardian, I know you want that too. We want to be a safe place for our kids to celebrate or commiserate. Yet we might unknowingly have two big blind spots as we try to respond to the stress and anxiety of the young people closest to us.
Blind spot #1: Failing to see or discuss our kid’s struggles
Our kids’ teachers are likely trained, and hopefully ready, to bring up mental health topics in the classroom.
But parents don’t get any training.
While we as parents usually interact with our kids more than any other adult, we often don’t know how to recognize the signs of our child’s distress. In one pre-pandemic national survey, the top challenge cited by parents of middle and high school students in recognizing their child’s depression was their inability to distinguish normal ups and downs from depression. In the same poll, 30% of parents confessed that their child was skilled at hiding their feelings, and 14% of parents admitted that they don’t talk about feelings much in their families.
As someone who feels called to see young people flourish, I’m glad that more teachers are equipped and prepared to talk about mental health in the classroom. I just wish those conversations were also happening at home (and church too for that matter).
Blind spot #2: Assuming that the best response is to problem-solve
If we as parents and caregivers avoid the first blind spot and pick up on the signs of our child’s distress, we often fall into the second of acting immediately—in the wrong ways. When one of our kids is stressed or anxious, what they usually most need from us at first is to listen to them. In some (often more serious) cases, such as when there are self-harm or suicidal thoughts present, we need to intervene immediately for their own safety.
Tweet this: We too quickly try to solve kids’ problems. What they usually want is to sense our presence.
But most of the time, our kids are not ready for our immediate problem solving. Lisa Damour, an adolescent psychologist with extensive mental health expertise, uses the image of a glitter globe to explain young people’s readiness for problem solving. If the glitter is still swirling, meaning the teenager is still wound up emotionally, they aren’t yet ready to brainstorm best solutions and next steps. While it’s tempting to jump in with our reassurances or suggestions, it does little good if our young person’s emotions—their glitter—hasn’t yet settled down.
So what can we do to help the glitter settle? Sometimes it’s as simple as encouraging them to take a few deep breaths to calm down, offering a glass of water, giving a hug, or just sitting beside them quietly for a few moments. When they’re ready to talk, listen. Only then should we ask a question like, “Do you want help thinking about next steps?”
What to say instead: 7 conversation starters
In the last few months, I’ve journeyed alongside my three kids as they have navigated the stress of ...
… learning to drive,
… weeklong final exams,
… wondering if anyone will want to hire them this summer,
… and much more.
Despite having an undergraduate degree in Child and Youth Development, followed by 30 years of hands-on youth ministry experience and academic research, as well as 21 years (and growing!) of parenting, I don’t always know what to say to my own kids when they feel anxious.
Thanks to both our research and time we’ve spent learning from amazing parents nationwide, we at the Fuller Youth Institute can offer you, me, and every other parent the following 7 conversation starters. If you want to talk with your kids about mental health but you’re not sure where to start, we hope you’ll give one of these a try.
- On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the worst, how would you rate your stress and anxiety right now? I love this question that was first suggested by Dr. Clint Daniels, one of the mental health professionals featured on our Faith in an Anxious World parent podcast. A rating of 1–3 is a normal level of anxiety we all experience from time to time, and a 4 or 5 is probably handleable. If your child rates their stress at a 6 or above, they probably need more help from you and likely also a trained professional (see more on how to connect with a trained professional below).
- As you look back at your day, when did you feel most anxious? This is a great question to ask at dinner or bedtime to stay in touch with the people, places, and times that leave your child the most stressed. Just make sure you also answer the question so you’re having a dialogue and not a one-sided interview.
- What close friend(s) can you talk to about your stress and anxiety? Pinpointing another kid in math class, on the soccer team, or in youth group who can be a confidant can help decrease your child’s stress and increase their confidence.
- If you were feeling really stressed or anxious, or maybe even thinking about hurting yourself, what caring adult (besides me) could you talk to? Asking this not only helps your child identify an adult they could go to, but also lets you signal behind-the-scenes to that adult that your child views them as a safe place.
- I would be anxious, too, if I was navigating what you are. What do you think might be your next best step? Lisa Damour wisely suggests that we pair our empathy with an increase in our kids’ agency by helping them identify at least one baby step they can take to move forward.
- What can I do to best support you right now? Let’s stop guessing what our kids need and ask them directly. If they are too overwhelmed to name any tangible response, perhaps we should name some possibilities (e.g., “I could keep sitting here with you…or maybe I could try to distract you…or we could take the dog for a walk or go to the kitchen and have dinner together”).
- The next time you feel anxious, what core truth or phrase about yourself or God would you like to remember? I just asked one of my kids this question last week when I knew they were headed into a stress-filled few days. Helping our child identify a meaningful Scripture passage, worship song, prayer, or mantra they can repeat to themselves can give them the peace they need.
Tweet this: If you want to talk with your kids about mental health but you’re not sure where to start, here are 7 questions to try.
I recommend you keep these 7 questions handy. Don’t ask all of them at once; try them one at a time until you figure out what works best for your stressed child or step-child.
What if conversation isn’t enough?
If you sense your child needs more than supportive conversation, start by training yourself to better recognize symptoms of stress and anxiety in your child. In general, experts tell us to first look out for the following:
• anything more intense or pronounced than usual for our kids (e.g., more or less sleeping or eating, mood swings),
• signs that they are having more trouble managing their emotions,
• struggles dealing with the tasks of everyday life (like homework or chores), and/or
• unhealthy coping strategies such as the use of alcohol, drugs, or self-harm
Second, get the support you and your family need. Mental health struggles are not a solo sport. You, your child, and your family need to develop a team of caring peers and adults who can listen and journey with you.
Third, be quick to encourage your child to see a professional therapist. The brain is an organ, and as with our heart and liver, the brain sometimes requires additional help to function properly. If you don’t know a therapist who would be available, contact a few churches or high schools for referrals or search for virtual teletherapy via services like betterhelp.com or talkspace.com.
Many medical insurance policies cover (some or all of) the expenses of mental health treatment, and some therapists charge on a sliding scale. Please don’t assume that professional help is beyond your budget without exploring some cost-effective possibilities.
Fourth, trust your gut. If you think your child needs help from someone beyond you, they probably do. If you think you need to talk to a pastor or mental health professional about what you’re seeing at home, you probably do.
When I ask audiences if they would prefer to be a teenager now, I don’t raise my hand either. It’s hard being a young person today. And it’s hard parenting young people today. But hopefully by becoming more aware of these blind spots and experimenting with these conversation starters, we can extend the hand that’s most needed to the young people we care about most.
If you’re worried about the safety of a teenager you know, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline right away: 1-800-273-TALK or suicidepreventionlifeline.org
In addition, the Steve Fund Crisis Text Line is dedicated to the mental health and emotional well-being of students of color that can be reached by texting STEVE to 741-741 or visiting stevefund.org/crisistextline.
Nurture steady faith in a stressful world.
Faith in an Anxious World is a 4-week multimedia curriculum will equip you with the tools you need to guide young people in your ministry, linking anxiety and depression with conversations about discipleship and faithful living. Together you’ll reflect on New Testament stories, watch Jesus enter into anxious situations with his disciples, and explore life in an anxious but hope-filled world.
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 Beata Mostafavi, “2/3 of Parents Cite Barriers in Recognizing Youth Depression,” https://healthblog.uofmhealth.org/childrens-health/23-of-parents-cite-barriers-recognizing-youth-depression.
 Czeisler MÉ , Lane RI, Petrosky E, et al. Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, June 24–30, 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2020;69:1049–1057. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6932a1
 M. É. Czeisler et al. “Mental Health, Substance Use, and Suicidal Ideation during the COVID-19 Pandemic—United States, June 24–30, 2020,” Morbidity Mortality Weekly Report 69, no. 32 (August 14, 2020), 1049–57, http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6932a1.
 Mathilde M. Husky et. al., “Twelve-Month Suicidal Symptoms and Use of Services among Adolescents: Results from the National Comorbidity Survey,” Psychiatric Services 63, no. 12 (October 2012), https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5100004/. The suicide rate among US children and young adults ages ten to twenty-four rose 56 percent between 2007 and 2017. Sally C. Curtin and Melonie Heron, “Death Rates Due to Suicide and Homicide among Persons Aged 10–24: United States, 2000–2017,” National Center for Health Statistics Data Brief, no. 352, October 2018, https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db352-h.pdf.
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