Parenting is one of the most challenging jobs in the world, but parenting teenagers can be even more complex. We watch our cute, innocent kids often turn into emotional, defiant, and door-slamming teenagers, and it can be confusing and even painful. While these can be common behaviors for teenagers, when do they signal something more serious?
Unfortunately, over 16% of American youth (ages 6-17) experience a mental health disorder, most commonly anxiety and depression. If your teen is affected by mental illness, there are avenues you and your teen can take before seeking therapy, including self-help books, meditation, journaling, and exercise. While the hope is that these things may open the door for more honest conversations about mental health, there may come a time when your teen needs more. And that’s okay!
If you feel like it’s time to find a counselor for your teen, don’t despair. Seeking therapy for your teen does not signal a parenting failure; as a matter of fact, it’s exactly the opposite. Our teenagers have a lot of pressures and big emotions as they go through the middle school and high school years, and therapy can help them navigate these challenges. Thankfully, many resources exist for teenagers with mental health disorders, including school counseling, mental health ministries, and private therapy. But how do you know the signs that your teen needs professional help?
8 Signs Your Teen Needs Counseling
While most teenagers can act a bit “teenager-y” at times, the following signs should alert you to the potential need for counseling:
1. Drastic changes in behavior, mood, sleeping habits, or personality
It’s common for many teenagers to sleep late, act grumpy occasionally, or want to try new things. However, if there is a drastic change in personality or behavior, such as not wanting to perform basic hygiene tasks, suddenly having all new friends (while dumping the old friends), or constantly seeming angry, it may be time to reach out for additional support.
2. Significant weight gain or loss
While a few pounds gained or lost here and there are perfectly normal for a hormonal and growing teen, significant weight loss or gain can be a sign that something is wrong. Body and self-esteem issues common during the teenage years can lead to eating disorders, causing either weight gain or loss.
3. Sudden lack of interest in school, friends, or family
If your straight-A student is suddenly failing classes or disinterested in socializing with friends on the weekend, it may be time to research a local therapist. While it may not be a mental health disorder, talking with a therapist can help your teenager refocus priorities and solve problems.
4. Divorce of parents or death of a friend or family member
While your teenager may appear outwardly “okay” after a divorce, it is a massive change in their life. Offering the opportunity to try therapy may be beneficial as they attempt to navigate a new family structure. In addition, if there has been a recent loss, a therapist can help your teenager navigate the world of grief.
5. Sudden and excessive use of alcohol or drugs
If your once straight-edged teen has suddenly started drinking alcohol or taking drugs regularly, they may be using those things to cope with their anxiety or depression. Therapy can provide opportunities to engage in healthy coping mechanisms, offer different perspectives, or open an understanding and non-judgmental space to communicate tough feelings.
It’s important to remember our teens aren’t always going to be comfortable sharing every detail of their lives with us (no matter how much we may want them to). Having an outside resource, not connected to your family, church, or community, may allow them space to explore those more difficult discussion topics without fear of judgment or punishment.
6. Persistent, overwhelming fears that get in the way of daily life
If you notice that your child is suddenly fearful of situations that haven’t posed a problem until now, they may be dealing with anxiety. While feeling anxious is common in certain situations (like speaking in front of a class or participating in a sports event), if the fears get in the way of their day-to-day life, then it’s likely time to research local therapists.
7. Sudden withdrawal from family and friends
Unfortunately, teenagers often isolate themselves in their rooms, so it can be challenging to determine if they are isolating because of mental health. However, sudden withdrawal from friends and family can indicate depression, self-esteem issues, bullying issues, or more.
8. Talking about harming themselves or others
If your teen has mentioned harming themselves or others, it’s time to contact a mental health professional immediately for immediate help. It may even be necessary to contact an emergency service like an urgent care clinic.
How to Find a Therapist for Your Teen
As parents, we are here to help our kids become successful adults. Guiding them through mental health struggles and giving them the coping tools they need is just as critical as helping them through any physical issues. While it can be overwhelming as a parent to realize that your teenager has mental health challenges, therapy can be very successful.
There are many avenues for finding a therapist, some of which include:
- Seeing a school counselor for community referrals
- Exploring whether your church offers a mental health ministry or has a list of local Christian mental health professionals
- Asking your community for referrals (whether online or in-person)
- Visiting your teen’s pediatrician for recommendations
- Looking for therapists on your insurance plan’s website
- Reviewing the Psychology Today Therapy Directory
- Searching the provider listings on the Anxiety and Depression Association of America‘s site.
What Should the Teen Expect in Therapy?
Although it may seem daunting for your teenager to attend therapy for the first time, it doesn’t have to be a scary experience. During the initial session, the therapist’s aim is to get to know your teen by asking questions about their life and their reasons for seeking therapy. This process helps establish a comfortable and safe space for your teen to share their thoughts and emotions.
Therapy sessions can range from anywhere between 30 to 90 minutes, but most take place inside of an hour. In those 60 minutes, your teen has the opportunity to discuss anything in their life that may be causing them stress or worry, and as rapport builds this rhythm will likely begin to feel more like a conversation with a trusted adult than a doctor’s visit.
Therapy can be a long-term process that takes several months to several years, or it can be a short season in your teen’s life, several weeks to a couple of months. Sessions typically take place once a week, but can also occur in different repetitive patterns (twice a week, once every other week, once a month etc.) This schedule is largely based on what works best for your family’s schedule, as well as the complexity of needs your teen may have. For example, one teen may struggle with poor self-esteem and only needs to visit a therapist’s office once every other week, while another teen may be recovering from a traumatic event in their life and needs to speak with a therapist twice a week.
A good therapist will also give your teenager plenty of time to “interview” them so your child will feel comfortable that it’s a good fit. For example, a teenager may want to ask about the therapist’s experience with trauma, divorce, gender dysmorphia, or LGBTQIA+ issues.
(For some ideas and information to help you as a parent have open conversations with your teen on these topics outside of therapy, check out our Axis resources on trauma, gender dysmorphia, or LGBTQIA+ issues.)
The therapist will also ask your teenager what goals they hope to achieve with therapy. Of course, as time goes on, these goals may change.
It’s also important to remind your teen that their conversations are private, unless they are dealing with thoughts of hurting themselves or others. Depending on the state you live in, there may be patient confidentiality laws to protect your teen’s sessions and their privacy. This can help them to feel more confident about being open and honest with their counselor. It is recommended you and your teen discuss confidentiality with a chosen counselor for more clarity.
Types of Therapy For Teenagers
With over 150 mental health diagnoses in the latest DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), there are a few standard therapeutic methods that treat the majority of these conditions. They include talk therapy, animal-assisted therapy, and exposure therapy.
Talk therapy can help clients deal with issues like long-term stress, grief from the loss of a loved one, or relationship problems with family or friends. A therapist can also help patients develop coping skills and problem-solving strategies.
One type of talk therapy is cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, which can be helpful for many mental health conditions, including anxiety disorders, alcohol/drug abuse, marital challenges, depression, and eating disorders.
As the “most researched form of therapy,” CBT is often called the “gold standard psychological therapy.” So, it should come as no surprise that many patients succeed with CBT, with a remarkable improvement in their quality of life.
Animal Assisted Therapy
Animal Assisted Therapy, or AAT, is based on the emotional bond between humans and animals. Therapy may take place at an equestrian center with horses, in a healthcare facility with cats and dogs, or even at home. Animals can provide a sense of comfort, calm, and security for patients, allowing them to regulate their emotions better, improve communication, and increase self-esteem.
AAT is used for many different mental health conditions, ranging from anxiety and depression to schizophrenia and ADHD.
If your teen is suffering from anxiety surrounding certain situations, activities, or things (like bees, for example), exposure therapy might be recommended. While many people may try avoiding what brings them anxiety, that usually only works in the short term. Long-term avoidance can increase anxiety, making the problem worse.
Exposure therapy exposes clients to the feared situations in a safe environment, eventually breaking the pattern of fear and anxiety.
Raising teenagers in today’s world is complicated, and we must be proactive if we recognize the signs of mental health conditions in our teens. If your teenager is exhibiting signs of depression, anxiety, or other mental illnesses, counseling can help them develop coping skills and tools that will last a lifetime.
Therapy isn’t designed to minimize your parenting style or choices; it’s designed to help your child learn how to cope with their life stressors and develop tools to get through tough situations. As Proverbs 17:22 says, “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” Help and hope are essential to teenagers’ long-term happiness and health, and leaving issues unattended for too long can be disastrous. Family and friends can always offer support and encouragement by listening, providing a shoulder to cry on, and using words of affirmation and motivation.
It’s also important to recognize our own life stressors to see if therapy could be beneficial to us as parents. We are often so focused on our spouse’s well-being and children’s health that we neglect our own physical and mental health. And by taking charge of your own mental health, you may inspire your teenager to be comfortable with therapy too.
Parenting is complicated and having resources and support is immeasurably valuable. So, whether you’re interested in knowing what your teenager’s slang means, how TikTok works, or what a relatable mental health meme is, we’re here to help.