A Guide For Parents: How To Help Your Teen With Mental Health Struggles

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health struggles in children and adolescents have reached an all-time high in the past year. Uncertainty around what the future will look like from everything to how kids go to school to how they are able to interact with their friends caused a spike in anxiety, and missing out on important life events such as prom, high school graduation, and cherished family trips has brought about a rise in depression.

Many adolescents have compared this year of uncertainty to sitting on the sidelines watching the best years of their lives pass them by. With the loss of important milestones and typical daily routines, millions of teens have struggled with their mental health and have seen a decline in motivation, academic performance, and social interaction, resulting in extreme loneliness. Dr. Khadijah Booth Watkins, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital, labels these declines as a loss of function and indicative of serious mental health problems.

Because the teenage brain is wired for new experiences, social connection, and romantic connection, mental health professionals are saying that the pandemic is making it hard for them to meet basic developmental needs. If you are worried about the mental health of your child, it’s important to get the conversation started and to know when to seek professional help.

Why and how to talk to your child about their mental health struggles

Talking to your teen about her mental health struggles can have many benefits including helping her to get the support she needs to work through these issues. Opening the dialogue lets her know that you are here to support her in any way you can, and keeping the conversation consistently going even during times of positive mental health can help reduce the stigma around mental health problems.

There are many things you can do to help facilitate this conversation, and the first step is being able to recognize the red flags associated with mental health disorders. Some things to look for to spot a potential mental health issue include sudden and severe changes in eating, sleeping, or basic hygiene, or language about wanting to hurt themselves or not wanting to be around anymore. Elisa Nebolsine, a cognitive behavioral therapist and expert, says parents can help identify mental health struggles such as depression by looking for talk that is PPP – personal, pervasive, and permanent. Personal talk refers to teens internalizing whatever is going wrong in their lives and associating their struggles with a personal flaw. Pervasive means that it is showing up in all areas of their life from school to family interactions to friendships, and permanent refers to the extended time period that these feelings and behaviors are occurring.

Once you’ve spotted some potential warning signs in your child, it’s time to engage with your teen in conversations around mental health using validating and modeling. Children and teens learn from watching their parents, so one of the most important tools in your parenting toolbox is modeling. If you are able to model resilience, compassion, and mindfulness in the face of adversity or difficult emotional situations, you are better able to provide your teen with a guide on how to respond to difficult stimuli. This requires being open with your child about your own mental health struggles and how you worked through them, and it also requires parents to have their own self-care practices in place if they want to help their children through these difficult times.

Modeling compassion with your teen involves actively listening to their struggles and validating their emotions. When your teen is sharing with you how it was really hard to miss their 16th birthday party or their senior soccer season, take the time to acknowledge these feelings of loss and empathize with her struggles. Instead of trying to convince them that it’s not a big deal, say things like “You’re right, this really sucks that you aren’t going to be able to have the big 16th birthday party you wanted, and you really deserve it and you’ve earned it”. Only once teens feel heard and understood by their parents can they start thinking about ways to creatively solve their problems and move forward.

Options for helping your child through mental health issues

When trying to help your teen improve her mental health, start to focus on the problems that you can solve first, such as getting back to proper sleeping and nutrition habits. Both of these areas have affected teens deeply during the pandemic and getting enough, consistent sleep along with proper nutrition can have enormous positive impacts on not only teens’ bodies but their brain health as well. Try things like putting all family members’ cell phones in a box at night to reduce harmful blue light, or requiring your teen to take the dog out for a walk every day to get some much-needed fresh air and exercise.

Mental health professionals have underscored the importance of physical activity particularly as COVID-19 has forced us into a more sedentary lifestyle. Dr. Booth states that a key tenet of cognitive behavioral therapy to help with mental health issues is physical activation as this precedes motivation. Even if teens don’t feel like it at the moment, they will feel better after shooting some hoops in the driveway or hiking a hike in the forest.

Once physical needs are being met, it’s important to help your child get the social and emotional attention they are craving. To help alleviate these struggles, make time for fun and togetherness, and a family. Even though it seems like you’ve been spending a never-ending amount of time together, too often each individual is spending time in their corner of the house not interacting or connecting with one another. This time could be a specially planned family dinner or a family game night, but make sure it’s intentional time together to check in with and observe how your teen is doing.

Along these lines, investigate to see if there are safe ways your child can get out into the world during the pandemic, whether these are outdoor, socially distanced sleepovers, or community service and activism projects. Volunteering can help teens feel a sense of purpose and direction, which has been shown to boost overall mental health.

If your teen is still struggling, it might be the time to seek out help from a mental health professional. If money is an issue, you can google for sliding scale therapy or check out your local graduate school to see if they have student therapists available or even check out your teen’s school for mental health resources. The pandemic has brought about a huge increase in telehealth video therapy, which can be positive because you aren’t constricted by your geographic location. There are two online platforms you can check out, Open Path Collective and teencounselling.com.

When helping your teen through these complicated issues, it’s also important to adjust your expectations and praise the little achievements along the way. Dr. Booth Watkins suggests setting up an incentive program to help encourage healthy behaviors and to never underestimate the power that parent approval alone can have on your teen’s mood. If your teen needs additional support working through mental health issues, Trails Carolina can provide the help she needs.

Trails Carolina can help

At Trails Carolina, a leading wilderness therapy program, our mission is to give your child the confidence, coping mechanisms, and communication skills that will help them become the best version of themselves. We have designed programs for children and teens aged 10-17 as well as programs for young adults 18-25, and our clinically proven methods work exceptionally well for individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, trauma, mood dysregulation, and attachment issues.

Through connecting with a wilderness setting, your child can learn to address their unhealthy behaviors, gain valuable personal insights, and learn important life lessons. Our multidisciplinary team of caring, expert staff will be there to guide your child along their unique path to psychological and emotional wellness.

While at our programs, students will experience wilderness therapy techniques combined with residential base camps and accredited academics that serve to teach, reinforce, and practice real-life skills in a way that produces lasting, positive change for students and their families. We’ve created an innovative wilderness therapy model guided by our three foundational beliefs: we believe that a wilderness setting enhances the benefits of therapy, we believe that practicing and applying the lessons learned in the wilderness to everyday situations promotes lasting change, and we believe that families benefit from being involved in their child’s process. For more information about how Trails Carolina can help, please call 828-372-4725.

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Avatar of Jeremy Whitworth

Jeremy Whitworth

As Executive Director at Trails Carolina, a leading wilderness therapy program for youth and teens, I oversee operations and collaborate with our leadership team. Since 2022, I've also hosted the Common Ground Podcast for parents: https://trailscarolina.com/common-ground-podcast/ With a background in Wilderness Leadership and Experiential Education, I've managed adventure-based therapeutic programs across the US and Canada. My experiences in competitive athletics and adventure sports have honed my leadership, risk assessment, and decision-making skills, which I apply to running a successful business like Trails Carolina.

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Trails saved my daughter’s life. Amanda is an amazing human and a brilliant therapist. I am so grateful to her, Science Steve, and the other wonderful people who could reach my daughter at a time when I could not.

Margot Lowman August 2022

Great life changing experience for our son. After becoming addicted to gaming during covid he was very depressed. At Trails he experienced the wilderness, Science Steve, learning survival skills and top notch therapy and support etc… I highly recommend! This gave our son and our family a renewed family bond full of love and excitement about his bright future.

Winnifred Wilson July 2022


Outstanding clinical work and superb staff! There’s a great culture at this company and it shows with how they engage with families/clients.

Kristin Brace June 2022


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