The teenage years can be difficult for anyone, but today’s teens are dealing with a unique and unprecedented set of issues. The typical stressors many of us remember experiencing during adolescence — such as dating, friendships and academic pressures — have grown exponentially for today’s youths.
As the first generation to be born into the information age and a group that has had to reimagine many of the defining moments of their youth in the wake of the pandemic, our kids are suffering. Before they are even able to vote, they have lived through and witnessed more tragedy and uncertainty than many of us are prepared to cope with as adults.
As a parent of two adolescent children and as a child and adolescent psychiatrist, I empathize with parents of today’s teens, who are also in uncharted territory. I often worry about what challenges will be in store for my own kids within the next few years. While the threats of drugs and alcohol, teen pregnancy and trouble with law enforcement are what once kept parents up at night, now, research shows that we are losing sleep in fear of our children’s struggles with their mental health. In fact, a recent Pew Research Study revealed that 4 in 10 U.S. parents with children younger than 18 say they are extremely worried that their children might struggle with anxiety or depression.
If we want our children to open up with us about their mental health, we must first foster connection so they can feel comfortable sharing with us. One way we can do this is to legitimize their experiences without feeling the need to offer solutions. When our kids vent to us, they are often not looking to be told what to do. They are looking to be seen, heard and understood.
Sometimes, a simple, “Wow, that sounds frustrating” or “I’m sorry you’re going through this” could give them the validation they need. When we do want to share suggestions with our teens, I recommend asking them if they are open to suggestions before imposing. By allowing them to share without judgment or unsolicited advice, we establish trust and open the door to more open and honest conversations.
A simple way to establish safe spaces for teens to share with us is to have conversations in places that don’t require a lot of eye contact, eliminating some of the discomfort that can come from talking about heavy topics like mental health. For example, a car ride can present the perfect opportunity to check in with your teen about their stressors and sources of anxiety and depression.
One of the best things we can do to help our kids navigate and cope with mental health struggles is to model positive coping mechanisms during times of increased stress. We are our kids’ first teachers, and one of the healthiest and most impactful lessons we can give them is to let them know that it’s OK to be upset or frustrated. We need to let them know that it’s OK to not be OK.
And as a society, we all need to work together to improve the mental wellness of our youth. Recognizing mental health is a part of overall health is an important first step.
We need to ensure that every child has access to high quality, affordable, culturally competent mental health care. We need to expand school-based mental health resources and trauma-informed care practices. In our health care settings, we need to routinely screen for adverse childhood experiences and invest in early childhood interventions. We need to have specialized community-based programs that support the entire family. We need to review regulatory barriers that that are making access to care a challenge. Solutions do exist.
Sheppard Pratt is developing interventions to identify issues at onset — at home, in the community and in schools. We are advancing behavioral health for children, youths and their families, with an emphasis on improving access, promoting equity and fostering innovation.
Our integrated care teams are supporting families to get to the best treatment expeditiously, to experience the benefits of exceptional care, and to yield meaningful improvements in care outcomes. Our child and adolescent mental health offerings include inpatient programs; child and adolescent day hospital programs; 12 special education schools and a residential treatment center and school; and the Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt, among others. We also have a bold plan to change the face of youth mental health and create a dedicated children’s hospital at Sheppard Pratt.
There’s a silver lining in all of this — kids today are more vocal than ever about combating this crisis. They are sharing their stories about their mental health challenges and triumphs. They are validating and affirming their peers in their struggles. They are encouraging one another to make self-care a priority in their daily routines.
Our kids desperately want to do the work. I believe that our kids have a resilience we have never seen before — now we have to show up, support them and also do the work.
Harsh K. Trivedi, MD, MBA, is president and chief executive officer of Sheppard Pratt, which provides mental health, substance use, special education, developmental disability and social services.