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Oregon Family Magazine

Protecting Your Teen’s Mental Health

08/31/2022 ● By Rebecca Hastings
With three teenagers, there always seems to be something I’m worried about. Are they happy? Did they eat any vegetables? Do they even know how to make their bed? I worry about it all.

As parents, we think about everything from the small things to the big things when it comes to our kids. Among the biggest concerns is their mental health. It can be hard to know if we are doing enough, focusing on what really matters, and what to do if we’re concerned.

Dr. Justin Puder is a licensed psychologist dedicated to shining a light on mental health and ending the stigma associated with it. With over half a million followers on TikTok, Puder, often called Dr. J, is using his expertise and the power of social media to help us and our teens live healthy lives.

A recent study shows as many as 37% of teens reported struggles with mental health during the pandemic. Pair that with elevated anxiety levels with the majority of teens concerned that a shooting will occur at their school, and teens need more help now than ever before.

To equip parents with practical and affordable wellness tools to support their teens, Dr. Puder has partnered with Dr Teals, a leading name in personal care. I had the opportunity to ask him some questions that were on my mind as a mom of teens. Here’s what he had to say.

What should parents be looking for when it comes to teen mental health?

Dr. Puder: Parents should be aware of any changes that last for days that are atypical for their teen. Examples include changes in eating, sleeping, socialization, energy, and mood shifts. Anything that’s out of the norm may be a sign that your teen is experiencing a mental health issue. Though teens will often desire privacy and independence as they approach young adulthood, if you notice that your teen is isolating from everyone (including friends) this is often a sign of distress.

How do you know the difference between typical anxiety or stress and something more serious?

Dr. Puder: We all experience stress and anxiety increases throughout life, however, when those increases impair our daily activities, it becomes problematic. For teens this is typically seen with trouble completing schoolwork, taking exams, socializing, concentrating, and can lead to an avoidance of going to school or partaking in their typical schedule. It’s typically normal for teens to struggle in one class or have trouble with certain assignments, but it is a more serious issue a teen is struggling across classes and in other settings (home, work, sports team, etc.).

What are the best ways for parents to connect with their teens, especially when they are concerned?

Dr. Puder: In times of concern for your teen, it’s best to foster a connection that’s curious and open. You want to communicate with your teen in a way that invites them to share as authentically as possible. This involves allowing them to fully speak and express themselves. It’s okay to name what you’re observing, but be sure to finish with an open-ended question like, "I've noticed you're spending more time alone in your room, how are things going between you and your friends?" It’s not a good idea to lead with judging your teen or being critical of the behavior you’re observing as it’ll likely shut down the conversation and may prevent them from sharing with you in the future.

How can parents foster an environment that helps their teen's mental health?

Dr. Puder: Creating a trusting and open relationship with your teen is the single best thing you can do for their mental health. It’s not about being their therapist, but rather about your teen knowing they can come to you and tell you they need help when something is wrong. They don't have to share all the details of their lives (this is very unlikely), but they may share enough for you to recognize they need to be connected with a mental health professional. Modeling that it’s OKAY and HEALTHY to speak with a mental health professional can also be a great way to reduce stigma and show we can grow through anything if we face it as opposed to avoiding it.

What are some strategies families can implement to help communication and well-being?

Dr. Puder: As parents, we always want to lead our communication from a place of curiosity and non-judgment! It’s also important to fully listen to our teens before offering any feedback, advice, or opinions. Even when you disagree with your teen or the decisions they’re making, it’s essential to communicate with them in a way that makes them feel heard and seen. It’s also helpful to schedule times to actively connect with your teen each week. Whether it’s setting the mood for a self-care activity together with Dr Teal's Aromatherapy Energy Wellness Candle with Orange, Sage & Bergamot, sitting down for a homemade dinner, or just tagging along in an activity they love, routinely having time to connect is important.

Where can parents go for help?

Dr. Puder: I strongly encourage parents to model good mental health and talk with a professional as needed! Modeling good stress reduction practices can also include going for walks, having good social relationships, or soaking in a relaxing bath with Dr Teal's Eucalyptus Relax & Relief Epsom Salt. Teens notice their parent’s behaviors, so setting a good example benefits the whole family. Parents can also find support through the Youth Mental Health Project under The Parent Support Network, which has both in-person and virtual support.