What parents need to know about their teens’ mental health

Mothers and fathers should help their young children build authentic self-esteem by celebrating kids’ actions and avoiding effusive praise. Encourage girls and boys to be of service to others, not only to interrupt their solipsistic mindset, but also to reinforce their ability to make a difference. Next, urge them to develop an interest that’s unrelated to school or college applications, like cooking or knitting. Indulging an intrinsic interest is protective of kids’ feelings of self-worth. Finally, get going on these pursuits before a child reaches middle school, when even the healthiest child might falter. 

The best thing parents can do after this is help their children learn both to express and regulate their emotions. Articulating painful feelings robs the feelings of their power, and learning how to manage them restores kids’ self-control.

To encourage open expression, listen, Damour advises. Be curious about your child’s state of mind. Ask your child to be as verbally precise as possible. Then, repeat back what your child says in her moment of sorrow or fear to demonstrate that you genuinely understand. Once they’ve expressed their heartache, try capturing their hurt in a one-sentence summary — like the editor who creates a headline for a story — and show empathy in return. “Listening attentively and then offering empathy shows them that they are doing exactly the right thing when they seek relief by finding a loving listener (that would be us!) and sharing what’s on their mind,” Damour writes. Above all, defy the temptation to jump in with creative solutions, as irresistible as that may seem.

For the teenager who resists face-to-face conversations, try other ways of inviting communication. Some children will respond to gentle text messages from parents. Others will be more talkative if they’re strapped into the back seat of the car, spared the awkwardness of direct eye contact. And if parents want their teenagers to talk, they might have to be around more often so that it can happen when the kids are conversational. Though they can be mercurial and ornery, teenagers typically like their parents and feel safer when they know where the grown-ups are. Another way to invite emotional expression: Own up to your own mistakes. For example, if you’ve gossiped to a friend about something personal your child has shared with you, and he learns of it, correct your blunder the right way: Apologize for violating his confidence, explain why you did, take responsibility, vow never to blab again, offer to make amends and ask for forgiveness. Because emotional expression is so essential to adolescents’ (and adults’) well-being, parents need to safeguard their kids’ trust. 

After they’ve exhausted their efforts to spur expression, parents can help children learn to self-regulate. Suggest a distraction to interrupt unpleasant rumination. Offer them small comforts tailored to their preferences. Check in on their sleep habits and help them reclaim the eight to ten hours they need. When offering advice, tread lightly: Ask if it’s wanted and approach solutions jointly. 

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