How to Do a Teen Mental Health Temperature Check

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Most every parent and caregiver knows how to test whether a child has a fever—but do they know how to do a mental health temperature check? Trauma, depression, and anxiety can’t be measured with a thermometer, but there are ways to track how a teen is doing on an emotional level.

“We’ve become very astute at identifying potential COVID symptoms, but we also need to regularly check how adolescents are coping with the psychological symptoms of the pandemic,” says Kristin Wilson, Newport’s Vice President of Clinical Outreach.

How Collective Trauma Has Raised Teens’ Mental Health Temperature

After nearly 20 months of pandemic-related stress, adolescents are suffering from what’s known as collective trauma—the mental health repercussions of a devastating event that affects an entire group, country, or population.

This collective trauma response has accelerated the existing teen mental health crisis. According to Mental Health America, 13 percent of adolescents had a major depressive episode in 2020 and 9 percent had a severe depressive episode. Looking farther back, suicide rates among young people ages 10–17 have increased by more than 70 percent over the past decade.

How can we ensure that teens get the support they need when they’re struggling? Kristin says that parents, teachers, and other adults who work with adolescents need to perform a mental health check-in on a regular basis.

Identifying Teen Trauma Responses

When performing a teen’s mental health temperature check, parents, guardians, school counselors, and other adults who work with adolescents need to consider four types of trauma responses: physical, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive.

Physical

  • Low energy, lethargy
  • Pallid complexion
  • Coordination problems
  • Headaches
  • Digestive issues
  • Hyperarousal (heightened sensitivity to stimuli)

Emotional

  • Anxiety
  • Emotional numbness
  • Anger
  • Depression
  • Guilt
  • Shame
  • Fear
  • Avoiding situations or conversations that trigger negative feelings

Behavioral

  • Substance abuse
  • Eating disorders
  • Compulsive behavior
  • Changes in relationships with family or friends
  • Isolation and social withdrawal
  • Violent or aggressive behavior

Cognitive

  • Trouble concentrating
  • Memory lapses
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Flashbacks
  • Dissociation (feeling disconnected from one’s thoughts, feelings, and sense of identity)

Understanding the wide range of ways in which teen trauma manifests can help caregivers administer an emotional temperature check and recognize when it’s necessary to schedule a full mental health assessment. A clinical professional can then determine what level of care is appropriate, whether that’s weekly therapy, outpatient programming, or residential treatment.

10 Questions to Ask as Part of a Mental Health Check-In

 Asking specific questions can help parents perform an accurate emotional temperature check, and may also help teens to recognize and manage emotions. Here are 10 emotional check-in questions to ask as part of a mental health temperature check.

  1. What three words best describe how you’re feeling right now?
  2. On a scale of 1 to 10, going from negative to positive, what number best describes your state of mind?
  3. Fill in the blank: Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is …
  4. If your feelings were weather, what kind of day would it be outside?
  5. If your life was a movie, what songs would be on the soundtrack right now?
  6. What would you like to have less of in your life right now?
  7. What would you like to have more of in your life right now?
  8. Tell me about the best thing and the worst thing that happened to you this week.
  9. What’s the hardest part about being you right now?
  10. How can I support you better?

 Depending on a teen’s personality and communication style, some of these emotional check-in questions might be more effective than others in eliciting answers that illuminate their state of mind.

Evidence-Based Approaches to Lower a Teen’s Mental Health Temperature

Because trauma results in disconnection, the antidote is connection. Therefore, the most powerful protective factors in guarding against trauma and its long-term effects are authentic relationships within supportive communities—including family and extended family, peers, therapists, educators, coaches, and mentors.

Another key protective factor is stability. Teens derive a sense of safety and security from consistent routines and structure, clear boundaries, and appropriate consequences for trespassing those boundaries.

In addition, positive coping skills and practices support teens to strengthen their resilience over time—so they can effectively bring down their own mental health temperature. The following approaches are proven to build resilience and counteract the effects of teen trauma:

  • Compassionate self-talk: A study with teens and young adults shows that resilience and self-compassion go hand in hand.
  • Yoga, meditation, and conscious breathing: Mindfulness practices increase what’s known as vagal tone, a measurement connected to the vagus nerve, which is correlated with stronger stress resilience.
  • Savoring the good: Research done with students showed that consciously practicing gratitude and appreciation increases resilience and positive emotions.
  • Time in nature: Being outdoors reduces levels of stress, depression, and anxiety.
  • Exercise: Physical activity reduces depression symptoms and boosts energy and mood.
  • Self-expression: Art-making, music, and journaling have been shown to help people effectively manage stress and release trauma.

When More Support Is Needed

For teens suffering from the ongoing impact of trauma—whether acute, collective, or relational trauma—trauma-informed care is essential. The most effective treatment addresses early childhood trauma and attachment wounds while also building the resilience and coping skills needed to navigate even the most challenging times.

When a mental health check-in makes it clear that a teen needs additional support, Newport Academy is here to help. Contact us today to learn more about our trauma-informed treatment model and our residential and outpatient programs across the country. Our Admissions and Clinical Outreach experts are dedicated to helping families access the highest-quality care for their loved ones so they can heal from trauma and move from coping to thriving.