How to Stay Centered While Supporting Teen Mental Health
Parenting teens can be challenging. But it can also be a joy. The key is to know how to care for yourself, first and foremost. Before you have kids, you might think that parenting will come naturally. And, to some degree, it does. But there are days (and sometimes months and years) when all parents could use some extra support.
That’s where time-tested, evidence-based strategies for parenting can be helpful. Whether parents are dealing with the “terrible twos” or with a teen mental health crisis, they benefit from having a toolkit for keeping calm, creating a harmonious household, and relating to their children in positive ways.
Here are eight simple yet powerful approaches to support the whole family.
Stay Calm and Centered
Living with kids can be stressful. Tricky situations often arise. But if you’re able to regulate your own emotions, chances are your toddler or teen will do better, too. Self-care plays a huge part in this.
Try these methods for keeping your cool during difficult interactions. Consequently, your relationship with your kids will improve.
Don’t take it personally. Whether they’re six or 16, your child is always in the process of developing their identity and opinions. Thus, part of that is disagreeing with and pushing back against what they perceive as parental control. Remember, this is not about how good or bad of a parent you are.
Remind yourself that you are a role model. The way you conduct yourself shows your child what it looks like to be authentic and mature. Remind yourself how important it is for you to serve as a positive example. Furthermore, let this be an incentive to be patient, understanding, and compassionate—just like you want your child to be.
Take a timeout. When talking with teens, if you sense that you or your child is getting frustrated in a discussion or interaction, take a timeout. Tell your teen you’re going to pause the conversation and revisit it later, when you both feel calmer.
Emphasize the Positive
Ever heard of the negativity bias? That’s how scientists describe the fact that our brain responds more strongly to negative information than it does to positive stimuli. Most likely, the negativity bias developed as an evolutionary survival mechanism—making us more sensitive to threats and danger.
However, the negativity bias no longer serves us. In fact, it decreases our well-being. Therefore, we need to retrain our brains to focus on what’s good in our lives, instead of the bad stuff.
To do this, try this simple practice: Every night before you go to bed, focus on one to three things that went well that day. You might visualize these things or even write them down in a gratitude journal. Do this every day for at least 30 days to create a habit. Affirmations can go a long way.
You can use this process with your children, too. Create a routine at dinner or before bed in which each person shares something that went well that day.
Additionally, make a point of recognizing your child’s strengths rather than focusing on what isn’t working. However, it’s not about praising their accomplishments. Instead, acknowledge their inherent positive qualities—such as their love of learning, their curiosity, their sense of fairness, their humor, or their loyalty.
Furthermore, recognizing your child’s strengths lets them know that you see and appreciate them.
Set Expectations and House Rules
For teens in particular, declaring independence is inevitable at some point. Accept that it will happen—your child will go through rebellious periods.
Therefore, it’s important for you to create as much clarity as possible about what you expect of them. Moreover, parents need to create limits and consequences to compassionately enforce those expectations and boundaries.
Get clear on your values. Focus on the important areas: how you expect your child (and everyone in the family) to treat each other and to conduct themselves outside the home. Your belief system and set of values will determine what boundaries you set for your teen, whether it’s around dating or household chores.
Make rules that support those values. For example, to support a value of kindness and compassion toward each other, you might set a guideline that there will be no name-calling, yelling, or slamming doors in the house. To support how much you value ongoing communication among family members, you might decide that the whole family needs to eat dinner together at least three times a week.
Acknowledge how they feel and what they want. It’s critical for children to feel understood and validated. When you make house rules, take into account your child’s desires and opinions. If you don’t agree with them, be sure to honor their feelings before you explain why this doesn’t work for the family as a whole.
Clarify how it’s going to play out. Lay out the guidelines, and the consequences if they choose to ignore the limits. Remind them that they have the choice to respect or reject the rules, but rejection will lead to appropriate consequences. Furthermore, you might even consider drafting a written agreement so you’re both on the same page. And negotiation is acceptable if you feel there’s room for compromise. In addition, avoid power struggles at all costs.
Set age-appropriate consequences that will go into effect if the rules are broken. For teens, consequences might be an early curfew, getting grounded, or losing the use of the family car. Make the consequences clear, make sure your child understands them, and don’t make exceptions. As a result, when consequences are in place, the onus is on them: When they break a rule, they know that they’re choosing to accept the consequences.
Be an Empathetic Listener
Because we’re often busy and distracted, we don’t always take the time to really focus on other people when they’re trying to tell us something. However, listening with empathy and caring is one of the most important gifts you can give a loved one.
Researchers have shown that people’s brain patterns synchronize when they listen closely to one another and watch each other’s expressions. As a result, the connection between them becomes stronger.
Not feeling truly heard can lead to isolation and lack of self-esteem—root causes of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. Therefore, take listening seriously.
Make Sure Everyone Gets More Sleep
A good night’s sleep puts everyone in a better mood. Here are five ways that parents can help the whole household get to bed earlier and sleep more deeply.
Set an electronic curfew. Kids’ use of technology often interferes with getting enough sleep. Turning off their computers and cellphones at a fixed time each night will help their brains can wind down and get ready for sleep. In fact, parents should do this, too!
Create a bedtime routine. The whole family can do relaxing activities before bed instead of using technology, such as reading, taking a shower, listening to quiet music, or meditating. Therefore, family members can have a shared routine, or create their own personal ritual for bedtime.
Get everyone up at the usual time on weekend mornings. Sleeping till noon and then staying up late will throw off a teen’s schedule for the rest of the week. Moreover, getting everyone up on the early side leaves more time for fun family activities during the day.
Make sure your bedrooms are dark enough. Light can interfere with the sleep cycle. Consequently, use blackout curtains to make sure daylight is not disturbing anyone’s sleep. All lights in bedrooms should be off when the family is sleeping.
Keep bedrooms cool. The body prepares for sleep by lowering its internal temperature, and a cool room can encourage that process. Therefore, turn down the thermostat at night once everyone is ready for bed.
Reach out for Support—and Fun
We all need to vent sometimes, and it’s helpful to share our experiences with others. However, it’s not okay to vent to your child about your frustrations—it’s not their role to take care of you.
Therefore, find other adults you can lean on, while also providing caring and support for them. Parent support groups, a circle of good friends, or one close friend you trust are all good options. Moreover, make sure you see these people on a regular basis.
Plus, we all need what positive psychologists describe as “happiness boosters.” In other words, figure out what activities you enjoy, and that help you get reenergized.
Choose activities that you can easily fit into your daily life. For example, your list might include going for a run, meeting a friend for tea, volunteering your time for a cause you care about, and cuddling with your dog. Then make sure you do one or more of those activities throughout your day and your week.
Practice Unconditional Love
Loving and accepting our kids through good times and bad has an enormous impact. Multiple studies have revealed the positive effects of unconditional love, as well as the negative results when children do not receive it. Our early relationships play a huge part in how we form attachments, both as kids and adults.
Children who receive unconditional love from their parents have better stress resilience, better health, and better brain development. A 2012 study found that children with affectionate mothers have a larger hippocampus, the part of the brain that controls memory, learning capabilities, and responses to stress.
Furthermore, withholding love can actually have physical effects on children. A study at UCLA found adults who experienced a lack of affection in childhood were more stressed and had greater disease risk. However, researchers also found that parental warmth and affection protect children against the harmful biological impact of childhood stress.
Additionally, researchers at McGill University in Montreal found that children who have authoritarian parents—parents who put too much focus on achievement and rarely show affection—were more likely to be obese than children whose parents often showed affection.
Yet another study on parent-child relationships found that mothers who were less controlling when playing with their young children had stronger bonds with their kids. Consequently, researchers theorized that the children of less-controlling mothers felt more accepted and loved—leading to better relationships.
Research shows that breath awareness is among the most effective and accessible tools for self-regulation and calming the nervous system. You can use the breath to activate the relaxation response, which creates a whole range of healthy benefits.
In fact, all you have to do is simply slow down your breathing and you’ll begin to feel the calming effects. Here’s an easy breath practice to reduce stress and enhance mindfulness. Try practicing it once daily—you might be surprised to notice your mood and focus improving right away.
- Sit comfortably, with feet on the floor, eyes closed and hands relaxed and resting on your thighs.
- Breathe in slowly through your nose. As your lungs fill, let your chest and belly expand.
- You might try counting up to five, seven, or whatever feels comfortable. Or focus on a phrase, such as “Breathing in calm” or simply “Breathing in.”
- Breathe out slowly through either nose or mouth, whichever feels more natural. You can count during the exhalation. Make sure the exhale is as long or longer than the inhale. Or use a phrase, such as “Breathing out calm” or simply “Breathing out.”
- If you get distracted, bring your mind back to focusing on the breath.
- Repeat for several minutes.
- Notice how you feel. Is your body more relaxed than before you started? Is your mind calmer?
In conclusion, parenting is perhaps the most important and challenging mission that we can undertake in our lifetime. But tools, strategies, and support are available. Also, if you are practicing self-care, you come from a place of strength. No matter what, we all have our days, so never be afraid to reach out for help—for you or your teen.
Photos courtesy of Unsplash.
PNAS 2013 October, 110 (42) 17149-17153.
PNAS 2012 February, 109 (8) 2854-2859.
Parenting: Science and Practice, 13(1), 58-75.