Medical Moment: How parents can help teens struggling with mental health

Published: Aug. 2, 2022 at 5:39 PM EDT
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. (WNDU) - Even before the pandemic, teens’ mental health was declining.

The US Surgeon General says there is a “devastating” mental health crisis among American teens. More than one in three high school students experience persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness and one in six youth reported making a suicide plan in the past year.

Experts say one of the best things parents can do is talk to your teen about their emotions.

“I just wanted to talk to you about how things are going,” said Brandon Stratford, PhD, MSW, the Director of Educations Research. “Even the new school year can be another great opportunity to say, you know, I just want to check in.”

Parents may also increase positive emotions and manage difficult feelings by getting their teens to follow SEEDS.

SEEDS stands for sleep, exercise, education, diet, and self-care. Practicing elements of SEEDS, such as self-care, which focuses on hygiene, can increase confidence, boosts self-esteem, and reduce feelings of sadness.

Watch for symptoms like excessive sleeping, beyond usual teenage fatigue, which could indicate depression or substance abuse; loss of self-esteem; abandonment or loss of interest in favorite pastimes; unexpected and dramatic decline in academic performance; weight loss and loss of appetite; and personality shifts and changes, such as aggressiveness and excess anger that are sharply out of character and could indicate psychological, drug, or sexual problems.

Arm yourself with information about the most common mental health disorders so you are aware and able to discuss informatively with your teen.

Researchers at the University of California, Irvine are conducting ground-breaking research into the concept that unpredictable parental behaviors, together with unpredictable environment, such as lack of routines and frequent disasters, disrupt optimal emotional brain circuit development in children. They are finding this increases the vulnerability to mental illness and substance abuse.

“This perspective starts from basic principles of how the brain’s sensory -- audio and visual -- and motor circuits are established and refined, and we apply those to emotional circuits that govern reward-, stress- and fear-related behaviors. It’s not only positive or negative parental signals, but also the patterns of these behaviors and especially their predictability or unpredictability, that are linked to adverse outcomes such as poor emotional control in later life,” said Tallie Z. Baram, MD, corresponding author and UCI distinguished professor in the Departments of Anatomy & Neurobiology, Pediatrics, Neurology, and Physiology & Biophysics.

Research involving infants and children suggests that unpredictable patterns of maternal behaviors are associated with later deficits in emotional control and behaviors. The team is continuing to build on their research.

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