Parents of teens are used to seeing changes in their kids. They watch them grow from the cutest infants imaginable who need literally everything done for them to little humans who can walk, talk, and tie their own shoes. They watch them go off to preschool or elementary school, where they make friends, discover hobbies, try sports, and maybe have their first crush.
It’s filled with ups and downs. Long days, nights spent nursing fevers, the whole shebang. It’s rewarding and exhausting at the same time. On balance though, it’s mostly cute, wholesome, and heartwarming.
Then they head off to middle-school and high school.
At that point, many parents realize – or are forced to realize – their job changes. They used to be the go-to person for, as mentioned above, literally everything, but during middle school parents become a unique hybrid: part personal manager, part disciplinarian, part chauffeur, part emotional support system, part cook – actually this list of the various parts parents play approaches infinite.
Parents of teens know what we mean.
In a nutshell, you can summarize the transformation like this: you go from Most Important Person On Earth to glorified – and often underappreciated – taxi driver and debit card swiper.
But that’s how parenting works: you commit yourself fully to your children so they can become capable, responsible, independent adults. In many families, something happens along the way. As the kids become more independent, the communication between parents and kids becomes less frequent, less intimate, and, in some cases, far more difficult.
This is a phenomenon parents need to understand and work to prevent. Of course, teens need their space to grow and thrive. That’s what being a teen is all about. But parents need to keep checking in – and the winter holidays are the perfect time.
Keep Tabs on Mental and Emotional Health
The winter holidays can start as early a Thanksgiving and last through the beginning of January. Depending on the family, parents may get several weeks off, a week or two off, or just get the days that bookend Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Year’s Day away from work and other responsibilities. Whatever the situation, the holidays offer more time than usual for families to reconnect with one another. It’s time to revisit family traditions, rediscover the joy of the season, and reset the family dynamic, if it’s gone off-kilter.
That last bit is what we advise parents to focus on this holiday season: the reset.
To do that, it’s important to dive beneath the surface teenage preoccupations and find out how your teen is doing. By that we mean how they’re really doing: beyond the social ups and downs, the grades, and that whole puberty thing.
We mean how they’re doing psychologically and emotionally.
A total wellness check, as it were.
Because we know that in our busy lives, we can lose track of what’s going on with one another, even when we see one another almost every day. When that happens, we can miss big things. Which brings us to the main reason to do a well-being check-in this winter: many emotional and behavioral disorders first appear during preadolescence and adolescence.
Research identifies the following average ages at which many common mental health disorders may first appear:
Behavioral Regulation/Conduct Disorders
- ADD/ADHD: 7-9
- Oppositional Defiance Disorder: 7-9
- Intermittent Explosive Disorder: 13-21
- Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder: 6-10
- Phobias and Separation Disorders: 7-14
- Panic, Generalized Anxiety, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: 15 and up.
- Depression: 14-19
- Bipolar Disorder: 14-17
- Borderline Personality Disorder: adolescence or early adulthood, age not specified. BPD is rare in teens but can first appear during adolescence.
- Schizophrenia: 15-35
- Other psychotic disorders: 24
[Note: Onset of psychotic disorders in children and adolescents is rare. Research shows they typically appear in early adulthood. The earliest documented cases on the extreme ends of the spectrum are age 3 and age 64]
Alcohol and Substance Use Disorders
Talking to Your Teen
We understand there may be a confounding factor here: the communication part. If you’ve let the lines of communication between you and your teen deteriorate over the past few months, now is the time to restore them. While some people think that once teens dive into the teen rabbit hole they never, ever come back, that’s not true. It’s a matter of finding learning – or relearning – how to communicate with who your teen is now, as opposed to who they were two years ago, one year ago, over even six months ago.
They change quickly, and your communication tactics and strategies need to keep pace with those changes. We have five tried and true tips for talking to teens, but before we offer them, we have a piece of general advice: when the stakes are low, drop the authority figure persona – that way, when the stakes are high, they’ll be more likely to open up.
Now, on to our list.
Five Simple Tips for Talking to Teens
- Be respectful. Teens desperately want to be treated like adults. You know as well as we do they aren’t adults, but nevertheless, they respond to being treated with the same type of respect you may typically reserve for peers. Try talking to your teen like an adult and see what happens. You’re still the parent, the boss, and the decider of all things, of course – that doesn’t change – we’re saying try this out, because we’ve seen it work, over and over.
- Be Fun. Your teens have people telling them what to do and what to think all day long, every day of the week – at least that’s often how they feel. During these holidays, make sure you have some conversations with your kid where you have no agenda: just laugh and be with them. This creates a foundation for your new – or rediscovered – channels of communication.
- Be Present. Put down your phone, turn off the TV, look your child in the eye, and listen. Give them your full attention. Work emails, social media posts, and the latest hot news item can wait. They’re not nearly as important as having a genuine honest conversation with your teenager.
- Be Open. Check your baggage at the door. The world is changing. Even if you fancied yourself progressive when you were a teenager, keep in mind that norms change over time. What was typical for you may not be typical for your teen – and you need to avoid falling into the “Hey you kids, get off my lawn!” trap. The best way to do this is by being open-minded, and recognizing that just because things may be different now, that does not mean they’re wrong.
- Be Easy. Yes, like Lionel Richie on Sunday morning. When you initiate conversations, your teenager may start talking about things you think are total nonsense or frivolous. Or, they may expound incorrectly about topics they know absolutely nothing about. As long as there’s no safety risk involved, resist the urge to play professor or be right about everything: that’s what we mean by be easy. Just talk, listen, and enjoy your kid.
How to React to What You Learn
We want to make something clear: the tips above are designed to get you talking to your teen, or, more specifically, to get your teen talking to you. It’s a wellness check-in. Things may come up during these lighthearted, easy conversations that require a serious follow-up – sometimes sooner than later – but try to avoid switching from light to serious abruptly, with no transition, in the middle of this chat. That might give your teen a case of emotional whiplash (scientific term) that gets their defenses up, which you don’t want, because it could cause them to be less forthcoming in later conversations. If your teen opens up and starts sharing one a deeper level, make a mental note. Let the casual conversation run its course, and then, later – if there’s no imminent safety risk, of course – revisit the topic.
All that to say: if you learn something serious during this conversation, don’t freak out. The way to react to what you learn is by staying calm and keeping perspective. Then, make plans to dig deeper, if something deep came up. If nothing deep came up, then you did your job: you had a nice, easy conversation with your teen. You reconnected and set the stage for open communication for the rest of the school year, after the holidays.
Warning Signs: What to Watch For, What to Do
However, if your conversation revealed struggles or problems, it’s time to check what you learned with what you’ve observed over the past several weeks or months. If your teen has:
- Stopped doing things they love
- Pulled away from close friends and family
- Talked about feeling sad, hopeless, or depressed
- Become angry, irritable, or anxious
- Changed sleeping and eating habits
- Changed peer groups
- Had difficulty concentrating/following through on school work
- Complained of frequent headaches, stomach aches, or other physical issues
- Radically changed their appearance
- Stopped attending to personal hygiene
- Engaged in risky behaviors
Then you need to dig deeper and find out more about what’s going on.
Granted, everything on this list can be typical teen behavior. New friends, new style, new interests – that’s all one hundred percent healthy. When things like anger, sadness, poor sleep, and difficulty concentrating persist over time, however, you need to investigate, because there may be a mental health issue at play. Ask your teen how long they’ve been experiencing these things, how often they happen, and when they do happen, find out how long they last and how intense they are.
The basic rule is that if symptoms of a mental health disorder are present every day for two weeks or more, then it’s time to consider consulting a mental health professional. To find a qualified therapist in your area, begin with this psychiatrist finder provided by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Scroll down the page, agree to the terms, type in your city, state, and zipcode, and start searching.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA who writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.