Commentary: Do Parents Know Their Teens Best?
“We had no idea that things were this bad.” I hear that so often from parents when they find out their teen has been struggling with a mental health disorder. It never fails to break my heart. I can relate to their bewilderment – that feeling of being totally blindsided. I said exactly these words when my own daughter made a suicide attempt some years ago. I knew that she had been withdrawn, but I chalked it up to typical teen behavior. I thought I knew my child and that if something was seriously wrong I could tell. I would just know it. But my intuition let me down.
When a crisis blows up, we’re astonished. As parents, we are certain we know our kids better than anyone else. But mental health and substance abuse problems can be confusing and hard to detect. As a mental health advocate, I have seen stunned and caring parents coming to terms with the fact that their seemingly OK teen was actually in despair – with depression, serious anxiety, a substance use disorder or even suicidal thinking. And often, these disorders are connected. The latest statistics tell us that teens who suffer with depression are three times more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol than teens that don’t have depression.
To make it even more difficult, teens are rarely forthcoming – especially to parents. While we think we know all that may be going on in their lives, my own experience tells me that we don’t. The new communication environment we live in, where so much of a teen’s world is lived on Facebook and through text messaging makes meaningful discussions even more challenging. Thankfully, there is growing recognition that parents need support from the medical community to identify that there is a problem after all.
Checking for depression and other disorders with a brief screening questionnaire is supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics and other leading medical organizations and health agencies as an effective way to identify depression, substance abuse and other problems early on, before they develop into full-blown disorders. More and more clinicians are incorporating screening into their office practice. A mental health screening at the doctor’s office, or perhaps in a school or community setting, can reassure you that your teen’s mood or behavior changes are “normal for teens” and nothing more. Or it can raise a red flag. In either case, you’ll have the information you need.
In our experience at TeenScreen National Center, teens and parents like what a screening can do, and the research bears this out. Many teens find it far easier to respond truthfully to a questionnaire than directly to a doctor or a parent. They use the questionnaire to communicate what’s troubling them. Often, their responses open a dialogue that is beneficial.
Teens who are depressed or anxious want to feel better. Mental health screenings can be an important tool that helps parents better understand what their teen may be going through, and to getting them the help they may need.
Laurie Flynn, Executive Director, TeenScreen National Center for Mental Health Checkups at Columbia University