Commentary: Do Parents Know Their Teens Best?

Laurie Flynn, Executive Director, TeenScreen National Center for Mental Health Checkups at Columbia University

“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 I knew that she had been withdrawn, but I chalked it up to typical teen behavior.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

5 Responses to Commentary: Do Parents Know Their Teens Best?

  1. Dr. Peter Choate | May 20, 2011 at 11:32 pm

    I am pleased to see your article. In my own research with parents of teens who are substance dependent, parents were typically 2 years behind. What struck me was how we professionals helped keep them in the dark by minimizing or calling it something else. We need to look at the problems for what they are and be willing to tell parents the truth.

  2. Lore' Phillips | May 22, 2011 at 3:25 pm

    teens need t e emancipated first before you can do anything. they will not listen to most people

    if you create an environment they can come to at their conveninece is where they will listen.

    Cut out the nine to five (9to5) garb.

  3. lupe reyes | May 23, 2011 at 2:18 am

    I was encounter with an eating disorder my daughter has it and i knew something was not right i never could figure out was an eating disorder now she is on a treatment center and she is the one who told me this i never sould figure out neither her doctor or her consuler at school

  4. Kathleen Kellar | May 23, 2011 at 4:36 pm

    I helped start a substance abuse program for teens in a adolescent psych hospital in the mid 80s. Went through all the training. In the early 90′s my youngest son was starting into puberty and apparenlty into marijuana. I attributed his behavioral changes to puberty and did not find out it was marijuana until he was 18 when he told me. Took him to several counselors (PhD.) and they did not catch it either. Puberty and drug use can easily mimic each other.

  5. Jerry Epstein | May 24, 2011 at 1:19 pm

    It borders on the bizarre to have professionals continue to use the phrase “alcohol or drugs” as
    if they were different.

    Parental awareness requires a clear understanding that one of the clearest warning signs is heavy use of alcohol between 12 and 17. Overwhelmingly the problem will first be alcohol and it will usually continue to be abused in conjunction with later use of other drugs.

    NIDA made it clear that the following includes alcohol: ” scientific research shows extensive biological across-drug commonalities in the causes, mechanisms, prevention, and treatment of drug addiction, regardless of which particular drug is considered ”

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