As a clinical psychologist, I often find myself sitting across from college students struggling with challenges such as anxiety and suicidality, who confide that their parents don’t get it. Not surprisingly, I also work with parents of young adults who want to help their children but can’t seem to connect. It can be disheartening that people who matter deeply to each other misread cues at critical emotional junctures, but part of what I teach parents is how to help their teens feel heard and supported so they can move forward.
Roughly 50 percent of adolescents meet the criteria for a psychiatric diagnosis at some point, and we’ve all heard of the unmet mental health issues in teens along with concerning rates of suicidality. While young adults crave autonomy, the prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain that manages thinking flexibly and managing impulses — continues to develop until age 25, which means that however mature they seem, your teen needs adult help when it comes to regulating emotions and handling crises.
Still, I’ve seen even the most well-meaning parent panic when their child is struggling with mental health issues, then inadvertently say the wrong thing such as, “you’re overreacting.” Sometimes they offer children too much space, assuming their teenager will come to them with a problem. But there are effective ways to empower your adolescent, including working on managing your own emotions, asking the right questions and helping to determine the level of support they need.
Practice being kind and nonjudgmental: To increase the likelihood of your teen opening up to you in hard times, it’s helpful to be open and warm in ordinary moments. It can also help to remind yourself that feeling distress is part of being a young adult, says psychologist Lisa Damour, author of “Under Pressure,” and the co-host of the podcast “Ask Lisa: The Psychology of Parenting.” “Part of how we can support young people is to normalize stress,” she says.
Don’t be a “snowplow parent”: It’s not your job to remove any potential problems your adolescent is facing. Experiencing and coping with mistakes and failures can prove to be a “hidden curriculum” that helps young adults grow and find their purpose, say Belle Liang and Timothy Klein, authors of “How to Navigate Life.”
Many parents I treat, especially those who experience anxiety themselves, feel eager to rush in to save the day around non-urgent issues such as helping their teen make up for a late assignment. That only keeps their young adult from learning from consequences and developing better problem-solving skills. Instead, Damour recommends listening and empathizing, which reduces the intensity of negative emotions. Rather than entering fix-it mode, the goal should be to “help your young person build a broader repertoire for managing,” Damour advises. That may include talking about cultivating healthy habits such as getting enough sleep, exercising and steering clear of substances.
Give them hope: If your teen is struggling with issues more serious than average stress, such as depression or anxiety, let them know that what they’re experiencing isn’t permanent and that feeling better is possible and within reach. “Symptoms of depression don’t define you, they are part of your life experience and will change through effort, adaptive coping strategies and finding the right supports,” advises Jessica Schleider, a psychologist and assistant professor at Stonybrook University. Schleider developed brief single session interventions that are free online, that help reduce hopelessness and depression, especially if you are waiting to meet with a professional.
Ask about self-harm thoughts: If you’re concerned, however, that your child is considering suicide or self-harm, “the single biggest thing is to collect yourself and find a way to ask about that directly,” says David Jobes, a psychologist and professor at Catholic University who developed the Collaborative Assessment and Management of Suicidality, an evidence-based clinical intervention to help prevent suicide. He encourages parents to rally their strength, approach their loved one at a good time when you have their undivided attention, then be direct — “Are things ever so bad that you think about suicide? Do you ever have thoughts of doing things to hurt yourself?” — and make sure you’re ready to hear the answer. “You need to listen and just hear it and hold it, rather than invalidating, preempting or pointing things out,” Jobes says. “You want to convey the message that we’re here, whether that’s physically, or emotionally; on the phone, or by text. We’ve got you.”
Many young adults are terrified of broaching suicidal feelings with their parents, which can mean that suicidal thoughts aren’t discussed until there is an emergency. That’s why it’s so important to lay the groundwork for your teen to feel comfortable sharing. Also, keep in mind thoughts of suicide are fairly common, with nearly 10 percent of people having these thoughts over the course of their lives.
“We can all have thoughts that feel eerie, they are just thoughts, and we can talk about them together,” Schleider says, adding that it’s crucial your teen knows they can come to you. While suicidal feelings can feel terrifying and warrant seeking professional help, remember that you must be someone your child can turn to, so don’t overreact. Instead, aim to go into these conversations prepared with potential resources.
Lean on research-based approaches: As a parent, Jobes says, you can call crisis hotlines and use tools, such as the Stanley-Brown safety plan, and share these with your teen, giving them some agency over what seems helpful to them. Some of the assistance Jobes encourages exploring, while waiting to meet with a professional, includes the crisis text line, the national hotline 988, exploring Dialectical Behavior Therapy — an evidence-based approach to treating suicidal feelings — content on Now Matters Now or DBT-RU, or joining the Lived Experience Academy or the peer-led Alternatives to Suicide. Certainly take precautions and remove access to any lethal means.
Despite conventional wisdom, when the risk of suicide isn’t imminent, there may not be a need for medications such as SSRIs, or hospitalizations. Instead, Jobes encourages understanding the drivers that are making your child consider suicide and offering your child a range of options, including psychotherapies recognized to reduce risk of suicide, such as Dialectical Behavior Therapy, to directly deal with challenges that fuel suicidal feelings. After decades of experience in the field of adolescent suicidology, Jobes has observed that “what’s at the heart of most suicidal struggles are relational issues.” These can include anything from issues at home to school bullying to romantic breakups, and medications or hospitalizations generally don’t meaningfully improve those concerns as much as good psychotherapy, Jobes says.
One of the studies in suicide prevention that I often think about in my work, is psychiatrist Jerome Motto’s simple yet lifesaving finding that clinicians sending brief, caring check-in messages that show someone is invested in a person’s well-being can significantly reduce suicide risk. Communicating that you genuinely care and are there, repeatedly, and without judgment, is a profound gift.
No matter what the young adult you love is facing, consider your role, as Jobes prescribes, “Like a lighthouse, just keep sending the message, I’m here. There are rocks out there. I will continue to send out a beacon of light to help guide you, but you’re the captain of your own ship, and together we can get you safely to the shore.”
Jenny Taitz, PsyD, ABPP, is a clinical psychologist and an assistant clinical professor in psychiatry at the University of California at Los Angeles. She is the author of a forthcoming book on stress, “How to be Single and Happy,” and “End Emotional Eating.”
We welcome your comments on this column at OnYourMind@washpost.com.
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