Children and teenagers

Children and teens can struggle with anxiety, depression, bullying, and a whole range of emotional challenges. You can help them find their way forward. As a parent, it is critical to learn how to read the signals that your child broadcasts and how to choose effective help.

If your child is struggling, you are not alone

Key points

  1. Like adults, kids and teenagers struggle with mental health challenges and social skills.
  2. Difficult behaviour is a SIGNAL that something needs to be addressed.
  3. Your child can develop valuable lifelong coping skills and insights.
  4. Therapy for children is often effective. Seek a therapist who understands kids.

Quick navigation

As a parent, you are a key resource 

Typically, children and teenagers think they’re more mature than they actually are. Yet, when they’re having a hard time, they yearn for adult guidance to help them make sense of their world. You can point them in the direction of tools that will enable them to build resilience, coping mechanisms, and insights that support long-term healing.

Step 1: Stop and notice

We are all pulled in different directions, juggling demanding responsibilities. Just preparing meals, making sure the kids do their homework, earning a living, maintaining your romantic relationships in balance,  taking care of obligations to your parents, and meeting expectations at work might distract you from noticing signals that your child may be in distress.

Step 2: Recognize that young people have fewer internal resources

Children and teenagers, like everyone else, are complicated, multifaceted individuals with a variety of things going on in various facets of life at any given time. Similar to adults, children and teenagers might experience depression and anxiety, or they may not have the necessary executive functioning and interpersonal skills —  just without the maturity to maintain perspective or know how to deal with their specific challenges.

When an adult faces challenges, it can be difficult to marshall internal resources to rally. Young people may not have yet developed those resources!

Without the insight and maturity that comes with life experience, kids often lack many of the basic life skills that they need to understand their emotions and regulate their behaviours. They might feel “stuck” in their perception of reality, without realizing that there is a lot they can do to overcome their challenges.

Step 3: Recognize distress signals

Is your kid having a hard time at school, struggling socially, or finding it difficult to enjoy life? Have grades fallen or have teachers mentioned that your child won’t speak up in class?

Has your teen stopped socializing, dropped after schools sports, or opted out of favorite hobbies? Started engaging in risky or self-destructive behaviours?

Is your child spending much more time at home alone? Is your child spending hours on online games or social media?

Step 4: Focus on the signal, not the behaviour

Your child’s change in behaviour is usually the symptom, not the root problem. How your child is behaving is a SIGNAL that something needs to be addressed.

Many parents mistakenly look at what a child is doing as a problem in and of itself. For example, a child might resist going to school, be sloppy about schoolwork, or spend hours on the computer rather than socializing or engaging with family. 

When you focus on the outward signal, you are likely to get into a no-win power struggle. Instead of getting to the issue that needs to be addressed, you are both likely to become increasingly frustrated and angry. Often, the problematic behaviour is a reflection of their inner world, alerting you that something else is going on underneath the surface that needs attention. Don’t get caught up chasing the reflection!

Step 5: Recognize at least four challenges your kids face

Every generation thinks that their kids are more out of control than the previous generation. This time, it is the case!

  1. Social media means that your kids are always “on”. Instead of being able to turn off social pressures after school, social media follows our kids 24×7 (or, for as many hours as they are on social media).
  2. Spending hours in front of screens means that kids have few opportunities for healthy outdoor activities and less time to be alone with their imagination.
  3. Following the pandemic, many kids struggle with social anxiety and find it incredibly difficult to have normal social interactions.
  4. Today’s teens, adolescents, and elementary-school-age children have a deficit in healthy interpersonal skills.

Children who are inundated by media and peer pressure may have difficulty understanding their inner voice, focusing for sustained periods, and building the confidence to advocate for themselves. 

Step 6: Make a plan

A trained mental health professional who works with and understands children, adolescents, or teens can formulate a plan that matches the needs and strengths of your child.

With help, kids can learn strategies to deal with anxiety and depression, such as reframing their perceptions, challenging their assumptions, and learning relaxation techniques. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is often effective with children and teens. 

Teens and adolescents suffering from social anxiety can get support to take small but steady steps, gradually building their ability to manage and enjoy social interaction. Success breeds success, and each appropriate peer relationship makes the next one easier to navigate.

It can be helpful for children and teenagers to learn to express themselves by journaling their thoughts or by expressing themselves in a safe, non-judgmental environment with a trained therapist.

Look forward

When your child/ young adult learns how to overcome their challenges, they usually develop more self-confidence and many undesirable behaviours dissipate on their own. Although not everyone responds in the same way to therapy, investing the time to develop positive skills is generally associated with very positive outcomes.

You can help your child leverage their challenges to develop new skills and greater confidence.  

How young is too young? How old is too old?

It’s never too early or too late to provide your child or teen with the support they need, regardless of how long they have been struggling. The goal is to figure out how to help your child grow through their challenges and get to the point where they enjoy school, have a healthy social life, and feel comfortable participating fully as confident, happy members of the family.

Choose a therapist who understands your child

Not all therapists have experience working with teens or children. Choosing a therapist who understands your child, and can make a meaningful connection with your child, can be key to success. 

References and further reading

García-López, L., Espinosa-Fernández, L., Muela-Martínez, J.A., & Piqueras, J.A. (2021). Screening Social Anxiety in Adolescents Through the Eyes of Their Carers. Frontiers in Psychology, 12.

John-Baptiste Bastien, R., Jongsma, H.E., Kabadayi, M., & Billings, J. (2020). The effectiveness of psychological interventions for post-traumatic stress disorder in children, adolescents and young adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychological Medicine, 50, 1598 – 1612.

Kang, N.R., & Kwack, Y.S. (2020). An Update on Mental Health Problems and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in Pediatric Obesity. Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology & Nutrition, 23, 15 – 25.

Obiweluozo, P.E., Ede, M.O., Onwurah, C.N., Uzodinma, U.E., Dike, I.C., & Ejiofor, J.N. (2021). Impact of cognitive behavioral play therapy on social anxiety among school children with stuttering deficit. Medicine, 100.

Oud, M., de Winter, L., Vermeulen-Smit, E., Bodden, D.H., Nauta, M.H., Stone, L.L., van den Heuvel, M.W., Taher, R.A., de Graaf, I., Kendall, T., Engels, R.C., & Stikkelbroek, Y.A. (2019). Effectiveness of CBT for children and adolescents with depression: A systematic review and meta-regression analysis. European Psychiatry, 57, 33 – 45.