Five Things to Know About Parenting a Teen Living with Mental Illness

Sep 28, 2023

Teenagers, like all of us, can experience a range of mental illnesses—including anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and more. However, the way these illnesses show up in teens doesn’t always look like it does in older adults, and their experience can be exacerbated by the unique pressures and challenges that come with being an adolescent. 

If you or someone you know is parenting a teen living with mental illness, here are five things to know about how it shows up, and how you can help.

1. Mental illness looks different in teens than it does in adults.

Often, parents get caught up comparing their child to themselves as a teen—but mental illness looks different in teens for a variety of reasons. First, there is still a lot of stigma around mental illness, and many teens will be hesitant to talk about it. Adolescence is a period of significant physical, emotional, and cognitive development. Teens are up against more pressures than many adults can fully understand—learning to express their emotions, dealing with societal, academic, and peer pressures, and forming their identities. Teens’ developing brains are also getting more into executive functioning, so they are still extremely vulnerable to emotions, and inconveniences. Even if it seems like they have it together, it’s important for parents to know their brain isn’t yet fully developed. The truth is that teens need the same modeling, security, and safety that you would offer a younger child.

2. Technology can be toxic.

Technology makes our lives easier in many ways. But for teens, it’s more complicated—and often leads to problems at school and at home. Social media in particular is a significant challenge for teens today. It can lead to a negative self-image, or FOMO (fear of missing out), as they compare themselves to the lives of their peers or influencers. On the extreme end, cyberbullying and harassment often take place in the shadows, well out of view of any caregiver, including parents. The best thing you can do is to have open conversations with teens about social media use, and how to be safe.

3. Validation is critical. 

As a parent of a teen, a natural tendency is to wonder—“Is this normal teen stuff, or is this something more serious?” Particularly because teens are already prone to keeping their emotions bottled up, it’s critical that they feel validated and supported when they do come forward. As a parent, it’s your responsibility to recognize base markers. For example, minor upsets and tantrums are common, but huge, explosive, emotional, destabilizing outbursts are usually not. As a parent, you know your child best—so it’s important that you recognize when their response is disproportionate to the situation at hand, and to support them in seeking help. You can best help by validating that it can be scary and uncomfortable while supporting your child in getting the help that they need. Your support and involvement are likely to lead to the most positive outcome.

4. Listen, don’t judge.

Teens are looking for someone who will listen non-judgementally. When dealing with difficult emotions, they feel extremely vulnerable and will be more afraid than you think. When they do come forward, they need to feel like they are being heard and not dismissed. Often, teens can also appreciate when their caregiver or therapist has struggled with mental health themselves and self-discloses, sharing their own stories. More than anything, being a good role model and offering stability and support is the best way you can support your teen.

5. It may not seem like it, but they’re watching you.

Teens are notorious for being dismissive of their parents or older adults, but the truth is, they’re always absorbing and reflecting on the behavior they observe. Parents have to model boundaries and accountability—it can’t be ‘do as I say, not as I do’—they need to be given appropriate boundaries that help them learn accountability. Parents have the opportunity to model these skills and more, helping the teen learn by observing rather than by being told. It’s tempting for parents to label the teen as the problem, and not change what they’re doing—but lasting, positive change starts with modeling, and starts at home.



Youth Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) Services help individuals ages 15-21 who are living with mental illness find success in education, employment, and community living. Designed to promote optimal health and success, Youth ACT is a comprehensive and community-based approach to serving those with diagnosed mental illness(es) and co-occurring substance use disorders or other medical conditions. To learn more about the program and find out if you or your teen might qualify, click here.

To support programs like Youth ACT, please make a gift.