Mental Health Month: Tips from a therapist

How to talk to your teen and navigate tough emotions

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May is Mental Health Awareness Month. This story is part three in a series on mental health and teens.

The Helen Ross McNabb Center has a long history of supporting children and adults with mental health challenges and addiction. The skilled counselors know the impact mental health has on the lives of families and on communities as a whole. We sat with Gayle Lodato, LCSW and director of Greater Chattanooga services, to get tips on how to navigate tough emotional territory with your teen.

Are there any issues that uniquely affect teens in terms of mental health?

Gayle: Teens are experiencing a lot hormonally and developmentally – and both of those things play into their emotions. It’s a really confusing time and many teens don’t want to admit they’re struggling. We think of adolescence as a very social time, but it can actually feel very isolating for many teens. All these things can make teens more susceptible to mental health issues.

Where do you think most mental health challenges for teens come from?

Gayle: One big thing we’ve learned in the mental health community is about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). We’ve always known that trauma from abuse and neglect can have lasting impact on a child’s brain development, but we’ve now learned about the breadth of issues that function as an ACE (things like racism, bullying, etc.). This makes ACEs seem more prevalent, but the truth is we just know now there are more types of issues people might be processing, and that’s hitting today’s adolescent population.

Also, technology is definitely a contributing factor, specifically social media. In years past, you would have your 8-hour school day, then go home at night and get some respite from any issues you were experiencing with classmates. Now, your social circle goes with you everywhere through social media. The lack of face-to-face communication also encourages teens to say things they might not in-person. That’s why cyberbullying is unfortunately becoming more widespread.

What advice would you give a parent or adult who knows a struggling teen?

Gayle: Don’t be afraid to talk to your kids AND your peers about mental health. There’s nothing wrong with saying, ‘I’ve noticed a change….what do I do?’ The biggest thing is to not ignore things that worry you or think they’re going to go away. You can talk to other adults in your teen’s life – coaches, teachers, even your teen’s friends. Some people fear becoming a helicopter parent, but it’s good to acknowledge those things. I think it’s really helpful for a teen when a parent can validate their feelings and promise that they’ll journey with their teen through these challenges.

What advice would you give a teen who is struggling?

Gayle: Social media and technology aren’t completely bad things for mental health. There are lots of great apps and digital communities out there for people interested in pursuing better mental health or getting help. Many mental health organizations have a virtual chat on their websites where you can chat with a real person at no cost.

Another thing I’d recommend is journaling. You don’t have to share it with anyone, but it can be helpful to capture what you’re feeling and then observe your feelings over time and see if you’re truly having ongoing struggles or if something is temporary. It’s totally normal to have bad days and bad feelings; that’s human. However, if you can look back and see that you’ve had low energy or depressed mood for a month, it might be time to get help.

Are there any positive activities families can do to foster good mental health?

Gayle: Definitely. Mental health and physical health are intertwined, so anything you do that’s good for your body will be good for your emotions as well. That might be taking a walk, hiking, biking or just sitting on the porch one evening and talking. Yoga and meditation are also really great ways to bring your emotions into the current moment. Parents, your teen may not want to join in right away, but it’s a good thing to model that behavior for your family.


More stories:


If you or someone you know is facing mental health challenges, use these resources to get help:

Check out Helen Ross McNabb on Facebook for community events commemorating Mental Health Month.

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