Experts advise parents working to head off mental health issues in teens

WASHINGTON — Experts are offering advice for parents who suspect their child or teenager is depressed or has another mental health issue.

“It really takes a lot of open ended questions (and) conversations with our kids. We need to ask them what they’re thinking, what they’re feeling,” Applied psychologist Dr. Heather Tedesco told parents at a Teen-to-Teen Mental Health Summit held in Fairfax County.

She says it’s important for parents to let kids know that they love them unconditionally, because sometimes, “They begin to feel that we love them if they achieve certain things, or when they behave in a certain way. And even though that’s not the way parents feel, it can be difficult for kids to get that.”

Also important, she says, is to let kids know they are loved for who they really are, flaws and all, and that mistakes and failures are allowed.

“If school’s not going well, if they stop doing hobbies, if they stop hanging out with their friends…if something seems wrong, ask them. Bring it up with your pediatrician.  Ask your minister or your rabbi, or just tell them we’re going to the pediatrician, ‘I’m worried.’  Get a blood test.  Get a tox screen if you’re worried about substance abuse.  It’s easy to do, and even if they’re mad at you…it’s alright,” said Dr. Adelaide Robb, Chief of Psychology and Behavioral Health at Children’s National Medical Health System.

“If you’re worried about your kid, don’t wait for them to come to you. Say, ‘I’m worried about you’  and that may open the door to have that conversation with you rather than waiting for the crisis.”

Another problem is overcoming denial and fear among parents.

“We don’t want to talk about drugs.  We don’t want to ask our kids what they’re doing…and one of the biggest things is, we don’t want to believe that this could be going on with our kid, ” said Chris Bennett.

In 8th grade, the former Northern Virginia resident turned to alcohol and drugs to ease his own mental health problems.  He’s now sober runs an intervention group in California.

Another point the speakers wanted to get across is that a diagnosis of mental illness is not a death sentence.

“All too often I talk to families, in particular professionally, who say well, my son has schizophrenia, and they expect that to mean that they’re never going to be able to live a happy, successful life.  It’s like they’re basically saying, ‘my son is on death row’,” said Bennett.

“Having a mental health care illness just means it’s in your brain instead of your lungs or whatever, but it doesn’t mean you’re crazy…there’s a lot of stigma around mental illness,” added Robb.

The forum held at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale was put on by the Josh Anderson Foundation.

Michelle Basch

Michelle Basch is a reporter turned morning anchor at WTOP News.

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