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Parents Think Teens Won't Admit Mental Health Struggles, Poll Shows

Close-Up Portrait Of Teenage Girl

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Key Takeaways

  • Many parents believe they could tell if their child had mental health struggles, but far fewer believe that their child would come to them for help.
  • Knowing what signs to look for can help prepare you to help your teen on their journey.
  • Spending time with your teen and learning their interests can help foster an atmosphere of open communication.

If your teen was dealing with mental health struggles, would you know it? What’s more, would your teen come to you for help? A new poll says that many parents think they could notice the symptoms, but they aren’t confident that their teens would tell them what’s wrong.

The poll found that for every four parents, only one thinks that their teen would confide in them about mental health issues. The findings raise concerns about the level of communication between teens and their parents, as well as concerns about teens seeking the help they need. 

Mary Alvord, PhD

I think parents don’t know necessarily what is going on because as a teenager you tend to talk less to your parents and share.

— Mary Alvord, PhD

“I think parents don’t know necessarily what is going on because as a teenager you tend to talk less to your parents and share. You’re more apt to speak to your friends about what’s bothering you,” explains Mary Alvord, PhD, co-author of 'Conquer Negative Thinking for Teens.' “Parents have to be more vigilant.”

As the US Surgeon General talks about the mental health crisis youth are facing, it’s important that parents know what signs to look for in their kids, why teens may be less inclined to talk to parents, and most importantly, how to get teens the help that they need.

Details of the Poll

The C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health randomly sampled over 1200 parents of kids ages 11 to 18 years old. The nationwide poll, conducted in partnership with the Children’s Hospital Association, asked parents various questions about their child’s mental health. Parents gave insight on whether they could tell if their child was experiencing a mental health problem, what their response would be to their teen’s mental health issue, and if that child would come to them for help.

A majority of the parents believed they could recognize a problem, with 95% saying they felt somewhat or very confident about noticing an issue. However, only 25% of parents say their child would definitely mention a mental health issue to them. A little over half of the parents believed their child may possibly approach the subject with them.

Parents noted several behaviors that would prompt concern. Sixty-five percent said comments from their teen about being worried or anxious would be a signal; 63% said decreased interaction with family caused concern, and 61% said a drop in grades would alert them to a problem. A change in sleep patterns would concern 53% of parents, while 49% would take note of a change in eating patterns. 

While some experts are hopeful that the numbers indicate parents are more in tune with kids’ potential mental health struggles, other experts say that the poll results may show a disconnect between teens and their parents.

“Parents may not be as aware as they think they are of what their teens are going through,” states Dr. Alvord. She says addressing mental health concerns should begin at a young age. “You need to start conversations early and often,” she adds.

Roadblocks to Teens Opening Up

According to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 37% of high school teens experienced continual feelings of sadness and hopelessness in 2019. About 19% of teens contemplated suicide, while 16% made a suicide plan. The COVID pandemic and its aftermath likely exacerbated those numbers. Young people are struggling with their mental health and unable to get the help they need.

“[Barriers include] long wait times in receiving mental health services, not having insurance coverage, difficulty finding a provider who sees children, and not knowing where to go and who to see,” states Ann-Louise Lockhart, PsyD, pediatric psychologist, parent coach, and owner of A New Day Pediatric Psychology.

Even if the external hindrances weren’t a problem, internal challenges like shame and embarrassment can keep teens from moving forward.

“Some teens feel like they and their problems are a burden to others. Others might feel like their parents wouldn't understand or they might dismiss their concerns,” Dr. Lockhart explains.

Although some teens may talk to their friends, others may not feel comfortable sharing their issues with anyone. It’s even more important in these situations that a parent or someone who knows the child can step in and offer support.

Knowing how a teen can perceive their mental health struggles is important for a parent. It can help mom or dad understand what signs to look for, and ways to provide help to their teen.

Helping Teens Move Forward

If you don’t think your teen will come to you about mental health issues, you need to go to them. But how do you know when you should do that?

In addition to monitoring changes in behavior, including eating and sleeping habits, withdrawal from friends and family, and irritability or attitude changes, parents should also listen for changes in speech. If your teen starts saying they no longer want to be here and have nothing to live for, action is imperative.

Ann-Louise Lockhart, PsyD

Having a direct, open, and honest conversation can go a long way in breaking mental health stigma.

— Ann-Louise Lockhart, PsyD

“Having a direct, open, and honest conversation can go a long way in breaking mental health stigma and letting their teen know they don't have to continue struggling in isolation and silence,” notes Dr.
Lockhart.

Be willing to foster a connection by spending time with them daily. Initiating conversations during a time when you can have more of their attention, like a car ride, may make them more willing to talk.

Also, empathize when they speak and validate their feelings. The extra effort you show can go a long way in making teens feel seen, heard, and as if they are not alone. While you are helping your child, be an example by taking good care of your own mental health. Model the behavior you want to see in your teen.

As you offer help and guidance, be careful to make sure your child feels like a person, not a project or something else on your to-do list.

“Don't try to fix what's going on in their life and don't try to rescue them. They may just want to vent or share what's bothering them,” Dr. Lockhart advises.

If your teen is looking for your help or insight, you can discuss resources together. Online programs, support groups, and professional counseling are all beneficial options.

As a parent, providing a safe space for your child where he or she doesn’t feel stigmatized, but instead supported and loved, is key. Just as it’s important for them to receive their annual physical checkups, it’s important for them to be strong and healthy mentally.

"My hope is that mental health and [physical] health are one and the same, and they are truly treated with parity,” Dr. Alvord concludes.

What This Means For You

Helping your teen care for their mental health is just as important as taking care of their physical body. As a parent, you can start by investing time in your child’s interests and hobbies. Spend time talking about things that matter to your teen. Your effort can create an inviting atmosphere for your child to open up about mental health struggles and be willing to receive the help you can give.

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3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. C.S. Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health. Parent views on addressing mental health concerns in adolescents.

  2. U.S. Surgeon General's Advisory. Protecting Youth Mental Health.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Youth Risk Behavior Survey, Data Summary and Trends Report 2009-2019.