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Parenting a Teenager Who is Living with Mental Illness

Parenting a teenager with mental illness brings many challenges. Use these tips to make it easier for your teen and you.

If you are parenting a teenager who is living with mental illness, know that you are not alone. Many teens experience one or more mental health disorders that get in the way of their ability to experience life the way other children do. Likewise, parents find that their teen’s mental illness poses challenges. We’ll explore these challenges as well as tips for parenting a teenager who is living with mental illness.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI, n.d.) shares these statistics compiled by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH):

  • 20% of teens aged 13-18 live with a mental illness
  • Of teens in their state and local juvenile justice systems, 70% have a mental illness
  • Of kids and young adults aged 10-24 who die by suicide, 90% experienced mental illness

Clearly, helping and supporting teens is of the utmost importance, and most parents want to do just that. It can be difficult, however, because of the unique challenges presented by parenting a teen with mental illness.

Challenges of Parenting a Teenager Who Has a Mental Illness

Raising teens can be taxing. Mental illness or not, teenagers are teenagers in a unique developmental stage (Broderick and Blewitt, 2006): Hormonal changes and surges impact thoughts, feelings, and behavior. Adolescents naturally pull away from their families as peers become increasingly important. They seek autonomy and want the freedom to make their own decisions. These tasks create a strange position for teens: They value their peers and want to fit in, yet they want and need to establish an independent sense of self. That’s hard to balance and can lead to what adults often consider strange moods and behaviors.

Parenting is hard, and parenting teens is no easy task. Mental illness can add another layer of difficulties.

If your teenager is living with a mental health disorder, some of the challenges you might face include:

  • Confusion and frustration from watching your teen struggle.
  • Wrestling with a sense of loss over how things could have been.
  • Severe stress from figuring out how to best interact with your teen
  • Fear and anxiety about the constant unknown
  • Exhaustion arising from trying to meet everyone’s needs and keep the family going
  • Tension and exasperation when family conflicts happen because the parents are overinvolved in the one living with mental illness
  • Feeling your own emotions, like guilt and disappointment, plus the struggle to keep them out of your way
  • Frustration over not always knowing what to do or receiving mental health treatments that don’t work

When you’re parenting a teen who lives with mental illness, these challenges and stresses are normal. They’re part of the distressing combination of “teen” and “mental illness.” You can reduce them and learn to parent well even though challenges exist.

Tips for Parenting a Teenager Who Lives with Mental Illness

See your teen first and their illness second. They’re more than their illness. They’re a teenager with all of the aforementioned development going on as well as their own interests. Of course, your parenting will involve mental health issues, but do approach them like your teen, not your mentally ill teen.

Whenever possible, include your teenager in treatment planning and follow-through. Give them choices, formulate plans together, and help them develop a system for remembering to take medications. While you can’t give them complete autonomy, giving them some can reduce anger, resentment, and behavior problems.

Other parenting tips include:

  • Educate yourself about your teen’s illness. Take classes such as NAMI Basics or NAMI Family-to-Family, read books and online articles.
  • Talk with your teen about their symptoms and experiences. Let them express their thoughts and emotions.
  • Talk with your doctor about symptoms, and get a referral to a mental health professional.
  • Show them respect, understanding, and empathy by having open conversations and listening fully.
  • Put behavior in perspective. If they’re acting out in ways they can’t control, avoid reacting in anger.
  • Set limits and consistent discipline. Some behaviors are out of their control, but others aren’t.
  • Communicate support, non-judgment, and acceptance
  • Love unconditionally, but don’t enable them by not holding them accountable for rules and chores because they are ill.
  • Help them function at their best level, knowing that this will vary day-to-day.
  • Talk to their school and advocate for their education and equal treatment.
  • Have patience for your teen, other children, and yourself.
  • Enlist your teenager in working with you to develop self-care plans (for both of you).

Parents often want to fix everything so their kids and teens don’t have to suffer or struggle; however, some things, like mental illness, can’t be completely or quickly fixed. And that’s okay. To parent a teenager with mental illness, give them your support, understanding, and a listening ear. That will help them thrive despite the mental health challenges they face.

article references

APA Reference
Peterson, T. (2019, July 7). Parenting a Teenager Who is Living with Mental Illness, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, September 15 from https://www.healthyplace.com/parenting/children-with-mental-illness/parenting-a-teenager-who-is-living-with-mental-illness

Last Updated: August 8, 2019

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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