Supporting a Teen with Mental Illness

November 27, 2018

Supporting a Teen with Mental Illness

As a parent of a teen experiencing mental illness, you provide critical support.

By Dr Anne Honey


As part of my research, I interviewed 26 young people who had experienced mental illness, about their perspectives on parent support. Here are some of their thoughts.

Interact positively

Teens found it most helpful when parents made a concerted effort to adjust their ways of interacting by becoming more sympathetic and tolerant, less strict, and less likely to argue with or yell at young people. These changes are not about reversing ‘bad’ parenting, but about responding to a new situation with a new approach. Teens appreciated parents who appeared calm about the illness and displayed confidence and optimism, for example pointing out their teens’ progress and achievements, and modelling a belief in their ability to cope and to get well again.

Don’t expect a ‘quick fix’. Some teens felt an unhelpful pressure to get ‘better’ immediately so as not to ‘disappoint people’. Others described how parents tried to change them by scolding or teasing them about their behaviour. The most common unhelpful response was when parents displayed distress, anger, desperation, frustration, self-blame and hopelessness. Teens found these reactions distressing, discouraging and guilt-inducing, and felt that they made things worse. As one young person put it, ‘In terms of looking after someone who’s got mental health issues, it’s important not to deal with your personal reactions about that too much with them.’

Show your concern and commitment

Teens liked to know that their parents were concerned and saw their mental health as a high priority. Parents showed this in many ways, such as seeking information about the illness and treatments, asking teens about their experiences, and spending extra time with them, even taking time off work to look after them or take them to appointments.

It was critical for teens to see parents as a reliable and unwavering support, which they often described simply as ‘being there’.

Image: Visual Ideas/Nora Pelaez/Blend Images/Thinkstock


‘Just being understood’ was critical. Teens who felt able to talk to their parents about ‘deep things like how I feel and why I feel like that’, found that it really helped. Others wished their parents were more open to this. One teen explained that, ‘She thinks I don’t want to do that... but I wouldn’t not do it if she opened up the conversation. I wish she’d try and delve into it deeper’.

Some teens felt unable to explain what they didn’t understand themselves, or had difficulty putting their thoughts and feelings into words. These teens needed patience and support – sometimes from health professionals – to express themselves. Other teens did not want to talk to parents. Some wished to avoid thinking about their problems. Others believed, from experience, that their parents would respond in punitive or ‘emotionally messy’ ways or would simply not understand.

Get other support

For most teens, their parents were the driving force in getting professional treatment, and teens tended to appreciate this, at least in retrospect. They also appreciated parents who ‘took my side’ with health professionals, schools and even other family members by explaining the situation and encouraging others to be supportive.

Help me do ‘the right thing’

Teens talked about how their parents encouraged them to do things that were good for them and their mental health, such as following their treatment plan, participating in everyday activities, and preventing self-harm. Teens most appreciated it when parents facilitated these things by providing funding and transport. Strategies like reminding, giving advice, keeping a watchful eye and even bargaining with money and privileges could also motivate teens to act in their own best interests. However, there was a fine line between helpful persuasion and unhelpful ‘nagging’, criticising, or being ‘bossy’. Even where parents used their authority and removed their teens’ choice, teens sometimes appreciated this in retrospect, or at the time, thinking that ‘later on I’m going to look back and I’m going to see that she was right all along’.

Teens’ reactions were shaped largely by whether they saw parents’ actions as indicators of genuine concern, as rational and well considered, and as reflecting both an understanding of their situation and a confidence in their recovery – beliefs clearly linked to the tips above.

Unfortunately, there is no formula for how to care for a teen experiencing mental illness. In the words of one teen, ‘You really can’t be a perfect parent. There’s no way you can get it right all the time. Like if you get it right a quarter of the time you’re doing great.’


Dr Anne Honey is a Senior Lecturer in Occupational Therapy at the University of Sydney. Her research focuses on illuminating the perspectives of people experiencing mental illness and their families, with a particular emphasis on the interactions between mental illness, social context, family support and wellbeing.

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