7 Ways to Combat Mental Health Problems in Teen Boys
by Arianne Granada
Talking about mental health with teen boys may be especially tricky because of their age and the way their brains are developing—especially if they’re in the middle of a growth spurt. Unlike girls, who tend to talk about their emotions and ask for help, boys are often uncomfortable with these types of conversations because society makes it seem emotionally risky to demonstrate vulnerability.
As parents, it is important that we help our teen boys to speak up about mental health issues. We should encourage them to talk to a friend or family member about their feelings and emotional issues ranging from stress at home and school to depression or anxiety.
We chatted with Cassandra Simms, a psychiatrist who specializes in an all-boys residential treatment program at Embark Behavioral Health based in Chandler, Arizona, about how to help young men navigate through life with self-awareness and confidence.
#1 Unlearn the stigma
Mental health is still pretty taboo. We’re getting better about it, but for a long time, there has been a stigma around it being something to be ashamed of. This is often transferred down to our boys in society; they think they’re weak if they aren’t tough and don’t express their feelings. So it’s important that we, as adults, don’t make them feel ashamed of their emotions. Allowing them to express themselves encourages mental health awareness and makes a big difference in the long run.
Understanding their language
Sometimes the kid you’re talking to is just going to be defiant, or they’re going to be resistant to saying anything or they just shut down. Regardless of how long it takes, make sure you let them know you still want to talk to them. They’ll realize that pushing away isn’t working, and that makes you gain their trust that you’re not going to abandon them despite their behaviour. Make sure that you pass that first wall so you can make it to the other side.
Using their words when they talk about mental health issues is important so that they know you listen rather than using something you learned from a textbook.
I had a young patient who was a baseball player once who described depression as a water-logged ball. As we would talk about it, I would ask “How are you feeling, how’s that ball? Is it water-logged or not?” Because it gives you an idea of how heavy depression feels. He applied it to what he does at baseball and that’s how he survived the depression. I was able to use that to have a gauge of where his depression was and you immediately make a connection because you listened to what he said rather than what the others around him are doing.
#2 Recognize the causes
The inactivity of COVID-19 shut down our kids’ schools and now we have hybrid schools which mean face-to-face for the first time in a while. There is also a big issue of bullying, especially if you are not accepted by your peers. Having increased expectations in school leads to feelings of sadness when your teen cannot meet them—this feeling is also amplified when they start experiencing puberty changes.
In this electronic age, our teens communicate a lot through gaming where they stay social. Since external social relationships have largely become electronic, teens with depressive tendencies have a harder time coping when they’re limited in their access.
Simms says gaming keeps them consumed and continues to stimulate the dopamine receptors in their brain. In the absence of these receptors, boys can’t cope. When they can’t have that immediate gratification, they crash. Now, they need to go back to school and sit all day to listen to their teachers. In contrast to gaming which provides immediate gratification to dopamine receptors, this is a really hard shift. When all that’s taken away, they get more depressed.
#3 Be aware of the warning signs
There are several non-verbal cues to watch out for as a parent of a teen with depression and anxiety. Boys, in particular, may withdraw from family and friends, their hobbies and interests.
When you notice your teen boy is not hanging out with the family as much, isolating himself and spending more time alone in his room, it’s important to pay attention. Noticing a change in mood can give us an indication that there might be something going on in your son’s head that he is having trouble verbalizing or dealing with.
#4 Know when to take over
Knowing when to step in and take over is a vital part of addressing mental health issues in teen boys, however, Simms says there is no step-by-step process for determining when this is needed. It has to be natural.
In opening up, one thing is knowing your child and behavioural changes. They usually exhibit isolation, which can lead to increased irritability, mood changes, and agitation. Perhaps they’re with more depressed friends than those who want to succeed. It’s important to understand what their activities are during the day, and who they’re with. Once you notice this shift, you’ll be having a conversation where you’re asking, “Why aren’t you hanging out with such and such anymore? What’s happened?”
In their world, social stuff is so important to them. So that’s a big red flag when that changes. If they start not wanting to play sports or not being physically active, those types of things—that’s a behavioural change. For them, that’s how they function. So when that declines, it’s a sign of inferior functioning. So it’s brought to our attention and we ask, “You used to do this stuff and now you’re not. What’s going on?” In response, they stay sad, and maybe even use the word “depression.”
When they do use that word, don’t just assume that they’re “depressed” or just “sad”. Ask them what that means to them. If you know what depression is like, how would you describe it? You would be surprised at how teens are able to describe depression if you asked them that way. This way allows them to truly express themselves. Your role as a parent is to listen.
Simms advised that checking your child’s messages from time to time is also a good move to determine if it is time to step in. In today’s world, teens have access to everything at their fingertips, so they can research anything and talk to anyone, even adults. Therefore, we must set boundaries for our children.
Put age restrictions on the phone. They could be getting messages from people who are older. Social media is full of unhealthy individuals who can attract kids with mental health issues, so you have to be ready to step in anytime. If we assume that everything is okay, we’re going to miss it. It’s not all about privacy. They can’t handle everything they’re exposed to. We have people luring teens to do things and we have to be on top of it so we don’t miss anything crucial. Spot check on their messages because they don’t have the ability to decide on everything yet.
#5 Give them unconditional support
As a parent, make sure consistency is always in your mind. That includes involvement in their academics, athletics, church, and whatever family activity you do that stays consistent. Simms suggests to reassure them that you’re going to be there through the good or bad. Whenever you discipline, you need to be consistent with the punishment or consequences. If you forget the punishment, you’re sending a message that it’s not important.
You should also remember to always ask if it’s a listening moment versus an advice moment and teens definitely like that idea. Because sometimes you’re giving advice and they just shut down because it seems like you’re dismissing their emotions.
#6 Keep them productive
Always put consistency, consistency, consistency and structure in the homefront. Make sure you’re doing activities outside of the house whether that be athletics, art, classes, martial arts, or some kind of physical activity so that is what’s stimulating the dopamine area of the brain rather than the electronics. You’re teaching your kids how to get that natural exposure which helps with their moods.
#7 Seek help when needed
Impairment of functioning is the first and one of the most important signs of mental health issues. Once functioning is starting to get affected, you need to seek help. Let’s not wait until they overdose or hurt themselves.
Simms notes that there is probably a reason why their functioning has declined, and that includes their performance in school, not wanting to go, not wanting to hang out with their friends, and not wanting to participate in family activities. When those things start to come up, we need to be aware that something may be going on. They just don’t know how to express it to you. The earlier they start to involve individual therapy or family therapy, that decreases the chances of medications being needed. The longer we wait, the deeper they go into the hole of depression. You want to catch it early, while they still have some energy, some motivation to get better. But when you get to the point where they’re not doing anything and they’re really in the hole, they’ll have a hard time climbing out of it.