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Tools to Help Teens Navigate their Emotional Landscape

As any parent of a teen can tell you from experience, the emotion centers of teen brains are developing rapidly in adolescence, but impulse control is less developed – meaning a teen’s ability to employ good planning and judgment may be impaired. Even more worrying are the statistics that teen girls face a high risk of depression and that teen boys are more likely to take risks that most of us seasoned adults wouldn’t.

Parents can help teens navigate this important time first and foremost by establishing a trusting bond before you and they are hit by their teen years – or as soon as possible if they’re already there. By showing them that you are a caring, open and nonjudgmental resource, you can help them learn the skills to get through sticky situations, and make it through their teenage years as a healthy young adult with few bumps in the road. And if you need help figuring out how to help them, there are many resources available, starting with your child’s pediatrician or at a Children’s National Health System primary care center, including at THEARC. Here are some tips to get you started, from Children’s psychologist Eleanor Mackey, Ph.D.:

Make time to chat: Set the stage for your kids to come to you by letting them know you will listen and be there. Make sure they understand they don’t face punishment if they come to you with tough stuff. The best message is, “I’m here for you, and you can talk to me.”
Use open-ended questions: Active listening skills are key here. Restate what your teen has told you, follow it up sincerely with an open-ended question like, “Wow, how have you been handling that?” It empowers them to think through the situation and know they can navigate it.
Make a safety plan: Make sure your teen knows they have a “free pass” or “out” to text you to be picked up from any sticky situation, no questions asked. Consider establishing code words for when things are ok and when they aren’t, so they know how to remove themselves from an uncomfortable situation without losing face with friends or facing punishment.
Take your child seriously and reserve judgement: Heartbreak and hurt will happen and teens don’t always tell their parents about it. This is a chance for you to let them know you are available to listen. When they do talk, don’t brush aside adolescent moodiness or “young love” as insignificant—it feels big to them!
Don’t fret about freedom: Know your teen and how independent they can be and show good judgment. If possible, give him or her a little bit of space to try their own way and test their independence. Evaluate what works, and if something doesn’t work, take a step back. Some kids are very responsible and others aren’t.
Trust your gut: If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t—which means it’s a good time to step in and help them by practicing your active listening skills.

Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Parenting is a big job, and none of us are experts at it. If your teen is inconsolable or you are concerned about his or her behavior, there are people who can help, many of them close to your neighborhood. For example, pediatricians at Children’s National Primary Care Center at THEARC are trained to assess basic mental and behavioral health of children as part of routine well-child visits. If needed, the center also offers onsite mental health providers including social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists who are specialists in helping children, teens and families learn new coping skills and how to talk to each other. An expanded Children’s primary care center will open at THEARC in early 2018, making more of these expert support services available for more kids and families.

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