Adolescence is a period of life filled with new opportunities, but it also carries its own unique challenges. Teenagers often face a variety of stressors, whether in school, relationships, or anxiety over the world at large. They often try to face these problems alone. Some teens internalize these struggles, or vent their frustrations and emotional difficulties outwardly through defiant or risky behavior, rather than ask for help. It’s important for parents to learn why teens are reluctant to ask for help, how to encourage this healthy behavior in their children, and how to respond when their teen comes to them in a time of need.
Why Teens Are Often Hesitant to Ask For Help
Teenagers can be hesitant to ask for help for any number of reasons. Many teens believe that facing their problems alone is a sign of being emotionally self-reliant and independent from others. Teens may view asking parents for help as a form of overdependence at a time when they want to break free of their parents’ influence and become their own person.
Teens may also fear judgement or ridicule from others if they ask for help, or feel that their admission of the need for help could be interpreted as a sign of weakness. Teens “report lack of trust and past disappointment” as barriers to asking for help from friends and family, along with the fear of others “overreacting to the situation (often parents) or minimizing the problem (often peers).”
Seeking Help for Academic and Mental Health Issues
Academic circumstances also impose their own barriers to asking for help. For instance, in school, teens were found to avoid asking for help in settings where there was a focus on their relative ability versus others. On the other hand, students were more likely to seek help if they felt that a classroom had an emphasis on self-improvement. [ii]
Mental health challenges pose particular difficulty for teens in asking for help. Issues like depression and anxiety are common in teens, yet are areas where many teens are most hesitant to seek help due to social stigmas. In a survey on help-seeking behavior in teens with depression, many stated that it was difficult to talk to people and express their feelings in ways they felt were helpful. Some teenagers felt they were “supposed to” have issues as teenagers. Others were afraid of being told they were somehow wrong or abnormal for feeling the way they did, feared that having these feelings would make them look weak to others, were afraid they would be medicated, or felt that their concerns were too insignificant to warrant asking for help.[i] Others may have difficulty recognizing a problem exists despite dealing with painful feelings or behaviors.
How Trust and Compassion Encourage Teens to Speak Up
Research shows that “adolescents draw on sources of support that are familiar, mature, friendly, and, most importantly, worthy of trust.” [ii] Teens in the previous survey on depression felt most supported and willing to ask for help when the care provider considered their “desires to be normal, to feel connected, and to be autonomous.” These factors show that parents need to take their teenager’s feelings and challenges seriously; to truly listen when their teens speak up; to be mindful of the difficulties in speaking out and be willing to be the ones to reach out when something seems wrong.
Creating a Safe Space Where Your Teen Feels Supported
Parents need to create an environment where asking for help, whether in an emotional, academic, or social area, is encouraged. Parents can do this by taking an interest in their teen’s life, and by simply asking what they can do to support their teen. Teach your teen that discussing feelings and emotions is not just accepted, but encouraged, and that you will be there to take them seriously and listen judgement-free should they need to talk, vent, or ask a question about a situation.
Don’t sweep discussions of feelings or mental health under the rug. Instead, try to normalize talking about these sorts of things, when appropriate. If teens are hesitant to approach a particular subject with parents, encourage that they talk to a friend, family friend, or someone else trustworthy. Parents may not always be able to solve a given issue, but they can help teens take the right steps and let them know they are supported.
Communicating and Pursuing Treatment for Mental Health Challenges
Reaching out for professional help can be even harder for teens than asking for help from familiar friends and loved ones. However, it can be necessary in instances where a teen is suffering from a chronic mental health condition or recurring emotional issue in their life. Given the common fears that teenagers have about seeking such professional help, parents should be sure to listen carefully to their teen’s doubts and worries, and address them in kind.
Ensure your teenager that they will have a say in their treatment, and that you will be responsive if they and a given counselor are a bad fit. Make sure your teen understands that seeking mental health treatment does not mean they are weak, wrong to have difficult feelings, or otherwise incapable. Instead, emphasize that one of the hallmarks of being an independent, emotionally healthy adult is knowing when you need help and working to solve your problems – which is exactly what talking through problems and taking advantage of professional help is meant to do.
Whenever your teen asks for help, or when you sense they need it despite being hesitant to ask, try to remember this sort of positive framing and non-judgmental attitude. Your willingness to reach out to your teen, and to make yourself available to help them when they need it, can make a positive difference in their life and ensure they have the support they need to confront their worries and problems in a productive, healthy way.