Recognizing psychological distress

How to help teenagers experiencing psychological distress

Recognizing psychological distress

How to help teenagers experiencing psychological distress

Approved by Stéphanie Deslauriers, psychoeducator.

Has a teen in your life suddenly started acting strange? Have they lost their appetite? Does their self-confidence or drive seem low? Are they overly excitable, or even aggressive? Such worrisome behaviour can certainly cause you to ask what’s behind the sudden change. But perhaps you’re unsure:

• How to bring up such a delicate issue
• What language or demeanour to adopt to encourage your teen to talk to you and seek help

Here are some pointers that can help you support your teen in times of distress.

Observe your teen and ask questions

Most teens undergoing psychological distress or experiencing panic attacks are afraid to ask for help for fear of being judged or misunderstood, or for disappointing or worrying their loved ones. They internalize their suffering, and it becomes very hard to express it clearly. But when you know your teen well, you may notice certain changes in their behaviour that could be signs of underlying psychological distress.

When you notice a drastic change in your teen’s behaviour, the first thing you should do is give them the opportunity to express themselves. They need to know they are being heard, supported and guided, without being judged. To help them confide in you, ask a few simple questions to show you care, such as:

• I’m worried. How have you been feeling lately?
• Do you want to talk about what’s going on?

If they are reluctant to talk, you might want to ask people who are close to them (close friends, family members, teachers who play a significant role in their lives) whether they have the same concerns. They might have noticed a change in your teen too, and they may be able to play a part in the healing process and provide support when stress gets the better of your teen.

Establish trust to better guide your teen

Find a moment when your teen is particularly relaxed and you can better create a trusting environment. Trying to address issues or other problems during a moment of anger or a crisis situation can create a closed-off atmosphere and increase your teen’s reluctance to confide in you.

If your teen doesn’t want to talk, don’t give up! It’s vital that they know that you care, that you’re concerned about them, and that they can get out of this. Keep telling them that you’re there if they need you.

Your support, openness and encouragement will help them get through this situation and will guide them to seek the help of a doctor or psychologist if necessary. Teens in psychological distress will rarely go see a healthcare professional of their own accord.


Only a doctor or psychologist can assess the mental health of a teen and diagnose a mental health disorder, should one exist. They are also able to confirm whether your teen’s condition may result from a physical disorder (such as mononucleosis, anemia or a thyroid problem), some of which have symptoms resembling those of clinical depression.

Also, in Quebec, beginning at the age of 14, your teen can consult a healthcare professional or social services worker on their own, without your knowledge or consent. The right to privacy applies as of this age.
And while this phase may be hard on all of you, don’t let it get you down. Knowing they have your help and support, your teen will maximize their chances of getting better.

Don’t lose hope

Know that, in order to be effective, therapy must be given several weeks or months to run its course. Every teenager is different, and it’s important to respect their individual rhythm. In doing so, we make sure not to rush them, but rather to provide guidance no matter which step of the process they’re at.

Of course, some days will be more challenging than others. Adjustments will have to be made, be it with medication or psychological treatment. And you’ll surely all have your highs and lows. But know that all of this is completely normal. Make sure you surround yourself with a solid network of people who can help (your teen’s loved ones, healthcare workers, etc.) whenever necessary. With time, patience and continuous support, your teen will get better.

Need help?
Find the right resources

Need to talk about what you are going through with your teenager?

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Learn about the contributor’s book

Éli : Comprendre la dépression à l’adolescence – Stéphanie Deslauriers, Psychoeducator, speaker and writer

This book is a practical guide that can help teens recognize the signs and risks of depression, feel less alone and, above all, find concrete tips for how to rebuild a positive self-image and move forward.


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