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When Your Teen Needs Help

When Your Teen Needs Help: Where to Turn and What to Do

Parenting a teenager is never easy — and neither is being one. It can be hard to tell when your teen is just being a teen, and when he or she might need help dealing with schoolwork, peer pressure, life in general — or even use of addictive substances, or symptoms of a mental health condition.

Keeping communication open and being open-minded about your child’s feelings or concerns can help both of you through these years of significant change and growth. But monitoring your child’s mental health isn’t as easy as taking a temperature. Knowing when and how to seek help, and being willing to seek it, is critical.


First Step: Your Pediatrician

If you have a specific concern, or even if you don’t, your child’s pediatrician is a helpful ally. He or she can support you and your child in understanding the physical, emotional and social challenges your child might be facing. You can ask questions and discuss concerns at routine wellness check-ups or make an appointment if you feel your child is struggling.

Before your next visit to the pediatrician, talk to your child about any concerns you plan to discuss, so your child will know what to expect. Encourage him or her to be open and comfortable during the visit. You can also alert the pediatrician in advance of the visit so your provider is sure to allot enough time to discuss your questions or concerns.

Provide specific examples of behavior that concerns you, to your child and the doctor, as respectfully and kindly as you can. Pediatricians are trained and experienced in assessing for symptoms of a mental health condition and their urgency. They can refer you to a mental health professional or other specialist if needed and help you understand how to meet your child’s needs — and your own.

Consider allowing your child time to talk to the pediatrician privately during your visit. In doing this, you are allowing your child the opportunity to discuss with a trusted adult concerns that he or she might not be ready to share with you. In California, confidentiality laws protect minors, especially those 12 and older, to ensure they have access to specific medical care, including mental health care, without the need for parental consent.

“It’s important for kids to have confidentiality protection because then communications can open up between the pediatrician and the child. So the issues can be addressed as completely as possible,” says Kelly Troiano, MD, a pediatrician at El Camino Hospital and Palo Alto Medical Foundation physician. “A pediatrician’s first priority is to advocate for the child and to involve the parents whenever appropriate and possible.”

She says with the right help, you can be hopeful about your child’s future.

Suicide Prevention

Suicide is a leading cause of death for youth and young adults ages 15 to 24, second only to accidents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In most cases, suicide is preventable. According to the National Institute for Mental Health, 90 percent of suicides are linked with depression, substance abuse or another mental health condition such as severe anxiety.

“These conditions get better with treatment,” stresses Glenn Teeter, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and senior program therapist of El Camino Hospital’s ASPIRE program. “The key step is getting access to professional support.”

Teens may be struggling with difficulties that parents may not be aware of. Bullying, a break-up, loss of a friend, physical or sexual abuse, emerging sexual identity questions, and other problems or worries can contribute to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness and thoughts of suicide.

Warning signs can include:

  • Any mention of dying, even jokes, or talking about disappearing and giving away prized possessions
  • Signs of self-harm behavior
  • Recent loss through death, divorce, separation or a broken relationship
  • Loss of self-confidence or self-esteem
  • Loss of interest in friends, hobbies or favorite activities
  • Withdrawing or spending more time alone
  • Any abrupt changes in behavior, mood or personality
  • Feeling or acting sad, withdrawn, irritable, anxious, tired, indecisive or apathetic
  • Inability to focus on school, work or routine tasks
  • Change in sleep patterns, such as insomnia, early waking, oversleeping or nightmares

If you suspect your child — or anyone — is at risk of suicide, act quickly. Support from family and friends is not enough; professional help is critical. Your pediatrician might be able to schedule a visit quickly or refer your child to a psychiatrist or other specialist for therapy and treatment.

If your child is in crisis, call 911 or take your child to the emergency room. You can also call the Santa Clara County Suicide & Crisis Hotline at 855-278-4204 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). For 24/7 text support, text LISTEN to 741741 or ANSWER to 839863.

For additional questions or concerns, make an appointment with a licensed clinician for a no-cost assessment through El Camino Hospital’s ASPIRE (After-School Program Interventions and Resiliency Education) programs. The ASPIRE team can evaluate your child’s needs and make recommendations or referrals if needed.

ASPIRE’s three programs, for middle schoolers, high schoolers and transitional age youth (18 through 24), offer individual therapy, group sessions and a safe, supportive setting. The high school program is eight weeks long, four afternoons a week. Parents attend twice a week.  The program is covered by insurance, and for youth with no insurance, financial assistance is also available.

Call 866-789-6089 to schedule a free, confidential assessment. Find out more.


This information was presented, in partnership with Fremont Union High School District, at A Healthy Mind: A Discussion with Parents on Teen Mental Health.

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