June 10, 2018

Family Connections Support Teen Mental Health, Says Practitioner

Larry Becker, Loma Linda University News

Glenn Scott wants you to think about an ice-cold can of your favorite soda. Now shake it up. When you pop the can top, the soda explodes out of the can.

“When a teenager and family seek help at a hospital like Loma Linda University Behavioral Medical Center, that’s like an exploding can of soda,” Scott says. “We want to help teenagers before that ‘explosion.’ Seeking help lets us work on behavioral issues together. Treatment is like opening that soda can slowly and letting the pressure fizz out in a more controlled way.”

Scott has worked at the Behavioral Medicine Center in Loma Linda, California, United States, for 14 years, and is currently director of the adolescent intensive outpatient program, one of many behavioral health services available at Loma Linda. His passion is working with teenagers and their families to address difficult behavioral health issues.

“I tell teenagers that just because they might be struggling today, it doesn’t mean it’s a life sentence,” he says.

How to Say, ‘I Have a Problem’

Scott identifies the biggest hurdle facing teens who need mental health services is admitting that they need help.

“Saying ‘I have a problem’ has a huge stigma attached to it,” Scott says. “People look at you differently.” Scott points out that other people can see when a teenager has a broken arm. And they want to help.

“You can’t see a broken heart. But just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t real,” Scott says. “The good news is that mental health stigmas are starting to lessen. You don’t have to have shame for what you’re dealing with. There are people who can help you find a path to success”

Scott encourages teenagers to learn their physical signs of mental health problems — not sleeping well, not eating or eating out of control, or isolation from friends and family.

“Seek out an adult you trust,” Scott says. “Don’t hold secrets inside yourself. Find someone who can help you become more involved and interactive with your life. Interacting with others can help your thought process change for the better.”

And Scott believes that first outreach to a trusted adult doesn’t necessarily mean a parent.

“Sometimes parents overreact. Often they are dealing with their own issues,” Scott says. “You can talk to a neighbor, a teacher, an aunt or an uncle.”

If a Troubled Teenager Approaches You

If a teenager approaches you to talk about an issue, Scott says it’s key to remain calm and collected.

“A teen is going to test to see how much you can handle,” Scott says. “Fight everything within you to not have a negative reaction. Keep your responses factual as opposed to judgmental. Look for ways to work out problems together.”

The key for Scott is the amount of quality time a parent can spend with their child. Twenty to 30 minutes can be enough, with cell phones and other electronics put aside.

“Do something interactive during your conversations,” Scott says. “You’d be surprised how much information comes out when the hands are busy. Tell your teen about your concerns, and that you want to help work through whatever the challenge is.” By creating a space where a teenager can share what’s bothering them, Scott says parents are sending the important message that the teen is important.

Parents often carry shame and guilt when they believe they aren’t perfect parents. Scott says this is a huge mistake.

“No book can tell you how to be a perfect parent,” he says. “When parents make a mistake, they need to own it. Realizing they didn’t see an issue developing in their teenager causes tremendous guilt. But parents are not defined by their mistakes.”

Restoring Balance

Families receiving help through the Youth Partial Hospital Program Scott directs meet in group settings, creating the interactivity that supports the conversations.

“When a teenager shares an issue with another teen, it creates a social acceptance within the group that’s huge,” Scott says. Parents can connect with each other because they no longer feel they have to deal with this stressful situation on their own.”

In the end, Scott says that every day is not a happy and joyous one. But families, with the support of top quality mental health professionals, can have measures in place that restore balance.

“If we can get across only one message, I hope it’s this: don’t feel you’re hopeless,” Scott says. “Long-lasting change starts happening when a family starts making changes together.”