Help! I Don't Know How to Help My Hurting Teen

In today's world of enormous pressure on young people, Nicole Parker, MA, LPC-Associate, Supervised by: Kerry Williamson, MA, LPC-S, LMFT-S, CST offers hope  for parents whose hearts are broken for their teens. Read on for some gentle guidance and encouragement based on her years of working with teens and their parents, and for tips from parents who have been there before!
You’re driving home from work with the radio softly playing in the background. You take a deep breath and look out the window, stuck in traffic again. Suddenly, the phone rings – it’s your spouse. You pick up with a sigh, wondering if they’re going to ask you to pick up dinner for the night. But the tone of their voice immediately tells you this conversation is something different. Their voice catches, and then you hear the words: “Our son is intentionally harming himself. I just found the marks.” You feel your heart drop to your stomach. As you pull into the driveway, thoughts race through your mind. “How could this happen? What does this mean? Is this my fault? If I had been home more, would things be different? What do I do to help?!”

If anything remotely close to the above story resonates with you, the first thing you should know is that you are not alone. It’s sad but true that countless teens struggle with a wide range of issues, like depression, anxiety, self-harm, suicidal ideation, eating disorders, gender dysphoria, etc. Here you are – their parent, seeing your child, part of your heart, hurt in ways you have no idea how to begin to care for. You don’t want to make things worse. You start to blame yourself. You’re overwhelmed and scared. There have been many parents before you and many that will come after you that have felt those same emotions. You are not alone, and in this article, we will discuss a few things you can do in response to your hurting teen – not to “fix” them but to come alongside them in their own healing journey.

Let’s look at 3 ways you can support and encourage your teen, as well as how to care for yourself, too. A healthy parent is just as important as caring for a hurting teen.

1. “I just found out my teen is really hurting. What do I do?”
It’s important to regulate your own emotions when you first discover that things aren’t as great as you had once thought with your child. It’s normal to feel scared or confused, but when you’re talking with your teen, approaching them with curiosity is important. Being curious (as opposed to telling them what to do or approaching them in fear or anger) will help them feel safe and not shamed. They likely also feel overwhelmed by what they’re going through, and it will help if you’ve spent time working out your emotions with God, or your spouse, or a good friend before going to your teen and offering your ear. That’s part of what it means to regulate your emotions.

While our emotions are important, we don’t want to allow them to dictate what we do, how we act, or what we say in any given moment. It’s important to work them out on your own and with others so that your emotions don’t take over in a difficult moment with your child.

It's also important to ask them – “What would you like from me in this moment? Would you prefer for me to just listen or would you like my thoughts and encouragement?” Your teen might not know the answer, but just you asking is important. There’s a normal temptation to start telling them what to do to fix it (Because of course, you don’t want to see them in pain!) but this can lead your teen to pull away further.

Some of you might be reading this and thinking that you’ve already blown it in this area, and it’s okay to allow yourself to recognize and own that. There is grace for you to get it wrong sometimes, and then to learn how to change in the future. Remember to show yourself the same compassion you want your teen to show to themselves.

2. “What can I do to help?”
Helplessness is a scary feeling, and I feel for every parent that knows their kid is suffering, and they want to make it better, but don’t know how.

It’s a difficult concept to accept, but you will not be able to “fix” what they’re going through.

Let yourself take a deep breath and read that sentence again. You will not be able to “fix” the issue they’re working through – none of us have the power to do that. There are things you can do to be a presence of support and hope for them, but you can’t change what they’re feeling. It’s out of your control. For some, that will feel like a huge relief. For others, that’s frustrating because you want the pain to stop!

So, what does help? Here are a few suggestions for you to consider:

  • Spend time working through your own emotional responses – be curious about what’s coming up in you and where that might be coming from.
  • Listen without judgment, frustration, or big emotional responses.
  • Be curious about your teen’s experience and ask them questions, as they allow.
  • Let them know that you love them no matter what, and nothing they go through or struggle with will change that.
  • Be cautious about advice giving.
  • Forgive yourself for things you’ve gotten wrong and ask for your teen’s forgiveness.
  • Offer support through your presence (sometimes with words and sometimes without) and consider therapy for your teen.

One of your biggest roles in their healing journey is to simply be a source of unconditional love and acceptance. Your teen needs to know that you have compassion, not criticism, for them. They need to know that you care about them, not just about counseling them.

3. “How do I care for myself through this, too?”
I mentioned in the beginning of this article that a healthy parent is just as important as a healthy teen. In a healthy family, there isn’t just one “scapegoat” or “black sheep” of the family, but everyone is eager to continue growing as a person. Perhaps you’ve experienced a wide range of emotions during this time, such as frustration, confusion, irritation, helplessness, fear, or shame. It’s important that you, too, work to understand, process, and release, your own emotions. In fact, you can model for your teen the process of working through difficult emotions.

What does that practically look like? It might mean a combination of intimate prayer with God and vulnerable conversations with trusted confidants who can help you sort through your emotions and reactions. You might journal what you’re feeling and why you think you might be feeling that to help untangle confusing thoughts and feelings. You might also consider therapy for yourself.

The expectation is not that you get this parenting thing “perfect.” Being a parent is a constant process of learning, forgiving, owning wrongdoing, and changing. Perhaps it’s time you showed yourself compassion. Alternatively, perhaps it’s time you slow down and evaluate what’s going on in your own inner world, not just your teen’s. Wherever you are in this process, there’s room for you.

Some Words of Wisdom
I reached out to a few parents who have experienced the turmoil of teen years and come through on the other side. Let’s wrap up by hearing their words of encouragement tailored for you who are right in the thick of it:

“Remember that it’s not always the circumstance, but how you react to the circumstance that matters. Take a deep breath and let your heart feel compassion for your hurting teen.”

“It’s easy for parents to say, “it’s just a phase, they’ll grow through it.” Well, maybe… and maybe it’s time for parents to do something to show that they unconditionally love and accept their kids. I remember my teen later told me that it meant a lot that we tried, even though we had no clue what we were doing.”

“I remember feeling so inadequate and helpless. We didn’t want to make things worse. We wanted our teen to know that we took their pain seriously and wanted to help.”

“I wanted them to know they were unconditionally loved and home was a safe place.”

“Pray for your teen and apologize to them when you need to.”

“Parents need to love their kids like Jesus does, without condition. They need to let their kids know that Jesus never disqualified anyone. Kids need hope, and with that hope, parents will also have hope.”

If you have a hurting teen and feel overwhelmed right now, there is hope. You’re not alone. Other parents have been where you are, and I would be honored to support you and your teen through this. If you are interested in a session with me or another therapist, please contact our office.
Nicole specializes in treating couples with relationship concerns, and adults and teenagers who struggle with anxiety, trauma, abuse, self-harm, self-esteem, depression, and grief.

Nicole uses an eclectic and creative approach to therapy, blending Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Brainspotting Therapy with more expressive forms of therapy, such as art therapy and walking outdoor sessions. By offering multiple therapeutic mediums of professional counseling services, Nicole aims to help clients reach their goals by understanding and meeting each person's individual needs

For specific questions email Nicole at