Recent statistics from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) show that one in six American youth experiences a mental health disorder annually. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among those between 10 and 14. NAMI notes that teens with mental health issues are twice as likely to drop out of high school and three times more likely to repeat a grade.
In addition, 70% of youth in the criminal justice system have a diagnosable mental health disorder. Going to jail only worsens things, leading to 10% of the youth population experiencing psychosis. Not having strong family systems can be one of the leading causes of these issues.
Teens with mental health issues don’t know how to cope and often turn to drugs and alcohol for relief. Doing so worsens mental health. One factor that contributes to mental health among teens is their family system. Understanding the dynamics of your family system can give you a starting point for making improvements.
Understanding Family Dynamics
When you think of family, you may picture your parents, siblings, and relatives connected by blood or living within your home. This has been the typical definition of family for many years. However, times are changing, and the meaning of family has expanded to include people with whom you have an intimate bond.
Intimacy does not always mean sex when talking about familial bonding. It can also refer to the emotional bonds you create with others. For example, an emotional bond is when someone accepts you and loves you as you are. Examples of blood and non-blood family members include parents, siblings, relatives, stepparents and stepsiblings, same-sex partners, adoptive parents, and even best friends.
What Are Family Systems?
A system consists of smaller, individual parts. In a family system, the individual parts refer to the people and their roles within the system. Mother, father, grandparent, and siblings are examples or parts of family systems. Some family systems consist of two or three people, while others consist of many more.
The entire system is affected when any parts of a system are dysfunctional. For example, if a parent has a substance use disorder, it will interfere with each relationship within the family. Unhealthy family members can especially take a toll on teens’ mental health.
How Family Systems Affect Teen Mental Health
A teenager’s brain is not fully developed, and their experience can negatively or positively impact their mental health. This can lead to adolescent substance abuse, which some teens turn to as a means of self-medication. The negative experiences are risk factors, and the positive ones are protective factors.
Risk factors may include:
- Parental neglect;
- Loss of a loved one;
- Parental incarceration;
- Abuse or exposure to abuse;
- Parental mental health disorders;
- Unpredictable home environment;
- Suicidal behaviors of family members;
- Addiction or exposure to substance misuse.
Some risk factors can be overcome with protective factors, which are experiences that positively impact a teen’s mental health. Protective factors help teens become more resilient when they face hardships.
Protective factors may include:
- Eating nutritious meals;
- Having positive influences;
- Having positive role models;
- Feeling loved by family members;
- Having fun and making good memories;
- Feeling safe at home, school, and socially;
- Living with structure, rules, and clear expectations;
- Engaging in employment, extracurricular, religion, or social activities.
The stronger the family system, the more protective factors a teen will have and the more help they receive for mental health issues.
Traits of Strong Family Systems
In a study of families who view themselves as having a robust family system, several characteristics were common among the participants from varying backgrounds and cultures. Their strengths include the following:
Expressing gratitude for other family members
Showing appreciation and gratitude for one another, even with a simple “thank you,” helps everyone feel loved and valued. It encourages them to continue assisting the family in functioning correctly.
Communicating healthily with family members
Positive communication with each member of the family system makes handling conflicts a lot easier and typically involves (but is not limited to):
Prioritizing the family and each member is a must
Allowing work, social engagements, or other activities to interfere with family time makes each member feel less important. Everyone must be invested and committed to the process full-time to strengthen family systems. You are a team that must work together to succeed.
Having fun together creates positive memories
A weak family system lacks memories of fun times together. Each member may have positive memories, but they may differ from the rest of the group. Strong families share happy memories of an event they did together. When they reflect on the occasion, they picture their whole family happy, not just one or two members. Please don’t wait for fun activities to appear on their own. Instead, plan them with input from the whole family.
Overcoming life stressors as a family strengthens bonds
When a crisis hits, the people who experience that crisis together seem to have a lasting connection. When a family manages a problem together, providing support and love throughout, the bond becomes unbreakable.
Healing and Restoring Family Systems
Getting everyone to recognize how strong family systems can help teens with mental health issues may be challenging. Those already busy will wonder when they can find time for more. Even teenage members may not be able to see through their mental health symptoms at the time to care about the benefits.
To get everyone on the same page, seek help from a professional counselor who works with teens and families. They can easily explain the importance and benefits of strengthening family systems. Plus, each family member is likely more willing to follow the advice of a professional and follow through with homework assignments designed for practicing new skills.
Counselors can work with each family member separately on personal issues and then together to work on family issues. It doesn’t take many sessions before families begin to see positive changes. Building more robust family systems can start today. One of our counselors is ready to help you and your family transform your relationships.