By Raising Children Network, with NSW Kids and Families
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Teenage boy looking thoughtful
If your teenage child has a mental health condition, her treatment will depend on her symptoms and diagnosis. Getting a handle on the main treatment types will help you understand your child’s options.

Diagnosis and treatment plans for teen mental health conditions

Diagnosis and assessment
Getting your child’s symptoms of mental illness assessed and diagnosed will you help you and your child choose the right mental health treatment.

A mental health assessment should help you understand your child’s current symptoms and spot any possible triggers or obstacles that might stop him from getting better.

If you don’t have a diagnosis and you’re concerned that your child might have mental health issues, your GP can give your child a mental health assessment and refer her to an adolescent psychiatrist or another mental health professional if needed.

Treatment plans
Your child’s teenage mental health assessment should include a treatment plan that looks at his individual symptoms. The plan should tell you about things that make your child stressed and trigger his symptoms or make them worse.

As part of the treatment plan, the mental health professional might say your child needs a particular type of treatment or therapy. Your GP will either be able to treat your child, or will give your child a referral to someone else.

Types of mental health treatments and therapies

You can understand what a treatment or therapy can do for your child by asking questions and writing things down when you’re with your child’s mental health professional. It’s also OK to phone afterwards if you want more information.

Here are some common teenage mental health treatments and therapies.

Counselling is a ‘talking therapy’.

If your child sees a counsellor, your child might talk about her situation with the counsellor. Counsellors don’t offer advice. Instead they help your child make her own decisions and find her own solutions.

Counselling is usually a one-on-one therapy.

Psychotherapy is based on talking with a trained therapist.

Psychotherapy aims to get your child to understand his problems better. This is usually achieved by talking about his thoughts and feelings and by helping him change the way he thinks about things so he can manage problems in different ways.

Psychotherapy is usually a one-on-one therapy, but can also happen in groups.

Cognitive behaviour therapy
Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) is a structured psychological treatment that recognises that the way we think (cognition) and act (behaviour) affects the way we feel.

CBT helps your child recognise unhelpful or unhealthy thinking habits. Your child can then consciously and deliberately reduce feelings and behaviour associated with those thinking habits and put in place new and helpful thinking habits that boost coping skills.

CBT can be used to treat problems including anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, uncontrollable anger, substance abuse, eating disorders and other problems. Your child can have CBT one on one with a professional, in groups or online.

Behaviour therapy
Behaviour therapy is a major component of CBT.

It’s particularly useful for treating phobias – for example, social phobias – or anxiety about being judged badly by others, or embarrassment in social situations.

The therapist will help your child develop appropriate skills to deal with difficult situations and then use a step-by-step approach to help her conquer her fears.

Interpersonal therapy
Interpersonal therapy (IPT) is a type of psychotherapy based on the idea that depression and interpersonal problems are interrelated.

The goal of interpersonal therapy is to help your child understand how social problems – for example, at school or in relationships – can lead to him becoming depressed or can put him at risk for future depression.

E-therapies are also known as online therapies or computer-aided psychological therapy. Some therapies – for example, CBT and behaviour therapy – work well as e-therapies.

Most e-therapies teach your child how to identify and change patterns of thinking and behaviour that might be stopping her from overcoming anxiety and stress.

E-therapies can work just as well as face-to-face services for some teenagers with mild to moderate anxiety and/or depression. But they’re not for teenagers in crisis or who are seriously unwell.

Some teenage mental health conditions can be treated with medication. Medications aren’t always the cure for problems, but they can help control and improve symptoms.

If a medical professional prescribes medication for your child, the professional will usually combine the medication with other therapy and support to help your child get better.

Different mental health medications can have different side effects. For example, some cause weight gain. For this reason, mental health professionals will also say that your child should stay active and eat a healthy diet throughout his treatment. Staying fit and healthy can have a big impact on your child’s mental health.

If your child has a mental health condition and her mental health professional prescribes medication, you and your child usually have the right to decide whether to take the medication.

The exception to this is if your child has been detained under the Mental Health Act. To be detained or ‘committed’ under the act a person must have a serious mental illness, be in need of immediate treatment and be either a likely risk to themselves and/or others.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) and manufacturers of antidepressants do not recommend antidepressant use for depression in young people under the age of 18 years. But guidelines published in 2011 indicate that fluoxetine can be considered for people under 18 years with moderate to severe depression.

Anger and stress management
Anger is a natural and powerful emotion. Getting angry is normal. Anger can range from mild annoyance to violent rage. When anger turns into violence or uncontrollable rage, it can become a problem that needs treatment.

If your child has a problem with anger, anger management can help him get control over his temper. Talking treatments such as CBT or counselling can work with anger management. They can also teach your child practical skills to use when he feels angry.

Stress management and relaxation training can also be a part of learning to manage anger.

Self-esteem training
Young people with low self-esteem can have a lot of negative thoughts about themselves, which are linked with negative emotions including sadness, anxiety, guilt and anger. This can lead to mental health problems such as depression.

Low self-esteem can also affect a young person’s social relationships and schoolwork.

If your child suffers from low self-esteem, you could look into online therapy or books that explain how to boost self-esteem. Talking about therapy options with your GP is always a good idea too.

Family therapy
Family therapists work with your child and the people who are important to your child, especially family members. This can be really useful because close relationships are often the way to help someone recover from difficulties and improve life.

During a family therapy session, a family therapist encourages family members to think about each other’s viewpoints, experiences and beliefs and to find constructive ways of supporting each other.

Creative therapies
Art, music and dance/movement therapy are all forms of psychotherapy that can help your child cope with emotional, relationship or behaviour problems.

Mental health professionals use these therapies to help your child communicate or express herself in new and more positive ways.

Other therapies
There’s clear evidence that, for adults, practising mindfulness can have health benefits.

For example, studies suggest that mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) can reduce stress and have some positive effect on other mental health issues, and that mindfulness based cognitive therapy (MBCT) can maintain treatment gains made for depression, prevent relapses and be as effective as an antidepressant.

There’s little evidence as yet to show whether mindfulness is effective with children and teenagers.

After treatment

Once your child has finished a course of treatment, you might need to go back to your GP or mental health professional for a review.

Depending on your child’s progress, your mental health professional might suggest your child keeps going with the current treatment or tries something new.

  • Last updated or reviewed 26-03-2014
  • Acknowledgements This article was developed in collaboration with the Youth Health and Wellbeing Team, NSW Kids and Families (formerly Centre for the Advancement of Adolescent Health).