Three Unhealthy Habits that Interfere with Your Teen’s Mental Health

Teens bad habits

Three Unhealthy Habits that Interfere with Your Teen’s Mental Health

Teens today are savvy–so many know about mental health, and yet, very few are aware of how unhealthy habits impact their mood and their ability to regulate their emotions. Although many teens may look (and act) like young adults, their brains are still developing. These habits may be “normal” for adults, but due to the sensitive nature of the teenage brain, they are very likely interfering with their mood and their overall mental health.

I speak with hundreds of teens and young adults each year, and many of them are extremely intelligent. They can write code, speak several languages and can make an iMovie that looks like it belongs in Sundance. But the one thing they aren’t learning in school is how unhealthy habits interfere with their mental health. There is no class on Emotion Regulation, and yet, that is the very thing they will need for the rest of their lives—the skills to manage their mood, to manage their emotions and to take care of their brains and bodies.

Teens drinking coffeeRecently I asked a mom how she felt about her 11-year-old drinking cappuccinos every morning. She said, “Fine. Everyone lets their kids have caffeine. I mean, they just don’t get enough sleep so they really need it.” My mouth almost dropped to the floor. I understand not every parent allows their kids to get amped up on caffeine in an effort to help them get through first period, but many parents don’t know that their kids are engaging in habits that can interfere with their mental health in a profound way such as having a Frappuccino, cappuccino or an energy drink.

The teenage brain is resilient, but during these formative years, it is imperative for kids to get the nutrients, sleep and support they need to develop properly. Yet the following habits that teens often engage in are what many tell me interfere with their emotions. The more you can take notice of these unhealthy habits in your kids, the less susceptible they will be to mood dysregulation and intense mental health conditions.

Unhealthy Habits for Teens

1. Skipping Meals

Teens skipping meals

If you would have asked me ten years ago why teens are skipping meals, I would have thought it was due to the desire to be thin. Not today. Kids today, no matter what gender, report skipping breakfast and forgetting to eat lunch. Why? As one high school senior put it, “My medication suppresses my appetite. I actually feel sick if I eat during the day.” Another student told me that she is in such a rush to get out the door, she forgets to eat breakfast. Lunch is even harder for some teenagers as they are finishing homework, socializing or avoiding the lunchroom all together due to friendship drama.

When a teen or adult doesn’t eat every three to four hours, this impacts their blood sugar and their mood. Without fuel (aka food), focus decreases, emotions become harder to regulate and the body gets tired. Not an optimal place for one’s brain and body to be in when their job is to be learning for eight to ten hours each day.

When we teach teens in our DBT groups about how important food is for their mental health, we start to get a new attitude. They never realized how skipping lunch could be related to their anxiety in sixth period or their frustration at their mother when they walk in the door. Teens want to understand their brains and bodies, and when we explain it in a way that helps them feel more in control of their mood, they listen.

If you feel your child’s medication is interfering with their appetite or if your child is going long periods of time between meals and snacks (five or more hours), notify your doctor or clinician as these are interfering with their well-being and making any mental health diagnosis harder to manage.

Teens drinking coffee

2. Caffeine Intake

Caffeine exacerbates anxiety and dehydrates the body—not an ideal beverage for a developing mind. If your teen is starting out their day with a cup of Joe–say no!

Coffee (even decaf) has caffeine which is a stimulant, and what goes up must come down. The 45-minute boost they may get does more harm than good. The neurotransmitter dopamine is elevated temporarily and then crashes, making them more likely to depend on coffee to stay focused or alert. This creates dramatic changes in the brain if your child is drinking one or two cups a day, especially if they are struggling from anxiety or depressive symptoms.

It’s important to notify your healthcare provider and talk to your teen about weaning off of caffeine. Help them by explaining what it’s doing to their brains, give them alternative options, and help them learn to get their brain back on track. If you have green tea instead of coffee, hooray! Give yourself props for reducing this addictive substance.

Here’s how to wean off caffeine gradually:

  1. Cut your teen’s caffeine intake in half. Go from one cup to half a cup, then from half a cup to ¼ decaf and ¼ regular for a few weeks.
  2. Try to reduce your teen’s intake each day.
  3. Try to substitute with caffeine-free tea or decaf, if necessary.
  4. Caffeine can stay in a teen’s system for up to eight hours. Make sure your teen isn’t drinking caffeinated sodas, energy drinks or coffee after lunch, as this is likely to interfere with their sleep cycle.

If you notice a shift in mood when your teen is trying to reduce their caffeine intake, let a doctor know as soon as possible. The brain is sensitive and this can bring about underlying issues that your child may have been suppressing with their use of caffeine.

3. Not Enough Sleep

Teen sleep deprivationTeens are not getting nearly enough sleep. Staying up to finish their homework or watching YouTube may seem like the norm for kids these days, but that may be a contributing factor in the higher rates of mental health disorders in young adults.

Sleep is the foundation for focus and emotion regulation. Science shows that melatonin levels (the “sleep hormone”) in the blood naturally rise later at night and fall later in the morning in teenagers. This may explain why many teens stay up late and struggle with getting up in the morning. Teens should get about 9-10 hours of sleep a night, but most teens don’t get enough sleep. A lack of sleep makes paying attention hard, increases impulsivity and may also increase irritability and depression.

Your immune system goes downhill fast when you’re tired, meaning you’re more likely to catch a cold, and on those days following sleepless nights, you feel hungrier than usual and will crave high-fat, high-calorie foods.

When operating on little sleep, you’ll have a hard time remembering things, feel less focused, and could even lose brain tissue. The brain repairs itself at night and, without sufficient sleep, it is unable to do so.

These three “bad habits” we see in our clinical practice are not behaviors that teen’s are engaging in to purposely hurt their health. Rather, they are things their peers do, their parents engage in or popular culture shows them as “the cool thing to do”. The problem is very few adults tell them about the correlation between these habits and their health. The more we educate them of the impact on how these behaviors affect their emotions, the more we can help them with their overall mental health.


Authored by:  Emily Roberts, MA, LPC