As a parent you’ve seen your child through nearly everything, from scraped knees and fevers to hurt feelings and runny noses. But now that your son or daughter is a teenager, it’s easy to think they’re (mostly) grown-up. They don’t really need you anymore, right? Well, not so fast. Teens may be the last to admit to wanting a little parental support, but make no mistake: You still play a big role in their lives, especially when it comes to getting through difficult times.
For many teenagers, having bad skin is definitely one of those tough periods—and it’s one that can last years. Almost everyone gets acne at some point in their life, and by the time kids hit age 14 or 15, over 40 percent of them will be dealing with acne, even scarring from acne that’s bad enough to require a dermatologist’s help, says the American Academy of Dermatology. Here are some ways you can support your teenager when acne is hurting her and also learn something about how to treat teenage acne:
Take acne seriously. Even if it’s tempting to gently tease your teen about having a few pimples (especially when she’s being very dramatic about it), resist the urge; breakouts are almost certainly no laughing matter to her. And what you may think of as mild and something she’ll outgrow in a few years could feel nothing short of devastating for your teenager. Multiple studies have found that the mental health of teens with acne can be greatly affected. One 2010 trial of over 3,700 18- and 19-year-olds even noted an increase in the likelihood of considering suicide in those with the worst acne compared to those with the clearest skin; boys were at higher risk of suicidal thinking than girls, though bad acne upped the chances in both sexes. Severe acne was also linked to difficulty making friends and doing well at school, and to not having a romantic relationship. Since oily skin and larger pores—both big contributors to breakouts—tend to be run in families, you may have had your own bout with acne; if so, find a moment to empathize with your child, letting her know that you truly understand how hard this can be.
Talk to a doc. Part of taking your teenager’s acne seriously means getting medical help, particularly if his pimples are large, painful, and don’t go away for several days or even weeks (what’s called cystic or nodular acne). A dermatologist can help explain how acne is typically caused (it’s the result of too much oil being produced by the skin’s glands, which then block hair follicles and make it more likely that bacteria will grow, resulting in a pimple). She can also talk through different options for treatment. If your teen is younger and not yet in the habit of showering and washing his hair regularly (especially after playing sports), that could be making his acne much worse. (Hearing this from a doc may go over a lot easier than your chastising him for erratic hygiene or for picking and squeezing pimples—another common cause of pimples.) Try to choose a dermatologist who sees a lot of teens with acne and is sympathetic to how difficult this can be. Acne doesn’t need to be bad to benefit from a trip to the doctor, though; if it’s making your child feel shy, embarrassed, sad, or depressed—even if you don’t notice anything more than a few pimples here and there— it’s worth asking your child if he’d like to see the doctor. Since breakouts in girls and women are often tied to their menstrual cycle, starting oral contraception (birth control pills) may improve skin, too.
Help build self-esteem. If acne undermines an adult’s confidence, imagine what it does to a teenager’s. So it’s worth looking for ways to help your child feel better about herself now, whether that’s emphasizing sports, academics, artistic skills or something else your child does well. Teens can be notoriously tough to live with at times, but try to pay attention to what you’re saying. For example, ask yourself if your comments tend to be mostly critical; are you more likely to say “Pick up your room!” or “Why aren’t you doing your homework?” than “That outfit looks great on you,” or “I can see you’re working hard to do better in algebra.” Try to balance harsher words with more praise, finding more opportunities to tell your kid what she did right. It may seem like she’s not listening, but pediatricians say praise still matters to teens.
Find the most effective breakout-fighters. The best acne treatment for teenagers is the same as that for adults: The ones that work. But finding the right approach tends to take some trial and error. Start by letting your teen know that regular cleansing twice a day—morning and night, as well as after playing sports or exercising—is a must. Scrubbing harshly won’t help, though, and can even make acne worse. Girls should choose makeup that’s labeled “non-comedogenic,” which means it won’t clog pores. If a dermatologist puts your child on a prescription medication for acne, ask if it increases photosensitivity, or the likelihood of a sunburn; many of these drugs do. Fidgety teens may be in the habit of touching their face a lot; that introduces more bacteria to the face, raising the chance for more pimples.
Some of the most effective over-the-counter treatments for acne are products that contain benzoyl peroxide, salicylic acid, retinol, and sulfur. Since these each work in a different way—benzoyl peroxide kills acne-causing bacteria, while salicylic acid keeps whiteheads and blackheads at bay, for instance—your teen will probably need to try a few different products to find the combination that’s most effective for her. Be sure to remind her that slathering on more isn’t necessarily better (too much of these products can over-dry skin) and that most products take several weeks to work, so a little patience is usually needed before she’ll see results.