Tips on parenting teens and recognising mental health concerns

November 16, 2021

Raising a family is a rewarding experience, but it comes with its challenges. As kids get older and enter their teenage years, it’s not uncommon for the relationship between parent and child to suffer in some ways. Communication can break down as teens spend more time outside of the house with new friends or at extracurricular activities. Knowing the condition of your teen can be difficult to do, especially if they don’t seem particularly interested in opening up.

COVID-19 has led to concerns by experts that adolescents are suffering more symptoms of depression and other mental disorders since the epidemic. In a report by the Victorian Agency for Health Information, there was a 72% increase in the number of serious self-harm and suicidal-ideation presentations to emergency departments in teens under the age of 18. The isolation caused by the pandemic has only added to the mental health problems normally seen in teens.

If you’re at all worried about the mental health of your teenager, especially due to the effects of isolation from COVID-19, there are a multitude of things you can do. In this blog, we’ve listed some things to keep track of as your child begins to develop into adolescence.

1. Spending time with teens both inside and outside of the house

Perhaps the best thing a parent can do to tell if their teenager is in a mental slump is to spend time with them. As teens grow, it’s normal for them to spend more time outside of the house pursuing extracurricular activities and social time with new friends. This can lead to a situation where parents and their children rarely speak, save for quick bursts before school and at dinnertime. If you’re a parent that works evenings or has to spend time away on business trips, then it can be even more difficult to find the time to simply be with your kids. However, the best way to know how your teen is doing is to spend time with them.

We highly recommend setting aside at least one timeslot a week of a couple of hours where you and your children can be with one another, whether it’s just for a weekend walk or a trip to the movies. It’s important to remember that teenagers are going through quite a lot of changes quite quickly during their adolescence, and they need all the help they can get. Whether or not they want to talk about their changing bodies or developing feelings or their new views on religion or morality, a comfortable silence with family members can speak volumes.

If your teen is reluctant to speak up, consider going for a long drive in the car. Sometimes a few hours of confinement in the family car is just the thing to get them to open up. Scheduling regular family meals is also a good way to encourage conversation. It gives them not only a comfortable setting where they can talk but also a sense of structure that makes them feel more relaxed and not pressured.

2. Recognising signs of declining mental health

Adolescence is the period where the early signs of mental illness tend to manifest. No doubt by now you’ve heard of symptoms of depression and anxiety — reluctance to participate in social activities, hours spent in isolation, a lack of interest shown in activities that used to be enjoyable etc. Sometimes it can be difficult to notice these symptoms in teens because they are going through so many emotional changes already.

It’s normal for adolescents to be more emotional due to the physiological changes their bodies are going through at an accelerated rate. Spotting early signs of mental illness can be difficult, but there are differences between normal sadness or moodiness and depression. Is your son sad because he doesn’t want to go to his friend’s house, or has he simply grown out of his social circle from primary school?

Behaviours that parents should be on the lookout for can be varied and the list long but often overlap in teens with depression and anxiety. Some things to look out for include:

  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Problems concentrating and solving everyday problems
  • Forgetfulness
  • Any mention or act about self-harm, death, or suicide
  • Emotions or comments that are out of character
  • No longer showing an interest in activities they used to enjoy

Teenage depression doesn’t go away on its own, but it can improve with the right treatment. If you see signs of depression in your teen, get help. Go to a school counsellor, or to your GP. It shows your teen you care and could help prevent their condition from getting worse. Don’t be afraid of assessing the situation wrongly. It’s a lot worse to be right and not do anything about it.

3. Emphasising open and honest communication about teens’ school, their social lives, and their personal issues

There are lots of reasons that teens don’t talk to their parents. They might think that talking honestly will worry their parents.

Teens might want to handle their problems independently without any help from you. Pressing them to talk could lead to their giving you dishonest answers to your questions. It’s important to emphasise the importance of open and honest communication even if they don’t think you will understand or approve of what they’re thinking.

Having open conversations about the different areas in an adolescent’s life gives them the emotional support they need to feel safe and secure. They need to know you are there no matter what. This emotional support is especially important when teens are dealing with the uncertainty of adolescence.

Always try to show understanding even if you don’t understand. Never oversimplify their problems — even minor issues can be devastating to a teenager. Strengthen your relationship with your teenager and the rest of the family through shared experiences. Building bonds through activities will help make your teen more secure and more likely to talk with you.

Some things to try include:

  • Sharing meals 
  • Enjoying some of their favourite activities with them even if they aren’t your idea of fun
  • Giving them responsibilities to make them feel like a responsible member of the household
  • Setting a time for family catchups where everyone talks about what is going on in their life

The sooner you establish open and honest communication as a habit, the more likely your teen will be to share important thoughts and feelings later on.

4. Encouraging teens to pursue safe social relationships with friends

A good relationship between you and your teen will help them develop positive socialisation skills. Encourage your teen to pursue safe social relationships with friends. 

5. Looking at resources that could help them further

Troubled teens often act out instead of telling parents directly that they are having issues. It’s up to you to recognise signs of depression or other mental disorders. There are many resources for teens and their parents online. Some good places to start are:

Remember, you are one of the most important people in your child’s life. Get the support you need to help your teen get through the rough times. You will both come out of any situation better when you work together.

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