Teens and mental health: being a supportive parent in a wild online world

Teens and mental health Being supportive parent wild online world
Base photo: Allison Griffith, Unsplash

Poor mental health among young people is a huge, and growing, problem. The causes are all too evident: pressure of school and exams, bullying exacerbated by social media, and our 'always on' culture. The internet is also, perhaps, responsible for the overwhelming amount of choice that's available, meaning decision-making is a complicated, stressful process.

Equally, the range of voices espousing many differing views, including extreme ones, is a minefield for people of any age to decipher. If teenagers are not sharing what they're seeing with educated adults who can provide a balanced counterpoint, it can be difficult to understand what's real and what's fake. Added to this are the pressures of austerity and the 24-hour news cycle that mean young people cannot escape unsettling world events that may, in previous generations have been confined to the six o' clock news.

The charity, Young Minds says:

  • 1 in 10 children have a diagnosable mental health disorder – that’s roughly three children in every classroom
  • 1 in 5 young adults have a diagnosable mental health disorder
  • Half of all mental health problems manifest by the age of 14, with 75% by age 24
  • Almost 1 in 4 children and young people show some evidence of mental ill health (including anxiety and depression)
  • In 2015, suicide was the most common cause of death for both boys (17% of all deaths) and girls (11%) aged between 5 and 19.

I was shocked to read that suicide was the most common cause of death in children and young people aged 5 to 19 - a preventable cause of death when the right support and rapid early intervention is available.

What's the answer?

I’m not sure there are any easy answers to this. Panorama reported recently on ‘Kids in Crisis’– we gave them our input into the programme on the mental health services and funding available to under 18s. As we all know, there is too little specialised support available from CAMHS, that funding isn't ring-fenced so that government initiatives end up going nowhere, that criteria was set way too high with young people having to be actively suicidal before any support was offered and even then you had to join a waiting list. Can you imagine going to A&E with a cardiac arrest and being told, 'Yes, we can see you're in dire need of help, but you need to take your place in the queue. And here's a list of self-help tips you can use to help yourself whilst you wait’.  It just wouldn’t happen for a physical emergency, so why does it happen where mental health is concerned, especially when it's increasingly recognised that mental health IS physical health.

A different world- it's all about me

As I mentioned earlier, the world has changed significantly in a few short years. Young people are coping with a magnitude of additional pressure that weren't around 10 years ago and parents are ill-prepared to help because the changing technological environment is just as new - and often more of a mystery - to them.

Young people are definitely objectified much more than ever before. Social media plays a part, as does mainstream media, which often acts as an echo chamber to what happens on social networks. Journalists look for stories on social media, for example, what's 'trending' or what a celebrity said and reporting stories totally manufactured online that can, just as totally, ruin lives. Inappropriate or narcissistic behaviour makes headlines, but what kind of message are young people getting?

Selfies, often 'enhanced' by make-up apps are everywhere - we all do it - but young people, posting publicly, can attract a barrage of comments, both negative and positive, and they take them seriously, sometimes with lethal consequences. The 'always on culture' I mentioned, gives them no quiet time to process their thoughts and feelings about events that happen in their lives, because they're always waiting for the next 'notification.' There is also the added difficulty in reading ‘tone’ in comments posted online.

Teenagers do not often share their feelings with their parents, so if they're been shamed or bullied online, they're alone in their room facing abuse in the one place that used to be a safe space, while their parents are downstairs watching the latest reality TV (which is itself part of the problem) with no clue of the turmoil going on in their teenager's mind. The teen years are already times of great bodily and emotional change. While some websites and media personalities can offer supportive advice, in the same way we got our youthful tips from Jackie or Just Seventeen, the sheer volume of noise on social media networks can be confusing.

What can you do to be an aware, responsible parent?

  • We need to teach them that it's not necessary to reply immediately to messages from friends.
  • We should lay down off-line times (which is good for everyone). Get to know your internet hub settings so you can manage who can be online, when, and use parental control software from your ISP.
  • Take an active interest in who their online friends are.
  • Let them know you're there to listen and avoid leaping in with judgey asides and comments (this can be hard!) Just close your mouth and really listen until they've finished and ask open questions to get them started. Watch their body language too.
  • Remember to listen  - and not overreact - to the little stuff because then they’ll trust you with big stuff. 
  • Try to imagine how you would feel if you were a teenager with similar pressures. Remember that whatever we feel about things and events that impact our lives, they will have similar feelings too but with less experience to know how to deal with some of those more difficult feelings. 
  • Take a step back and look at your own life - are you always on your phone and not looking at them? Are you always laughing at people on reality television in such a way that your child might wonder how empathetic you might be to their problems? You may say, 'oh that's different' - but do they know that? Are you teaching them respect for others?

Finding a way in

Sometimes it can be really hard to find a way to broach a sensitive subject like mental health for parents and teachers alike. A new study has found that children remain reluctant to discuss their mental health with teachers, even after school staff receive training on how best to provide support.

But if you see something that worries or niggles at you about their mental or emotional health, you do need to try to find a way to step in. This can be hard if your teen is oppositional or if you have a difficult relationship. But it's our job to help our children, so take some quiet time yourself and break down what you're seeing that worries you. If you don't feel you can verbalise it, you could always break the ice by using the very systems they use - messaging! Then, when you've opened the doorway, find time to follow up face to face. Take them a drink and snack as a way in. Other starters could be (in person or by message)

  • "How are things with you?"
  • "I noticed you seem a little down earlier, how can I help?" 
  • "You were quiet at dinner, I was wondering how school's going?"

Using open language that is less easy for them to give you a yes or no answer is best. Remember, they need patience and time and empathy, so if you get rebuffed, just tell them you're there to listen if they change their mind. Use phrases such as "I understand", or "I'm listening." Control your expression too as teens will read your face to assess your reaction to what they're saying.

If you demonstrate empathy and thoughtfulness rather than reactionary responses, you will be more of a safe option for them to turn to. Being aware of your own emotional processing also helps you regulate your own responses - it's never too late to think about why we react in certain ways ourselves so we can better help our children. Above all, our children need to know they can talk to adults without feeling judged - and sometimes just being heard by someone they trust is enough to help them find their own answers.

Need help now? Find it here: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/your-mental-health/getting-help

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Angela Kelly
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