Making Sense of Teen Mental Health

With the alluring aroma of Traveller Coffee in the air and delicious cakes on the tables, a crowd of parents settled in last Tuesday evening to hear Focus on the Family presenter, Brett Ryan, speak on young people and mental health.

Mental health is an issue that is becoming far more prevalent in our student population (the rate of identification of these issues has doubled since 2016) and yet often we find it difficult to talk about. Worries about our own parenting mistakes creep in and we can secretly wonder if the issues are our fault. It is so important to be open and transparent about these complicated topics, however, so that we can be available and present to our children when they need us most.

Research is showing that the major pressure points for teens for mental health include stress (44.4%), school and study (37.8%) and body image (30.6%).

As a response, Brett urged us to follow the three ‘I’s’ – to be Informed, Involved and Intentional in our kids’ lives. He advocated the need for building a tribe or village around ourselves – investing into the lives of those around us so that our children have safe places to turn when they need it. Teenagers need independence and will naturally separate themselves from us, but will often ‘hear’ the same advice in a more receptive way from others.

For parents who have children of primary school age (50% of the group on the night), Brett encouraged action now in the form of becoming great listeners, asking good questions and being open to what they are interested in. This level of investment will pay off by keeping the lines of communication open when our children grow up. Brett also recommended setting of clear boundaries – particularly around technology which has a strong link with the risk of exposure to pornography.

For parents of teenagers, getting them involved in the rule setting is advisable so that they can have a voice. The simple question ‘what do you think is reasonable?’ is a powerful one. Where issues arise and our teenagers are opening up to us, it is important to stay calm and not react in an explosive way. Share your stories of when you were a teenager and try to empathise as much as possible. While it might seem counterproductive to encourage kids to have jobs and other hobbies while studying, keeping them engaged in a wider perspective helps to teach great life lessons and combat stress.

For those who are concerned that they may not have the parenting relationship that they wish for, Brett reminded us not to underestimate the power of apologising to our kids and being vulnerable, admitting that we haven’t been the parent we hoped to be. While our teens may be acting in a way that says ‘back off’, underneath it all they are just trying to discover their identities, fighting to find their boundaries and they need us more than ever.

The foundational matters of sleep, diet and exercise become more important than ever as our teens battle raging hormones and find themselves a complicated mess of emotion. It is also important to let them make mistakes and feel the consequences of these. Instead of becoming helicopter, lawnmower or the latest – ‘drone’ parents, we can set our kids up for success by stepping back a little and showing them we believe in their ability to cope.

When matters become too complex and our teen is exhibiting an increasing number of concerning signs (isolation, withdrawal, drug & alcohol abuse, weight changes, phone addiction, violence, anger etc) it is important that we do seek professional help. Involving our teens in these conversations will increase their willingness to engage in the process.

Parenting is not for the faint-hearted and there is so much required emotionally, mentally and physically of us to raise kids in this culture. But take heart – showing up, remaining open and continuing to display unconditional love can and will make a world of difference to teens who are struggling to make sense of it all and ultimately need to know that we care.

Thanks again to Brett Ryan for such a valuable night and for sharing his wisdom gathered over many years with our parents!

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