Mental health tips for concerned parents

I offered some mental health tips for parents who may be concerned about their teenage children in last week's Southern Star. The piece is reproduced below.


The teenage years are a time of enormous change – physical, emotional, sexual, social – so it’s not surprising mental health problems often surface in adolescence.

  • Watch out for red flags – excessive worries or fears and avoidant behaviour, long-lasting mood swings, loss of interest in favourite pastimes, social isolation or withdrawal, changes in sleep patterns, changed eating habits resulting in obvious weight loss or gain, self-harming, expressions of hopelessness, talking or joking about suicide, self-criticism, excessive body image concerns, and having little energy, amongst others. 
  • Be open. Your child should know they can open up to you. Don’t shy away from difficult topics. Talk about your own difficulties and fears when you were a teenager. Let them know they’re not alone and that you understand that teenage life can be really tough.
  • Listen, don’t lecture. Be supportive and respectful. You might feel exasperated, but remain calm, empathetic and non-judgmental.
  • Be specific. Teenagers tend to be more conscious of their general feelings than their thoughts, so ask questions and be as precise as possible, asking about school, friends, the future, and so on.
  • Be honest. Are there problems at home? Could you or your partner be doing things differently?
  • Teenagers sometimes pretend they don’t care what their parents think, but they want your approval. Don’t just notice the “bad” things; acknowledge the little things they do right.
  • Praise effort, not outcome. Only praising achievements may make a teen feel like a failure if they don’t succeed.
  • Encourage exercise, even if it’s just walking the dog. It’s essential for good mental health.
  • Encourage a good sleep routine. Teenagers need more sleep (as a general rule, around nine hours).
  • Encourage social connection. Encourage them to go out with friends. Smartphones are fine in moderation, but face time beats screen time.
  • Encourage resilience by building up tolerance to emotional distress. Be empathetic if your child discusses their anxieties, but don’t be complicit in them becoming avoidant of school or feared social situations – it only worsens matters.
  • Consider calling your doctor, who can discuss whether therapy and/or medication might be appropriate.