According to a statement released by the American Academy of Pediatrics, along with two other child health authorities, the number of mental health problems in children and adolescents has skyrocketed, with “young people of color being disproportionately affected.” It has even been declared a national emergency for children’s mental health.
However, this problem extends beyond the borders of the United States. Donna Du Plooy, an educational psychologist from Stellenbosch, says she sees the same situation occurring among teenagers and children in South Africa.
As parents, we often feel ill-equipped when it comes to mentoring teens — let alone guiding them through difficult issues like mental health. Donna shares expert advice for parents of teens to help them guide their children through this unpredictable and challenging time:
Connect, connect, connect
We often get so caught up in the affairs of life that we often neglect to really connect with our children. It is vital to be available to your child and to listen carefully when they have something to say, even if it seems unimportant to you. Create a special time with your child where these kinds of conversations can happen naturally — whether it’s every night when you put them to bed, or a regular afternoon stroll around the neighborhood.
“Try to start this practice at a young age so they learn to trust that they have the time and space for you,” says Donna.
Don’t escape the topic
Be open and honest about mental health with your children. The stigma can be paralyzing, so it’s important to normalize conversations about it. Talk about it as you would about physical health.
Teens often live two lives
Parents who grew up in a different generation often struggle to understand, but you should remember that your teen has both an online and a personal life. For teens, there is no separation between their online and personal lives and so parents should not downplay the importance of their children’s online lives.
Make sure you have good parental filtering apps like Bark on all devices. Also, talk to children about social media and its risks and dangers from an early age. Keep an eye on your child’s screen time and online activity, as well as your own online activity and screen usage.
Find the psychological symptoms
If you are concerned about your child’s mood or if you notice a change in behavior, don’t ignore it. It’s a tricky business, though, because you don’t always know which changes in behavior are the result of puberty and which of mental health problems. There’s a lot of value in talking about what’s “normally hard” and what “shouldn’t be that hard,” so teens can spot the difference and know when to ask for help.
They say it takes a village and any parent would know it’s true. You don’t have to figure out the situation alone. If you are concerned about your child, there are many professional psychologists like Donna who will be happy to help you. She says you should never ignore your child’s request to see a therapist. She also suggests checking with your medical practitioner for what they offer in the field of mental health.
Displaying Positive Behaviors in Mental Health
The healthier you are as a parent, the better able you are to model and look after your teen’s mental health. If that means you need help for your own anxiety or depression, share those steps with your child — don’t hide it. They have to understand its importance.
Ultimately, a close, connected, available relationship between parent and child is what protects children. Donna says, “This relationship provides children with a soft landing, a safe landing when they really need it.”