'Talk about it like you talk about physical health': Five ways to protect teen mental health

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"Provide regular opportunities for connection with your child." Photo by Mohammad Faruque on Unsplash.
"Provide regular opportunities for connection with your child." Photo by Mohammad Faruque on Unsplash.

The World Teen Mental Health Awareness Day falls on 2 March annually, as a reminder about the importance of normalising conversations and dismantling stigmas around teen mental health issues.

A recent article published by News24 showed that at least 65% of youths admit to suffering some form of mental health issue but do not seek help, some for fear of being stigmatised.

Stellenbosch based Educational Psychologist Donna Du Plooy notes that the rates of mental health challenges are souring among children and adolescents in South Africa, just like in the US.

Some parents of these teenagers have no idea how to guide them through this tumultuous time. Here, Donna Du Plooy offers some advice to guide your child. 

Read: 'Vulnerable to isolation': The psychological impact of pandemic life on teens

1. Provide regular opportunities for connection

It's easy to neglect your child's needs when you are busy solving this life's tribulations. Still, Du Plooy said that it's essential to be available to your child and to listen carefully to what they say, even if it seems trivial to you.

She said that parents should create special time with their children, whether it's every evening when you tuck them into bed or on a regular Sunday morning walk around the neighbourhood.

"Try to start this practice at a young age, so they learn to trust that they have the time and space with you," said Du Plooy.

2. Don't be afraid of the topic

The stigma around mental health can be crippling, so make sure you talk about it openly and honestly with your children, said Du Plooy.

Du Plooy added that parents should normalise mental health the same way you would talk about physical health.

She said that parents should not wait until their children are teenagers to educate them about mental health because there are many appropriate books for all ages.

The mother of two teenage girls, Susan Smith* agrees that open conversation about mental health with your child is essential.

She said that as someone who had mental health issues in the past, she tries to be open about it, knowing very well that there is no shame in having them.

3. Online versus real life

Du Plooy says that parents must remember that their teens have an online life and in-person life, especially those parents from a completely different generation.

"You may downplay the importance of their online lives, but for teenagers, there is no separation – they live in both, constantly," added Du Plooy.

Having an excellent resource or an excellent parental filtering app on all devices like Bark is the best thing according to the expert.

She advises parents to start talking to children about social media risks and dangers from a young age.

"Monitor your child's screen time and online activities age-appropriately and bear in mind your online engagements and screen use," she added.

Also read: A guide to understanding the mysteries of the teenage brain

4. Know the symptoms and when you need professional help

Concerned moms should check their children's moods to notice any unusual changes in their behaviour, and when they see these changes, they must not ignore these signs.

Mom Tammy Pretorius says that the tricky thing is distinguishing between behavioural changes caused by puberty and more severe signs of mental health issues.

But she admits that there is value in talking about what is 'regular hard' and what is 'not supposed to be this hard' so that your child recognises the difference and knows when to ask for help.

Du Plooy says that we don't have to figure this out alone. She encourages parents to reach out if they're worried about their children by contacting a professional psychologist or your child's medical practitioner.

She says that if your child asks to see a therapist, never ignore their request. Instead, acknowledge it, she says, affirm your support and seek out a therapist that your child will be comfortable with.

She says that parents should also check what their medical aid offers in mental health because some companies like Fedhealth have compiled resources to help guide them to the most suitable support channels.

5. Model positive mental health behaviour

Du Plooy says that a dysregulated adult struggles to regulate a dysregulated child. In other words, the healthier we are, the more capable we are to model and take care of our children's mental health.

"And if this means asking for help with your anxiety or depression, then share those steps openly with them, so they can see just how important it is," she added.

Du Plooy believes that one thing that protects children most is 'a close, connected, and open relationship with parents'.

However, that's not to say that children who experience mental health issues are not close to their parents or guardians – simply that a strong relationship can act as a buffer in times of deep stress, she says.

"This relationship offers children a soft landing, a safe landing when they need it," says Du Plooy.

*names have been changed for reasons of privacy


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