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5 Ways To Help Teenagers Protect Their Mental Health

  • 5 min read

Our teens are in crisis. With World Teen Mental Awareness Day falling on 2 March, it’s vital that we highlight the mental health crisis playing out among our children, one that has been exacerbated by the effects of this pandemic.

In October 2021, the American Academy of Paediatrics, together with two other children’s health authorities, issued a statement outlining the soaring rates of mental health challenges being experienced among children and adolescents, with “youth of colour disproportionately being affected.” They have even gone so far as to declare it a National State of Emergency in Children’s Mental Health.

But it’s not a problem unique to the US. Stellenbosch based Educational Psychologist Donna Du Plooy says she is seeing the same situation playing out in South Africa. As the parent of a teen, you may feel unequipped when it comes to guiding your child, especially if you have little experience of mental health issues yourself.

Knowledge is power though, so here’s some advice from expert Donna Du Plooy, as well as some parents of teens, on how to guide your children through this tumultuous time.

  • Provide regular opportunities for connection

It’s easy in the busyness of life to be like ships in the night. But it’s vital to be available to your child, and to listen carefully to what they say, even if it seems trivial to you. Donna says it’s a good idea to create a special time with your child where this can happen naturally, whether it’s each 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,” says Donna.

  • Don’t be afraid of the topic

The stigma can be crippling, so make sure that you talk about mental health often, openly and honestly with your children. Normalise talking about mental health in the same way you would talk about physical health – and don’t wait until they are teenagers, there are many appropriate books out there for all ages. Mother of two teenage girls, Megan Smith*, agrees that open conversations are important. “I’ve had my own mental health issues in the past, so I try to be open about it, so they know that there is no shame,” she says.

  • Online versus real life

Remember that your teen has both an online life, as well as an ‘in-person’ life. For parents raised in 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. 

Where possible, ensure that you have a good parental filtering app on all devices – something like Bark is an excellent resource. Again, start talking to children about social media, the risks and dangers, from a young age. Monitor your child’s screen time and online activities age appropriately and bear in mind your own online engagements and screen use.

  • Know the symptoms and when you need professional help

If you’re concerned about your child’s mood or notice any unusual changes in their behaviour, don’t ignore the signs. Mother Tammy Coetzee* says that the tricky thing though, is distinguishing between behavioural changes caused by puberty, and more serious signs of mental health issues. “I think there is such value in talking about what is ‘regular hard’ and what is ‘not supposed to be this hard’, so that they recognize the difference and know when to ask for help,” she says.

We don’t have to figure this out alone. Donna encourages parents to reach out if they’re worried about their children – by making contact with a professional psychologist, or your child’s medical practitioner. “If your child asks to see a therapist, never ignore their request. Acknowledge it, affirm your support and seek out a therapist that your child will be comfortable with,” says Donna. Also check what your medical aid offers in terms of mental health, some companies like Fedhealth have compiled resources to help guide you to the most suitable channels of support.

  • Model positive mental health behaviour

A dysregulated adult struggles to regulate a dysregulated child. 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 own anxiety or depression, then share those steps openly with them, so they can see just how important it is.

Ultimately, the one thing that protects children most is a close, connected, available relationship with parents. 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. “This relationship offers children a soft landing, a safe landing when they really need it,” ends Donna.

*names have been changed for reasons of privacy