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Introduction to adolescent mental health
Introduction to adolescent mental health

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1 Parenting and supporting

Practitioners, researchers and policymakers globally are aware of the position of parents, and of other caregivers such as teachers, who often act as a ‘first responder’ to the mental health needs of adolescents.

A photograph of a persons face with their eyes closed lying on a bed, they are facing away from another person in the background who is holding their hand and looking at them.
Figure 3

When faced with a young person who is experiencing mental health problems, however, as a parent or practitioner it is easy to feel isolated and unsure of yourself and at times overwhelmed by the situation. You might at times worry that your efforts are having no impact or may be even doing more harm than good. It is important to acknowledge that anyone who works with or cares for a young person can potentially play an important role in identifying mental health problems at an early stage. Intervening early can help to improve the health and wellbeing of the young person, as well as those who care about him or her.

Activity 1: Parent and caregiver concerns

Timing: Allow about 30 minutes. This activity is in 2 parts.

Step 1: Listen to an interview with a parent talking about their concerns about their child’s mental health and reflect on the different feelings and emotions that a parent might experience.

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Audio 1: Feeling helpless
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Parents and caregivers with a child who is experiencing difficulties with their mental health often report feeling helpless and at a loss as to know how to reach out and help their child, particularly as they may become withdrawn and appear disinclined to talk about things. Parents and caretakers may blame themselves for their child’s distress and feel a strong urge to try and ‘fix’ their problems for them. While this is quite a natural response, in this activity you will examine different ways of responding.

Step 2: Now read some of the concerns and frustrations parents and caregivers of young people often express regarding their attempts at supporting a young person. Take the role of a trusted friend and consider what you could say in response to each of these statements that would help to ease the concerns and frustrations. Once you have thought of what to say, click to reveal a comment.

I feel that I am responsible for solving their low mood.


As a parent or ‘responsible adult’, it is easy to think you have to ‘fix’ things for young people. Although it is true you can play a key supportive role, your main aim will be to enable the young person to work things out for themselves as far as is possible and safe. This allows them to develop their life coping skills and will help them to develop for the future.

It’s hard to stay patient and calm when they don’t want to communicate.


It’s very hard to remain calm and just be patient with your child when they ignore you or just refuse to talk things through but then talking about feelings can be really hard, especially when young. Giving your child some time to think things through but knowing that you are there for them and here to listen to them when they are ready to talk is so important.

They can’t seem to shake off the negative thoughts whatever I do or say.


As parents or caregivers its tempting sometimes try and ‘fix’ our children’s problems. This is very a very natural response. Whilst it is so important to listen to your child, support them and be there for them, you cannot fix them. Effective support comes from providing a safe space for them to find their own ways of coping and managing how they feel.

I don’t want to hassle them with too many questions and become a source of annoyance.


Just listen to your child when they come home from school or back from time spent with friends and perhaps have found something difficult or challenging in their day. Don’t interrupt and try and solve their difficulties – just listen. It’s hard but makes you appreciate how often it feels more about you as a parent or caregiver and how you feel in response to their difficulties. Often young people need to just articulate and move on. As parents and caregivers we want to solve, but often it’s more helpful to just listen.

What if they reject my advice and it pushes them away further?


It’s important that young people develop self-reliance and the capacity to solve their own problems, where possible. Whilst this might not align with your own views and feelings as a parent or caregiver it will empower them to take some responsibility for their own health and wellbeing.

I’m frustrated by their lack of motivation to try anything I suggest.


Feeling lethargic and demotivated is a core feature of many mental health problems and so try not to feel too frustrated when your child is not motivated by your suggestions. Try to remain patient, which isn’t always easy, and allow them time and space to explore different ideas which in time may motivate them to make some changes.

It is a constant worry and I can feel helpless.


It is only natural to worry about your child and feel helpless when you cannot solve their problems for them. If you can remain calm and strong and help them to explore and find the help they need, this will provide important support for them. It also projects an important message to them that you trust them and appreciate that they do have strengths and skills which they can develop for themselves.

This activity required you to exercise empathy, putting yourself in the other person’s position and trying to understand what they were experiencing. You may have had similar concerns yourself, and if so, perhaps you found some reassurance from the comments provided here. Coming up with a helpful response can sometimes take practice and will differ with each individual.

A research team in Australia took an innovative approach to researching mental health. They asked parents about their concerns regarding the mental health of their adolescent children, and then also surveyed the adolescents about their perceptions of the issues causing concerns (Cairns et al., 2019). The parents most frequently reported being concerned about drug use, depression, friendships and peer pressure, anxiety, school and study stress, and bullying. Although the young people responding to the survey echoed these matters, they also identified ‘sex, sexuality, and gender identity’ as concerns – ‘topics that parents reported feeling the least confident talking to their children about’ (Cairns et al. 2019, p.65). By the end of this course, you should be able to tackle sensitive topics such as these with more confidence.

Before you move on to learning about active listening, have a look next at some advice on talking with your child and particularly the importance of checking in with them and approaching a difficult conversation.