It is acknowledged that youth mental health is an issue. You might ask why? Don’t young people have everything they want and more? Or you might say yes, but how do we help them? It’s a complex issue, but here are some helpful hints to how to understand youth mental health and support a teen or young adult.
What steps can parents or guardians take to support young people’s mental health in a changing world?
Parents can often feel a lack of control when it comes to their child’s mental health as they may not understand what is going on. First, try to look at the differences between the world as it is now, and the world as it was when you were coming into adulthood.
The chances are your children have a lot more options open to them than you did, and many of these are available because of your efforts. However, you might also notice that the world seems a lot less predictable than it used to be. An abundance of choices can create the illusion of control but, in fact, too much choice can be stressful as well.
More young people are furthering their education, but an education is no longer a direct guarantee of having a successful career – or even of getting a basic job. Your children are aware, already before leaving secondary school, that they will need to forge their own paths and that there is no algorithm for success. They’ve seen bubbles burst, many have experienced the adults around them struggle, and some have adopted their parents’ fears and losses.
The endless information available is helpful when researching problems or making decisions, but it can also contribute to a sense of incompetence if you still can’t figure out what to do.
Half of all mental illnesses begin by the age of fourteen*.
Political and environmental instability creates a baseline of uncertainty. If heads of state and international experts can’t solve the problems of poverty, refugee crises, environmental disasters and tensions between ethnic and religious groups, it can be hard for any of us to believe that we can be successful in our small lives. And, as we all know, social media and instant messaging both gives access to more support and information, but also potentially can give rise to more isolation and hurt.
This is the backdrop for your children transitioning into adulthood. If you combine this rapidly shifting world with normal stressful life events, transitions, and the constant changes to a young person’s hormone levels and emotional/physical development, you have a sense of what might foster youth mental health issues.
As parents or guardians, we invariably want to do all we can to help young people navigate the transitions ahead. And we have a lot to offer. But remember that your life experiences, and the world you grew up in, is bound to be different from theirs.
So, when a young person in your care turns to you with their worries, listen. Don’t start by questioning the validity of their experience, the gravity of their issues, or playing devil’s advocate. To live up to the trust they have shown you by taking the first step and opening up you could use the following approach:
Make yourself available on a regular basis. Sometimes it’s easier to talk while engaging in a task together, like cooking, out walking or doing a job around the house. But make sure they know this time is for them, by prioritising the conversation over the activity if they open up about something.
Show you’re listening
Put your phone on silent, and postpone other commitments. Or suggest setting aside time when you know that you can pay attention. Reflect back what they’re saying, ask for clarification/elaboration on unclear points, and be available for eye contact.
Ask open-ended questions
What happened next? What do you think is going on? What was it that got to you about that? What was that like for you? What worries you the most?
Put yourself in their shoes
Use empathy to show you get what they’re telling you. Think about how you might feel in their situation, and try it out: “That must have felt really hurtful” / ”If that was me, I think I’d be worried about what’s going to happen next…”
Trust their own resourcefulness
Don’t jump in with ready-made interpretations or solutions, or take important decisions out of their hands. Ask what they need. What you can do. If you feel you have some insight about the problem that could benefit them, ask if they would like to know what you think – if they say yes, they’re much more likely to be open to your perspective than if you offer it uninvited. Offer specific things you could do to help, but respect their choices.
Give space, but check back in
Tell them you’re glad they told you, and that you’d like to talk more. Ask about it when you have time together, but try to keep your usual interactions unchanged.
What you can offer a young person that has the most impact is your presence and willingness to provide a scaffold for their own developing awareness and abilities. Try to help them fill in the gaps, or when intervention is needed help them locate the right resources (guidance or mental health professionals) who can and are well resourced to support them handle their changing world.