Raising teenagers in the 21st century

To what extent can parents engage with their teenagers who may be suffering the early signs of mental ill health? Can they ever resolve things? Or is this a phase in life that they must just grind through?

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Our world has changed like never before. Health, economy, social structures, and education are all playing catch up after a global pandemic, war-torn nations fighting violent conflict, political turmoil and an economy that is unstable. The pace and scale of technological change and our ability to absorb and define our worlds is more complex than ever before. For adults this is difficult to navigate, for children even harder.

Having an unhappy child at home can be an unbearably difficult experience. For many parents and caregivers, the difficult teenage years run alongside the important career and work progression, where we need to, or at least we feel we need to, give it all.

Now, more than ever, we need to build mental and emotional resilience

…for ourselves and in our children to ensure they can navigate the 21st century, for more than the following reasons:

  • 93% of parents believe that mental wellbeing is linked to happiness and career success later in life (Opinion Research April 2023)
  • Our children’s wellbeing is at its lowest – 5 children in a classroom of 30 are likely to have a mental health/wellbeing problem (Children’s Society)
  • 50% of mental health problems start by the age of 14 (Lifetime Prevalence and Age of Onset Distributions of DSM-IV Disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication)
  • The UK is ranked 69th out of 72 countries for children’s life satisfaction (Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Jan 2022)

Why is prevention better than cure when it comes to mental health?

  1. Our psychological fitness is as important as our physical fitness. We know how to care for our physical health by eating well, being active, and getting enough sleep. But how to look after our psychological health is usually something we only think about once we already have a problem, and arguably that is too late.
  2. Mental ill-health is a global problem, one that got bigger following the pandemic and our approach to solve the problem hasn’t worked. We have more children than ever reporting poor mental health, more time lost from work due to ill-health and a support service that is buckling under the pressures, waiting times and a lottery of care, based on where you live. Our focus now must be on how to prevent problems from arising.
  3. The final reason is that there is no magic cure for mental ill-health. Of course, there are excellent therapies and medication that can alleviate symptoms but even when these wonderful services are able to be accessed, there is still much that one must do to look after themselves when they have a diagnosis.

It is important to note that most general populations of children do not have clinical conditions. We must start nurturing and looking after our psychological fitness, understand what the things are I need to do daily, that mean I am taking care of myself, and we must teach these ideas to our children as part of their school education, and in their upbringing.

Why is raising teenagers different now?

Raising teenagers in the 21st century is different to any previous generation. Those born after 2010 are the most diverse generation yet, raised in a digital world, hyperconnected, independent and distinct. Our children are increasingly communicating from the isolation of their phones and less and less play outdoors. Many are living in a physically isolated and sedentary world. Undoubtedly technology brings many benefits, but the hours spent wide eyed in the middle of the night drinking in the brutality of the online world is far from a healthy lifestyle.

Are teenage years too late to start teaching mental resilience?

We know from the science that the brain is not fully formed until well into the mid-twenties. Neural pathways are still very much being developed and laid down during the crucial teenage years – and we know that young minds have a few short years to process a roller coaster of love, grief, embarrassment, happiness, and sadness. During these years our children experience puberty, the ups and downs of family life, falling in love, falling out of love and the rigours of education. They are exposed to a torrent of influences on social media, body imagery, pornography, chilling global issues, hate speech and organised misinformation. No wonder that the years into adulthood can feel so confusing. 

Sometimes, for parents and kids alike it’s just easier to avoid the topic of ‘how I am feeling’. Parents and carers who stop discussing the tricky topic of their child’s happiness simply get out of the habit of ‘reading the room’ meaning we end up not knowing what to look out for or how to engage for the best.

Making sense of psychological health

Psychological fitness, combines mental resilience with emotional wellbeing, and directly impacts outcomes linked to jobs, community, relationships, quality of life and life satisfaction. The beliefs we hold about our ability to effect change, is at the heart of whether we can give ourselves the best chance of success. The key is knowing ‘how to’. Each person needs skills, knowledge, and strategies that they trust will help them in a given situation, so they feel effective and able in their everyday life. Parents and other adults around teenagers can help them to build pathways in their brain so that they can be effective, they feel able to deal with setbacks and challenges, and most importantly they feel equipped to not just survive, but thrive.  The following, are Bounce Forward’s five competencies of psychological fitness:

To what extent can parents engage with their teenagers who may be suffering the early signs of mental ill health? Can they ever resolve things? Or is this a phase in life that they must just grind through?

It’s true that parents’ behaviour matters. Hyperactive ‘over parenting’, trying to make things ok, trying to take away their offspring’s sadness – all this does is pile on more pressure by transferring a parent’s worry to their child and possibly causing them to retreat further.

Bounce Forward's advice for parents

Read the room – Be there, be available, don’t smother, don’t try to take the pain away or shield from setbacks. Tell them you love them, you are glad they told you, and ask if you can help. Be prepared for their answer to be no! Your role as a parent is to listen, and to teach your kids how to experience and learn from failures or upset. Only they can do this.

Be open and curious to different perspectives – Even if those ideas seem alien and at first you cannot see why they might be valid. Have a little indicator for yourself, that when you believe “I am right – and they are wrong”, it’s a reminder that you might be relying on a habit of thinking rather than a realistic view of the situation.

Recover – Slowing down busy brains can be done in lots of different ways. Bodily techniques (breathing, muscle relaxation), cognitive techniques (distraction, playing mental games), and social connection techniques (talking, sharing, being present with others). Each of us need a bank of ideas that would fall into each of these categories. Things that have different time commitments, things that can be done in 30 seconds, 1 minute or 5 minutes, as well as the longer things we can do when we have more time. Recovery is not saving it all up for the spring break or summer holiday, recovery is the intentional things I choose to do each day. This is what builds psychological fitness.

Don’t be a know-it-all – Offer empathetic insights from your day, own your ups and downs. But don’t fall into the ‘back in my day’ territory. Life is very different now. Open the topic up by being authentic and thoughtfully vulnerable. Let them see you fail; share how you got through it and what you learnt along the way.

Ask questions, don’t ‘tell’ – Resist the temptation to tell your teenager what is happening inside their rapidly forming mind. Ask them to explain by slowing a situation down and ask them to separate out the facts of their situation from their thoughts and feelings. Be curious about what they believe to be true and notice how it differs from yours. Ask questions such as: What does that mean to you? What is the most important or upsetting part of that for you? What would be helpful for you right now? This will show them that they have a valued perspective.


Interested in further support?

If you want to support your children to develop their mental resilience and emotional well-being, then take part in Raise Resilience to help them learn to grow from setbacks and bounce forward.

Since its inception 1000s of parents have completed the course and 99.8% of them tell us it was useful personally, will be helpful for their children, will improve things at home and would recommend it to other parents.

Check it out here and enter RR24 for a 10% discount.

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