by Naomi Tham

Top teen worries, and how to handle them

As a psychologist in an all-boys senior school, my job is to help and support the boys and their parents. Most of the time, teens and their parents simply need an impartial ‘ear’, a fresh perspective and a few tips to help them start a healthy conversation.
However, on occasion, a teenager’s issue/s can be more complex and concerning, and parents need some extra strategies to help them support their son.

In my experience, I have found that when parents come to me with these more complex and concerning issues, their worries tend to fall into the following 4 categories:

  1. Changes in their teenager’s mood and/or behaviour (anger, aggression, sadness, or becoming withdrawn).
  2. Reports or statements referring to his feelings of hopelessness, lack of self-worth, self-harm or suicidal thoughts (see author’s note at the end of this post).
  3. Their son’s risk-taking or destructive behaviour (including illicit drugs, underage drinking, unhealthy or inappropriate sexual activity).
  4. His lack of engagement at school (not doing schoolwork, not attending school and/or loss of motivation).

Although each issue is significant and every situation is as unique as the boy himself, the following general advice is a good starting point to help you engage with and support your teenage son through tougher times. 

Make open discussion a priority

When concerned about your teen, the first step in supporting him is to understand what is happening in his world. While gathering this information, try to refrain from any judgemental or critical input, as this can hinder your teen being open with you.

It might be helpful to prompt your teen by asking about different areas of his life (school, social situation involving friends and/or romantic involvements, feelings at home). Once you’ve heard about all the different stressors, ask what’s bothering him the most. Remember, your perception of what the most important concern is may not be the same as your son’s. It’s his perspective that needs to take priority.

If your teenager doesn’t want to talk to you, let him know that you are available to talk whenever he is ready. Some teenagers will be more comfortable confiding in friends, other family members or a third party such as a school counsellor. The most important thing is that he is talking to someone, and knows that you are available if and/or when he is ready to come to you.

 Encourage help-seeking behaviour

You and your teen don’t have to go it alone. Find out what supports are available at his school (e.g. pastoral leaders, school counsellor, careers counsellor or learning support staff). Outside school, look to friends, family members, and professional supports (including GPs, private psychologists or psychiatrists). Reassure your son that help-seeking is healthy and that everyone needs outside help and support sometimes.

Set clear limits and boundaries

Adolescence is a tricky time – kids want more independence but still need support from their parents. Even if your teenager is struggling with his mental and emotional wellbeing, rules and consequences are a part of everyday life, so it is important that your son is still held accountable for inappropriate behaviour. Try to keep discussion regarding these rules open so he understands the ‘why’ and feels part of the process.

Promote a healthy lifestyle

Physical health and mental health go hand in hand, so encourage healthy lifestyle habits such as:

  • Keeping physically active. Exercise has benefits including improved mood, energy levels, and sleep.
  • Getting enough quality sleep. Essential for energy, concentration, and mood. Encourage your teenager to develop a consistent routine at night and to avoid caffeine in the hours leading up to bedtime.
  • Practising meditation. A great way to manage stress and anxiety, meditation can even help with forming healthy sleep patterns. Begin with guided meditation (try the free Smiling Mind app).

Look after yourself too

You are a role model for your son and your moods and behaviours affect his. You may think that your son is ‘in his own world’ but teenagers are actually extremely observant and deeply affected by what’s happening around them – this is very much evident in my appointments with them. It’s OK for you to be imperfect – we are all human – but make sure you recognise when you are struggling and model proactive behaviour by seeking support for yourself.

Communicate openly with your teen but be mindful not to involve him in ‘adult issues’ that he does not need to be concerned about.

Remember, whatever your teenager is going through, the most important thing is to let him know you care for him and that you’re willing to support him. Also, be kind to yourself and recognise that you are doing the best you can.

Author’s note: How to handle suicidal or self-harming statements

References to suicidal thoughts can be extremely confronting. A lot of the time there may not be any actual plan or intent to harm, but rather this statement can be more of a way for your teen to communicate his distress. Be as calm as you can, but take your son’s statements seriously – acknowledge his feelings and try to find out what has lead him to feel this way. Talking to your son about suicide and self-harm won’t ‘put ideas in his head’ or make things worse. If you have significant concerns about your teen’s safety, contact your GP or local psychiatric triage service.

Helpful resources:

  • beyondblue: mental health information and resources.
  • Your local youth support organisations (e.g. headspace – the national youth mental health foundation).
  • Kids Helpline is free and operates 24/7. Call 1800 55 1800. They also have online chat option.
  • Lifeline – 13 11 14.

 

Brought to you by Brighton Grammar School

Naomi Tham is a clinical psychologist at Brighton Grammar, an all-boys school in Melbourne. She works in the senior school with boys in Years 9 to 12. This article is about