By Raising Children Network, with the Centre for Adolescent Health
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A mental health problem can have more serious and lasting consequences for young people than for people later in life. That’s because young people are still developing.

 

Mental health is an essential part of wellbeing, and there’s a lot you can do to promote pre-teen and teenage mental health for your child. It also helps to know what to do if you think your pre-teen or teenage child has a mental health problem.

What is pre-teen and teenage mental health?

Mental health is a way of describing social and emotional wellbeing. Your child needs good mental health to develop in a healthy way, build strong relationships, adapt to change and deal with life’s challenges.

Pre-teens and teenagers who have good mental health often:

  • feel happy and positive about themselves and enjoy life
  • have healthy relationships with family and friends
  • do physical activity and eat a healthy diet
  • get involved in activities
  • have a sense of achievement
  • can relax and get a good night’s sleep
  • feel like they belong to their communities.
Adolescence can be a risky period for mental health problems. On top of environment and genes, teenagers go through many changes and challenges in a short period of time. This all happens while teenage brains are still maturing.

Promoting good teenage mental health

Your love and support and a strong relationship with you can have a direct and positive impact on your child’s mental health. It can even reduce the chances of your child experiencing mental health problems.

Here are some ideas to promote your child’s mental health and wellbeing:

  • Show love, affection and care for your child.
  • Show that you’re interested in what’s happening in your child’s life. Praise his good points and achievements, and value his ideas.
  • Enjoy spending time together one on one with your child, and also as a family.
  • Encourage your child to talk about feelings with you. It’s important for your child to feel she doesn’t have to go through things on her own and that you can work together to find solutions to problems.
  • Deal with problems as they arise, rather than letting them build up.
  • Talk to family members, friends, other parents or teachers if you have any concerns. If you feel you need more help, speak to your GP or another health professional.

Physical health is a big part of mental health. To help your child stay emotionally and physically healthy, encourage your child to do the following:

  • Keep active – physical fitness will help your child stay healthy, have more energy, feel confident, manage stress and sleep well.
  • Develop and maintain healthy eating habits.
  • Get lots of regular sleep. Quality sleep will help your child to manage a busy life, stress and responsibilities.
  • Avoid alcohol and other drugs.
Alcohol and other drugs are a major risk factor for teenage mental health problems. You should encourage your child to avoid drugs, and don’t give him opportunities to drink alcohol until he’s 18 years old. If you know your child is using alcohol or other drugs and you’re worried, talk with your child. Also consider speaking to a health professional or counsellor.

Signs your child might need help with mental health

It’s normal for children and teenagers to sometimes have low moods, poor motivation and trouble sleeping. These things aren’t always the signs of a mental health problem. But if you notice any of the following signs and the signs go on for more than a few weeks, it’s important to talk with your child. The next step is to get professional help.

For children younger than 11 years, mental health warning signs might include:

  • sadness a lot of the time
  • a drop in school performance
  • ongoing worries or fears
  • problems fitting in at school or getting along with other children
  • aggressive or consistently disobedient behaviour, or repeated temper tantrums
  • sleep problems, including nightmares.

For children 11 years and older, watch out for your child:

  • seeming down, feeling things are hopeless, being tearful or lacking motivation
  • having trouble coping with everyday activities
  • showing sudden changes in behaviour, often for no obvious reason
  • having trouble eating or sleeping
  • dropping in school performance, or suddenly refusing to go to school, TAFE or work
  • avoiding friends or social contact
  • saying she has physical pain – for example, headache, tummy ache or backache
  • being aggressive or antisocial – for example, missing school, getting into trouble with the police, fighting or stealing
  • being very anxious about weight or physical appearance, losing weight or failing to gain weight as she grows.
If your child tells you he keeps thinking about self-harm or suicide, seek urgent professional help. Call Lifeline on 131 114, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You can also call 000 or go straight to a hospital emergency department.

Talking with your child about mental health

If you’re concerned about your child’s mental health, start by talking to your child. This might feel uncomfortable – you might even be waiting for the problem to go away. But talking to your child about how she’s feeling shows her she’s not alone and that you care. Also, your child will need your help to get professional support.

Here are some ideas to encourage your child to talk to you about how he’s feeling:

  • Say that even adults have problems they can’t sort out on their own. Point out that it’s easier to get help when you have someone else’s support.
  • Tell your child that it’s not unusual for young people to feel worried, stressed or sad. Also tell her that opening up about personal thoughts and feelings can be scary.
  • Tell your child that talking about a problem can often help put things into perspective and make feelings clearer. Someone with more or different experience – like an adult – might be able to suggest options your child hasn’t thought of.
  • Suggest some other people your child could talk to if he doesn’t want to talk to you – for example, aunts or uncles, close family friends, a trusted sports coach or religious leader, or your GP. 
  • Let your child know that talking with a GP or other health professional is confidential. They can’t tell anyone else, unless they’re worried about your child’s safety or someone else’s safety.
  • Emphasise that your child isn’t alone. You’ll be there whenever she’s ready to talk.

If you raise your concerns with your child, he might refuse any help or say there’s nothing wrong. Many young people won’t seek help themselves. So you might need to say that you’re worried about him and you’ll be trying to get professional advice. It’s a good idea to encourage your child to come with you. If he won’t, you might need to go on your own.

If you’re not sure what to do, a GP or school counsellor is a good place to start.

Your child could try a confidential counselling service for young people like Kids Helpline for teens – 1800 551 800. There are also online therapy services like Reach Out, Youth Beyond Blue and eheadspace.

Getting help for your child’s mental health problems

Mental health problems are unlikely to get better on their own, so you need to get professional help as soon as possible. Poor mental health or unmanaged mental health problems can affect your child’s quality of life, physical health, schoolwork, relationships and development – social, physical, educational and vocational.

There are many professional support options, including:

Supporting a child with mental health issues can be hard. It’s important to look after yourself too. You can find support options on our mental health links and resources page. You could also call Parentline on 1800 301 300 or visit the Parentline web counselling page.

If you don’t know where to go, your GP will be able to guide you to the most appropriate services for your family.

Poor mental health is no-one’s fault, and no-one is to blame.

Teenage mental disorders

If your child’s mental health problems are interfering significantly with her life, a qualified professional might diagnose a mental disorder.

You can read more about how to recognise adolescent mental health problems and disorders and seek help in the following articles:

 
 
 
  • Last updated or reviewed 02-12-2016
  • Acknowledgements

    This article was developed in collaboration with the Centre for Adolescent Health, Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne.