What your child is worrying about: top teenage issues

The teenage years are a time of rapid growth and change – physically, mentally and socially. For some teenagers, change can be scary, whereas others take it in their stride.

Teenagers often have to make early decisions about school subjects, study, careers and work. In fact, many teenagers feel that their secondary school marks decide their whole future – that’s a lot of pressure.

If you add economic change, job security, globalisation and mental health to the usual teenage issues, it isn’t surprising that your child can sometimes feels quite worried.

Mission Australia’s 2015 National Survey of Young Australians aged 15-19 found that the top teenage issues are:

When to be concerned about your child

It’s normal for teenagers to have worries and fears. Treating every worry as a big problem can do more harm than good. If you do, your child might start to see the world as unsafe and dangerous. Not all worries need professional help.

But when worries won’t go away, get worse or interfere with your child’s daily life, this could be a sign that your child is struggling with anxiety.

Here are some signs that your child might need some help with anxiety:

  • Worries that won’t go away: this is when your child is feeling ‘on edge’ or ‘wound up’ most of the time, is generally worried about a lot of things for no clear reason, or can’t relax.
  • Worries that get worse over time: this is when your child avoids situations or people, feels panicky in some situations, has bad thoughts that are hard to control, or has physical symptoms like increased sweating, fast heartbeat, headaches, stomach cramps, nausea, rapid breathing or diarrhoea.
  • Worries that interfere with daily life: this is when your child stops being able to do things that he used to do because of fear and anxiety, or you feel that your child’s reactions are stopping him from enjoying everyday things.

It’s also normal for young people to go through ups and downs. Sometimes they can have sad feelings that last several days. But if your child feels angry, guilty, sad or cranky more than usual, she could be suffering from depression.

Your child might need help with depression if he’s behaving in the following ways for most of the time or for more than two weeks. Your child:

  • feels like giving up
  • has trouble sleeping
  • is behaving in ways that aren’t like him – for example, he’s getting into trouble, having difficulty with schoolwork, isolating himself or fighting.

Depression probably won’t go away by itself, and it’s a good idea to seek professional help. You and your child could start by talking to your GP.

How to help your child with teenage issues

Here are some ideas to help with your child’s worrying by boosting her feelings of being loved, safe and trusted.

Talking to your child about how he’s feeling can be a good way to start. Using ‘I’ statements is a good way to talk about your thoughts and feelings. For example, ‘I’ve noticed that you seem to have a lot on your mind lately. I’m happy to talk or listen and see if I can help’.

Staying connected to your child can help her feel safe and secure as she meets the challenges of adolescence. One way to do this is to have family meals together as often as you can. This type of family ritual creates routine and also gives you a way to keep up to date with what’s happening in your child’s life.

Showing that you trust and have confidence in your child can help him overcome his worries. You can show trust by praising your child for trying to change thoughts and manage emotions, or by telling him that you believe he can cope with stressful situations, put plans into action and keep trying until things get better.

Positive messages from you can let your child know that you care for her and can help her feel secure and understood. You could try a warm hug, a smile, an arm over the shoulder, a light touch on the arm, a nod or a wink.

Try to avoid labelling your child as ‘a worrier’. It’s better to support him and praise the positive steps he’s taking to overcome his worries.

What you do and say can guide your child’s thinking and behaviour. You can try to be a good role model for your child by managing your own worry and stress in positive ways. Doing some exercise, taking time to rest and talking things over with your partner or a friend can all help if you’re feeling stressed.

Your child needs your support and encouragement for learning, but it probably won’t help if you put extra pressure on her to get high academic results. Sharing her excitement when she masters something new – and being supportive when she doesn’t – will encourage her to keep trying.

Exercises and activities to help with teenage issues

Managing worrying thoughts is an important life skill. Here are some activities and exercises that your child can use now and in the future.

Changing worrying thoughts
This activity helps your child notice worrying thoughts and then change them to more helpful ones. But remember some worry and stress is normal and helps to keep us motivated. Try to be supportive, thoughtful and warm while you help your child challenge his thinking:

  1. If a particular event is very worrying for your child, first get her to write down all her thoughts about the event. For example, ‘I’m going to fail the maths exam’, ‘I’m really bad at maths’.
  2. Talk together about whether the thoughts are helpful or unhelpful. For example, ‘How do you know you’re going to fail?’
  3. Work on finding some thoughts that are more helpful. For example, ‘You’ve done plenty of preparation for the exam. Now you can only do your best’.
  4. Here’s how you could summarise the changed thinking: ‘I’m worried about my maths exam because I find maths hard. Hey, I don’t really know if I’m going to fail or not. I might have trouble with the exam but I’ve studied and prepared, and now I can only do my best’.

This exercise  needs practice. You can encourage your child to change his worrying thoughts by praising him for having a go.

Positive thinking
If your child spends too much time thinking about negative events, it can lead to worry and stress. Positive thinking exercises can get your child in the habit of spending more time thinking about what has gone well and why.

Your child could write down three things that went well in her day and how she helped to bring them about. They don’t have to be big things. It might be hearing a bird sing outside, and she helped by letting herself notice it.

Parenting teenagers can be stressful. You’ll be in good shape to care for your teenage child if you look after yourself. You could also get support from other parents and share ideas and experiences by joining an online or a face-to-face support group.

Where to go for help

Your child might need your help to contact a professional.

You could encourage your child to visit the GP, who might be able to refer him to an adolescent psychologist. Your child could also talk over his worries with the school counsellor – school counsellors have specialist training in child and adolescent mental health. Spiritual leaders or elders and youth workers (if your child goes to a local youth centre) can also help.

There are mental health services and resources for teenagers throughout Australia. These services can provide information and support for your child.