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6 tips on how to raise mentally resilient adolescents

Adolescence is a crucial stage in personal and emotional development. Experts on mental health speak about critical period, since changes to hormones, body, social environment but also to brain and mind contribute to higher risk of developing mental disease.

According to UNICEF, anxiety and depression make up to 40 per cent of mental disorders, self-harm is among the top causes of death of adolescents. It seems that for girls aged 15-19, suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death after tuberculosis and maternal conditions. Among other mental ailments appearing before the age of 24 are eating disorders, substance use, psychosis. Unfortunately, we do not grow out of mental health problems, we need to treat them. Early intervention is very important, therefore as parents we need to watch out for any warning signs.

It is quite normal that teenagers have intense and fluctuating emotions, however excessive aggressiveness, anxiety, worries that get in the way of usual daily functioning need attention.

Similarly, loss of appetite or on the contrary overeating, poor sleep, frequent physical complains (somatisation), persistent negativity, poor grades in school despite effort, use of alcohol and drugs signal that our child needs extra support or even support of a specialist.

In order to be able to navigate well in the complexity of life in between childhood and adulthood it is of paramount importance that teens learn not only the problem solving and interpersonal skills, but also how to regulate emotions and manage stress in healthy ways. Here are 6 tips how parents can help their teens to boost mental resilience:

  1. Listen. Without the imminent urge to react, comment, advise, criticise, correct or judge. Active listening makes people to trust us, to be able to be vulnerable with us and open up about their feelings. Most of us do not need advice but the loving presence. Show interest about their life - their inner life, friendships, feelings of success or disappointment. Be careful and try not to engage in gossip. There should be a clear boundary between intimate lives of adults and intimate lives of nearly adult children.

  2. Talk openly about emotions. Do not dissimulate if you are sad or angry. There is nothing worse than pretending you feel otherwise than you really feel. Do not diminish negative feelings - this would be giving signals that they are not appropriate. Say that you feel sad and that you need time to settle. Do not elaborate the reasons, it is not always necessary to explain details of a fight with your partner or what your colleague did or said that made you angry.

  3. Offer healthy food and insist on sports activity. Healthy nutrition impacts greatly our mood but teens love junk food. It is the time when they go to town to hang out around fries and burger and a bottle of coke, or two. Make peace with it, check from time to time whether they do not overuse soft or energy drinks but do not be obsessed too much about healthy food. Offer a balanced diet at home, bake only on special occasions, avoid fried food and heavy creamy sauces. Insist at least on one sports activity, teenagers, especially girls have the tendency to drop spontaneous play outside. Movement is essential for oxygenation of brain, boosting of immunity, strengthening of bones and muscles and influx of endorphins.

  4. Chances that you fall asleep earlier than your teenager are high. You may be half way to your dreams and suddenly have the impression that Bob the Builder became real and lives above your bedroom. Talk calmly about 22h evening policy that is in place in hotels because it is respectful. Explain the importance of at least 8-hour sleep for mental well-being. If they oversleep for school or sports training, do not run for help, let them bare the consequences.

  5. Do not use too stringent rules around social media usage. Parents worry about excessive time spent on screens. The truth is that there are more teenagers that need glasses than ever before. And blue light is the culprit. It makes sense to limit strictly screen time for younger kids. However, if your kid is over 15 you cannot talk to them in the same way as to the little ones. Show interest in how they spent time online, how do the apps, games, chat groups make them feel. Do they feel connected, empowered, informed? Or do they feel stressed, compare themselves, have negative opinion about their appearance? Show them that they are in control of what and how long they consume the internet. You are the best example, speak about blocking suspicious people, installing time tracker of social media usage, your time without phone etc.

  6. Praise their efforts not results. In this way you are showing them that what matters is their own way and pace towards improvement, acquisition of knowledge and development of their talents. They will have periods of laziness and lack of motivation, this is also something parents need to accept. Usually adults who are pushing themselves to be always productive also in their free time learned to derive their worthiness from tangible results. Just being, waking up, breathing and sitting is enough. If we are always running around doing something we are not present for the closest people in our lives.

Mentally healthy teenagers enjoy their lives, get involved in social interactions, have appetite, sense of achievement, bounce back easily from disappointment and can relax. Our role as parents is now in the background, friends count more, but we are the solid base, the haven of peace. If the adolescents feel validated and welcome even with their shadow side they will likely not hesitate to open up when in trouble. On the other hand, good mental health is a complex phenomenon influenced also by genetics, environmental factors (marginalized community, growing up in big cities), chronic illness, bullying at school, abuse, peer pressure. Therefore our parental skills and good-will may not always be enough. Hopefully, the lessening of stigma around mental illness or simply mental instability in certain periods of life in recent years allows us all to be more open and free to reach out for professional help.

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