It is hard to talk about mental health problems when everyone, no matter what their situation, is struggling with the challenges during this coronavirus outbreak. It is an exceptionally hard time for us all.
For young people there are particular issues that they are facing. There is a huge amount of loss. This is partly because the normal structure of their lives has disappeared. It is not surprising that some young people feel cheated and angry. It is difficult to know what to do with such feelings. For a small number of teens, these feelings may exhibit in worrying behaviour. If you have a teen who is experiencing mental health problems, it may be difficult to get help in the usual way.
Issues that young people have experienced
- A 16 year-old girl who cannot stop crying. She cannot say why this is happening to her.
- A 15 year-old boy who vandalised a neighbour’s car, something that he has never done before. All he can say is that he feels angry with the world.
- A 17 year-old girl who has started cutting herself. She says she hates herself.
- A 17 year-old boy who has gone to bed, and won’t get up and won’t talk to anyone.
- A 14 year-old girl whose anorexia has got worse since the virus appeared. She says she needs to take control of her life as everything else is out of control.
Acknowledge their distress
Find a way of letting your teenager know that you are aware of their distress, and that you want to help. The aim is to ensure that they do not shut down and stay open to talk to you. Try to use terms such as: “My heart goes out to you”, “I feel for you and am here for you”. I can see this is very hard for you” or “I want to help, if you feel able to let me”.
Reassurance is key
Let your teen know that whatever they say, you will not be shocked, angry or frightened by their thoughts and feelings. One of the fears that young people may struggle with is the idea that their problems will have a terrible effect on you. Find a way of letting your teen know that, however shameful or frightening their thoughts, you are strong enough to cope and will be there for them.
Being there for them
Another important message is to show them that you are there for them. They need to know that you love them, and that no matter what happens, you will do your very utmost to help. Teens need to know that you will stick with them, and you will not reject them because of the way they are feeling.
If it is possible, think about things you can do together that will show them that you are there for them. Perhaps you can cook their favourite meal, give them chores or responsibility that you think they will enjoy. Visit old photos or videos to remember better times. Playing games, making things together or having shared hobbies could be helpful too. Being available is the most important message.
What to avoid
If possible, avoid pleading, criticising or lecturing your teen. Let them know you are not judging them or their behaviour. Your teen might feel overwhelmed so choose your actions sensitively. The only way to open up communication is to find a way into their own agenda and to show that you will be really listening to them.
Ask the school for support
Many parents will have a contact within the school system who may be able to give advice. This may be a head of year, a pastoral lead, or a head of wellbeing. Schools may offer support via the telephone or email on the best steps to take if one of their students is struggling with their mental health or signpost to relevant services. There are apps that young people can download on to their phones that provide guidance about managing their feelings.
How to help your teen if they are feeling suicidal
The possibility of suicide is the worst fear of any parent. There are many myths about what to do and not to do if you worry about this. It is also of course incredibly hard for any parent to open up this topic. However, there are ways of showing that you won’t be shocked, and of showing that there are ways to get help if this is something the young person is struggling with. Talk to them about their feelings. This does two things. It acknowledges the distress. It also shows that you’re not scared by the distress the young person is experiencing and you are able to give them the love and support they need to get through this. Encourage your teen to get in touch with Papyrus UK, who can provide support to your young person.
Getting the conversation started
As it may be difficult to get professional help at this time, finding a way to encourage your teenager to talk is something you may want to try. The first thing to note is that they may not be able, or not want, to talk to you. However, if they can do so, that will be a good thing. Therefore, try to encourage them to talk at every opportunity. If the first or second attempt does not work, just make it clear that you are always going to be available to listen. Maybe you can keep the conversation general and informal, having chats when preparing dinner or watching a movie can help enormously.
There is no right or wrong, you may not know what to say and that is ok too. Keep in mind that you don’t have to say anything. In a difficult situation, just being there, being available to listen may be enough.
Wall of silence
If your teen does not want to talk, here are some other options. Perhaps your teenager might feel more comfortable in sending you a text, message or email about their feelings. You could also suggest to them writing down their thoughts or feelings or perhaps drawing or colouring in. Sometimes it is helpful to get feelings out of your head and onto a piece of paper. If they do not want to do this, maybe they can confide in a friend or family member who can be there for them. They can speak to someone at The Mix who provide support to young people on any issue that is affecting them.
Social media can help
Research has shown that, for some, social networking can provide support and reassurance. It may be a great platform to help your teen reach out and talk to others during this period of isolation. If possible, try to keep an eye on what they are doing online. Do not be afraid to ask about this. The more you can keep the conversation going about what your teenager is doing online the better.
What if the talking and listening is not working
For some, talking will not be enough. Firstly, it is essential for you to be able to set boundaries in relation to behaviour that is harmful to your teen or to others in the family. If you believe these boundaries are being crossed, try to get some help. If there is an immediate risk of harm to themselves or others, please contact the emergency services. If they are acting in a violent or aggressive way, please read our advice on this. If you feel your child has reached crisis point and you need to get support, you can call your local crisis team through the NHS. Staying safe have a great resource on making a safety plan to help through a crisis.
Managing your own anxiety
One of the key challenges for parents who are at home with their teen will be to find a way of managing their own anxiety. The more anxious you are as a parent, the harder it will be for the young person to accept support. Young people worry about the effect of their distress on their parents. In most cases, they want to be able to protect their parents, no matter how troubled they are themselves. They also go through a stage when they want to keep things to themselves. This is a normal part of teenage development. Parents will be more able to provide help if they are open about managing their anxiety.
Explore feelings with our feelings quiz
As a start, teenagers can use the quiz below or download a version to print off. This should be a way of starting to talk about some of the feelings they may have at this time. It should also lead to a discussion of anything that could be improved to make things a bit more manageable in the family.
This guide was written by Dr John Coleman (www.jcoleman.co.uk)
This page was updated on September 2021