Adolescence can be an exciting but overwhelming time, marked by rapid change. Children’s bodies are transforming, and minds are expanding to make way for the eventual transition to adulthood. It is a phase defined by children redrawing personal boundaries, flexing their independence, and exploring new identities. All these changes are not easy for teenagers and can cause confusion and distress. Add a chaotic and unpredictable world to the mix, and we have trends of adolescent mental health steadily declining across the globe, leaving experts and parents deeply worried.
Our children need our help. Their mental health needs attention — from teachers, governments, educational institutions, and especially parents. Nurturing teen mental health requires a holistic, 360-degree approach to their overall health and wellbeing — body, mind, and spirit. It is as much about what they eat, the number of hours they sleep at night, and how much physical activity they get as it is about staying connected to them, helping them find their purpose, and understanding what lights them up. All these aspects contribute to their transformation into healthy, happy, and functional adults.
Nurture Their Mental Wellbeing
Understanding the mind of a teenager begins with open communication. However, as teens assert their independence, communication with their parents can decline. This fractured connection can lead to greater stress and anxiety for teens struggling with mental health issues. Here are some simple ways for parents to bridge the gap and connect with their teens:
Be honest — tell them you are worried: Tell your child you can sense something is not OK, and you are worried. Avoid assuming or guessing what’s wrong. Instead, let them know that you are there to help and support them.
Listen to them. Respond, rather than react: The greatest gift we can give our children is our undivided attention. As parents and guardians, we need to learn to respond — not react — to children’s negative emotions and outbursts. This will encourage them to open and talk.
Stay connected: Strive to keep all channels of communication open with your teens. Let them know that you are there for them in case they want to talk. Encourage your teen to spend time with the family as it contributes to wellbeing. Researchers at Penn State University found that spending time with family, especially fathers, has important implications for adolescents’ psychological and social development.
Talk about everything in a straightforward way: Parents should initiate honest and responsible conversations on topics such as sex and substance abuse. They can share their personal experiences and vulnerabilities to make the discussion more personal, authentic, and impactful. This will encourage children to make responsible choices and adopt healthy behaviours.
Enable their autonomy: Empower them to make their own decisions by arming them with information, showing them the implications of poor behaviour choices, and assuring them of the safety net of your love and emotional support.
Set realistic expectations: Parental expectations help teens understand their boundaries, keep them safe and hold them accountable for their actions. So, keep them realistic.
Support Their Physical Health
A healthy mind requires a healthy body. Teenage years are a time of tremendous growth and change. Children shoot up in height, their shoe size increases, many gain weight, and some shed baby weight. In fact, adolescence is the second-largest period of physical growth after infancy. Parents need to support this rapid growth with energy-dense and protein-rich foods and nutrients. Include plenty of protein from plant and animal sources — eggs, lentils, soy, beans, and seeds. Fill them up with complex carbs from whole grains and millets and include plenty of fruits and vegetables (ideal for a healthy snack) for vitamins, antioxidants, iron, and fibre. Choose locally grown and seasonal produce to maximize nutrition and encourage your teen to stay hydrated throughout the day.
Getting adequate exercise is just as important for teens’ mental health as it is for their physical health. Gently push your teens to leave those screens behind and step outdoors for an invigorating jog, run, or brisk walk. Encourage them to participate in team sports for an added social boost. Parents can join them in these activities to keep their motivation high and help them stick to their routine.
Teens also need to get ample rest to support their rapid growth and development. Research shows that teens who don’t sleep well are more likely to struggle at school and face a risk of depression. Setting a bedtime routine, which can include a relaxing meditation or breathwork session, helps in getting good sleep. Playing sleep music or stories can also help teens sleep better.
Encourage Teens to Cultivate Social Connections
Having friends is critical to teenagers. They often spend hours talking to their friends on the phone and tend to prefer the company of their pals over their parents. It’s not a bad thing. Developing positive social relationships with peers provides teenagers with a sense of belonging and acceptance. It promotes their emotional wellbeing and helps them develop social and emotional skills for life. A study published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology found that peer acceptance in early adolescence is also linked to better academic grades.
If a child struggles with forging connections, parents should support them in finding a social circle to avoid isolation. Studies have linked social isolation to anxiety and depression in teenagers and children.
Adolescence is the time when children are figuring out what they want to do and be. Parents should support their quest and motivate them to find a purpose in their lives. It could be to fight climate change, create sustainable technologies, work in public health, or develop an artistic talent. Research shows that having a purpose can lead to longevity and better health.
Last but not least, parents need to teach children the core principles of being happy. Their growing minds need to learn to dissociate happiness from mindless consumption and chasing society-approved goals. Children need to be taught that true and lasting happiness comes from within. It comes from knowing that you are healthy in your body and mind, that you are contributing to your community and living in harmony with nature. This self-realization leads to lasting joy, contentment, and good health.
(Prakriti Poddar is a psychologist and global head, Mental Health & Wellbeing at RoundGlass Living app)