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Minding your Mental Health: advice and tips for teens and their parents

Teenagers are exposed to and experience a range of challenges which can have significant and adverse effects on their mental wellbeing.

Liz Quish

PROMOTING POSITIVE MENTAL health is a topical issue at the moment. However, many teenagers and their parents are struggling to find the right balance. How do you manage stress in order to prevent distress? Ongoing stress can lead to heightened levels of distress which can be emotionally debilitating and extremely challenging for teenagers and their parents to deal with, if not addressed in a timely manner.

Teenagers are exposed to and experience a range of challenges which can have significant and adverse effects on their mental wellbeing. These challenges include exam pressures, bullying, peer pressure, sexual identity confusion and life transitions to mention a few.

Many teenagers feel they cannot cope. They engage in self-harming as a means to manage and express their distress. Others experience suicidal thoughts due to feeling overwhelmed. However, with the right support and interventions teenagers can be helped to recover their lives and develop resilience.

Food and mood

Teenagers need to be mindful of their lifestyle and how this might be affecting their emotional wellbeing. The link between food and mood is well documented. Teenagers need to be encouraged to eat a healthy and balanced diet. For example, carbonated sugary drinks which are very popular with this age group cause sugar crashes and craving, which has a marked negative impact on the mood system.

Overconsumption of processed foods does not give the body the vitamins and nutrients required during this developmental period. Parents and teenagers would be well advised to examine their diet and make the necessary changes.

I would recommend that teenagers studying for exams take Omega 3 fish oils, for example. Research has noted its positive effects in terms of aiding concentration. Vitamin B Complex is widely regarded for stabilising the mood system and promoting positive mental health. Vitamin C is seen as a positive antidote in counteracting the psychological effects of stress.

Proper sleep and relaxation is essential 

Stress can also interrupt sleep patterns, causing teenagers to lie awake at night worrying and ruminating. Teenagers need at least eight hours of quality sleep per night. I would strongly advise teenagers to develop a sleep routine: many of my teenage clients find having a bath or shower before bed helps them to relax and unwind.

Try writing a diary or journal; journaling has proven to be a valuable tool in helping to prevent rumination. Teenagers can write about their day and give vent to their feelings and concerns. This aids in moving their racing thoughts out of their mind, and giving their head some space.

I have found that teenagers can process their stress triggers more easily when they write in a journal and then explore and examine the contents of their journal entry with me during their next therapy session. In addition, complementary therapies such as massage, reflexology and acupuncture are beneficial in aiding relaxation. A combination of vitamins, a healthy diet, exercise, complementary therapies and talk therapy can be an excellent and powerful formula in helping teenagers to deal with and overcome their distress.

Talking really does help  

If you are a teenager and feeling distressed or engaging in self-harm or have suicidal thoughts, please seek support. Don’t struggle alone. You might consider letting a close and trusted friend or relative know how you are feeling. If you feel you cannot talk to your parents, maybe you have a teacher or coach you trust.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help even thought it might be difficult for you. Having someone with whom you can share your concerns will help to alleviate some of your distress. A trusting adult will be able to help you and get you the additional support you might need.

If you are a parent, and are concerned for your teenager’s emotional wellbeing, approach them in a sensitive manner and try to uncover what is bothering them. Listen to their story and plan together how best to give them the support they need.

Serious issues and self-harm

If you discover your child is self-harming, attend to your own feelings first: you may feel shocked and unnerved, which is understandable. When you have gathered yourself, approach your child about your observations. Time your approach, wait until you have your child alone and are sure you won’t be interrupted. Engage in a dialogue and outline your concerns in terms of what you have noticed.

For example, ‘Sarah, I wanted to have a chat with you. I have noticed that you are not yourself and I am worried about you.’ Now be direct: ‘I have noticed that you have marks on your arm and I am wondering if you are self-harming.’ Your teenager will probably become defensive. Let your child know you are there to help, not judge and that you appreciate this is difficult for them. Outline what will happen next. For example, ‘We will make an appointment with the doctor or we will find a counsellor that will help you and I will support you all the way’.

This is an important step that needs to happen in order to get your teenager on the road back to positive mental health.

Psychotherapist Liz Quish is a leading counsellor, parent coach and mediator. Her new book, Overcoming Self-Harm and Suicidal Thoughts: A Practical Guide for the Adolescent Years, published by Hammersmith Health Books, is available now from all good bookshops and online at www.easons.com and www.amazon.com. For further info see www.csei.ie.

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Liz Quish

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