It’s Youth Mental Health Day today and the focus is on helping our young people to connect meaningfully with others. It is a time to encourage a better understanding of the mental health challenges that can affect young people so that more people can open up and get the help and support they need. estimates that around “1 in 6 5–15-year-olds have a diagnosable mental health disorder, with 6 in 10 young people saying they are experiencing mental health difficulties such as anxiety, low mood, eating disorders, and self-harming behaviours. Yet only a third are able to access any effective treatment.”

These are startling figures and something we need to raise greater awareness of.

Encouraging our young people to connect meaningfully with others has never been more important. Over the last couple of years, their relationships with others have changed drastically. Social media and online platforms play an even greater role in their lives and, in some cases, virtual communication has completely replaced face-to-face interaction.

As human beings, we all have a need to communicate meaningfully with others. Teenagers, like adults, have an innate desire to be part of a ‘tribe:’

  • Many millions of years ago, our ancestors would have thrived as part of a tribe or team. They would have been rewarded when they interacted with others with a chemical response in the brain.
  • This reward would have helped them feel motivated and cope better with day-to-day activities. This reward is now understood to be the release of chemicals in the brain that make us feel good, such as Serotonin.
  • Whilst we know that face-to-face interaction is healthy for our young people, technology is here to stay and plays a huge role in how they form those all-important social connections. Clearly though, we need to support our young people to find a healthy balance between the two in order to positively influence their mental health.

Mental health is something we all have – and something we have to take care of, just like our physical health. It refers to our psychological, emotional, and social well-being and affects how we think, feel and act. When we have developed strategies to cope well with challenges and times of stress, when we can interact with others in healthy ways, and when we can set boundaries and make good choices then we might consider ourselves to be mentally healthy.

The same is true for our children and young people too, who are growing up in a world that has a unique set of challenges, including:

  • The pressure to fit in with their peer groups
  • Remaining popular on social media
  • Living up to celebrity and societal expectations
  • Recovering from a global pandemic that flipped normal life into chaos almost overnight
  • A surge in hormones and a distinct difference in how their brains process emotions compared to the adult brain

Add this into the mix of other life events such as difficulties at home, trauma, loss and other upheavals, it can be easy to see why youth mental health is something to be taken seriously.

It can be difficult, however, to determine the difference between what is usual adolescent behaviour and what is a potential mental health difficulty because teenagers are rapidly going through changes all of the time. Often, these behaviours can overlap and make recognising a mental health issue early on a challenge. Some of the signs to watch out for might include:

  • Secrecy (aside from the usual secrecy we might expect at this age)
  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Extremes of behaviour, for example feeling very upset or angry
  • Limited knowledge of how to manage these emotions
  • Increased risk-taking behaviour
  • Extreme concerns over appearance
  • A decrease in the ability to function, for example, finding it difficult to go to school, socialise or even get out of bed

Whilst some of these behaviours can be quite typical for the adolescent stage of development, it is also important to point out that the change in hormones in the adolescent brain, coupled with external pressures, can make them more susceptible to mental health difficulties. This is one of the reasons why many mental health disorders often begin around this age. To understand this in more detail, it can be helpful to understand the main differences in the brain at this stage of development.

So, let’s take a look at how the child and adolescent brain works:

  • Children’s brains, around the age of about 6, go through a huge growth spurt. It is at this time they reach nearly the size of an adult brain. The brain, however, will go through much remodelling until a child reaches adulthood.
  • Teenagers rely more on the amygdala (the emotional part of their brain) to process information. The pre-frontal cortex, associated with rational decision-making, understanding consequences, and problem-solving, isn’t fully developed until teenagers reach their mid-twenties. This means that they rely more on their emotional primitive mind to help them problem solve and make decisions. This can lead to more risk-taking, destructive and impulsive behaviours.
  • The teenager’s unique brain, coupled with environmental factors, will determine the neural pathways that are formed. The neural pathways that are formed determine your child’s thinking patterns and behaviour. This can be influenced in both positive and negative ways.

There are steps, as parents, we can take to support our children and teenagers through this stage of development to help prevent mental health challenges later on, but also to support our children if they are going through a challenging time:

  1. Model how to build connections. One of the ways we can support our teenager’s well-being at this time, is to help them to connect with others and understand the role they play in forming positive friendships and relationships with others. Model how to maintain a healthy conversation such as encouraging listening skills, turn-taking, and taking time out from phones and other distractions so you can be fully present in the moment. For more tips on this, you can find our blog on the skill of listening and connecting here:
  2. Consider how your teenager spends their time. The activities your teenager engages in greatly influences brain development. We all know the mental health implications of too much screen time, whereas a range of activities, such as sport, music, art and positive social interaction, for example can really boost healthy levels of serotonin in the brain and positively impact on healthy brain development.
  3. Allow your child to take some healthy risks. If we try and stop our teenagers from engaging in all risky behaviours, it can be argued we are fighting a battle we will not win! This need for risk-taking is hard-wired into their brain at this age, so rather than fight against it, show them how they can channel this in healthy ways. For example, encouraging them to engage in new experiences, allowing them greater responsibility and independence, or taking part in an exciting activity together can be a great way of doing this.
  4. Support your child to find creative ways to channel their emotions. There has been much research into the benefits of art and creativity on mental health and we even wrote a blog about it here: Getting creative doesn’t just have to mean drawing and painting – it can include music, drama, or even writing!
  5. Balance support with encouraging independence when it comes to navigating difficult situations. Although conversations might be tricky with your teenager at this age, try to keep the lines of communication open with them. Sometimes, when our teenagers are going through a tough time, they might not want advice (and are often unlikely to take it from us!). Just offering a listening ear and asking “Would you like my help or do you just want me to listen?” can go a long way in keeping connected with your child. Sometimes, talking through potential decisions with your teenager can be really helpful when they are tackling a problem and can help them feel less alone. For example, asking them what choices are available to them, what the possible consequences might be and encouraging them to weigh up any potential positive and negative consequences for their behaviour can help them develop confidence in their ability to navigate difficult situations in the future.
  6. Help your child to get a good amount of sleep each night. Teenagers need around 8 – 10 hours of sleep a night on average, although some may need more or less than this. Encourage them to stick to a clear bedtime routine and limit screen time an hour before bed, so that the brain knows when it is time to sleep. Our brains go through an important clearing process during REM sleep, the part where we dream, and this is crucial in maintaining a healthy mindset and emotional regulation. As Youth Fairies, through our work with young people, we explain the impact of this on the brain and support them in developing healthy sleeping habits as we know just how important this is!
  7. Remember your value as a positive role model. Even though we may not think it, our teenagers are constantly looking at how we handle life’s ups and downs and look to us for guidance on their own behaviour by what they see us do. Consider what message your child receives and how greatly you can influence their own coping strategies and behaviours for the better by how you react yourself.
  8. Know where to go for further help and support. When you are worried about your teenager’s mental health it can feel like a frightening and lonely time. Below you will find a range of further support you can access if you are concerned for your child. Some of these may also be useful contacts to pass onto your young person:

Remember, if you are ever seriously concerned about your child’s mental health and feel they are in a life-threatening situation, call 999 or take them to your nearest A&E department. Text Shout on 85258, which offers a free and confidential 24/7 text message service. Text STUDENT to 85258 for students in need of emotional support. Call Samaritans on 116 123 for free at any time. Mermaids is a helpline (0808 801 0400) and webchat service specifically supporting transgender and gender-diverse young people. A free, confidential support for young people under 25. Papyrus is a charity involved in the prevention of young suicide. For ongoing, or preventative, support for your child or teenager you can contact your nearest therapist at The Youth Fairy.