Depression among teens can spiral into self-harm: here's our practical advice to parents on what to say – and do

Being a teenager is stressful but a new report suggests it is becoming more so, leading to depressive symptoms in a quarter of girls and nearly one in 10 boys.

When depression and anxiety mount, turning in some cases to self-harming, many parents say they just do not know how to help their child in the best way.

Using her years of experience on the frontline of child and adolescent mental health, Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg has drawn up a list of ways parents might helpfully intervene.

Dr van Zwanenberg, Clinical Director of the Priory's high street Wellbeing Centres across the UK, says: 'Every child has stressful situations to cope with, including arguments with friends, bullying, and disputes with parents, as well as pressures about the way they look which can emanate from social media and its reflection of a 'perfect world' adorned by 'perfect people'.

"The Government-funded study of 10,000 young people suggests a quarter of girls and nearly one in 10 boys show signs of depression at the age of 14. Yet surveys with their parents suggest many are not aware of the true anxieties of their teenage sons and daughters.

"Parents often underestimated daughters' stress and had concerns about sons that the boys themselves did not voice.

"Parents frequently tell me they want to help their children but don't always know how or what is best, and that is understandable. Every child and situation is different. Those of us who work on the frontline in mental health, talking to teenagers and their families, can however offer some practical help - both with helping parents identify and understand their teenagers, and helping teenagers cope in a healthier ways."

15 tips for parents:

  1. If children have intense emotions and turn to self-harming, Dr Hayley Van Zwanenberg suggests: 'Tell your child to hold some ice really tightly (it feels like it is burning but will not do damage). As the ice melts they might feel their tension melt away.
  2. Use a traffic light system with your child so you know when their anxiety might turn to physical harm against themselves or others. Ask them if they would apply a red, amber or a green light to their problem, with red being the most acute. When they are calmer, ask them how they would like you to react depending on 'which colour they feel they are'. Knowing you will react in a way your child agrees with means your child is more likely to share his or her feelings and risks with you. 'At the red level, school and experts' involvement may be necessary.
  3. Remind your child it's normal to experience strong emotions such as sadness, anger, fright and anxiety, but these don't last, and you can do things to help them such as watching funny YouTube clips, talking things through, taking exercise together.
  4. Young people often 'catastrophise'; they believe they will fail in life spectacularly. Help them look at the true evidence regarding their hard work and their individual skills and qualities, so they can challenge irrational thinking with evidence.
  5. Help children 'problem solve' and form a plan so that even if their immediate hopes are not fulfilled, there are options and a future.
  6. Remind your child you love them unconditionally.
  7. Encourage them to talk to you about how they are feeling and explain you have felt like that too in times of stress.
  8. Let your child know they can always contact a supportive charity such as ChildLine or the Samaritans anonymously by telephone or via a web chat if they need a confidential discussion.
  9. Encourage them to exercise vigorously for 20 minutes each day; it will help improve mood and sleep patterns.
  10. If your child is suffering intense stress, distract and divert. There are things you as a parent can do to help their emotions change quickly
  11. Watch a scary film together, read a funny book, watch humorous clips on the internet, look at old photos of yourself, or them, as a baby
  12. Encourage your child to 'stop their thought train and get off it'. Encourage them to build a brick wall, metaphorically, between themselves and their stressful thoughts.
  13. Urge them not to think about their exam or test worries except for short periods, say 10 minutes morning and night. (This is not suggesting they don't revise, but that they block out the worry.)
  14. Get your child to think of a relaxing memory as a safe place to go to in their head. Ask them to describe it to you in detail, including the sounds, smells, lights, textures, the conversations, the emotions they remember. This can help them relax and distract them from their worries, and, with practice, they can take themselves back there in their head at times of stress.
  15. If the anxiety does not seem to improve, and anxiety feels outside the normal range in severity, or length, get help via your GP. Your doctor can refer your child to a psychiatrist and having brief therapeutic intervention can make a significant difference in a short period. Many of Priory's Wellbeing Centres offer Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, with fast access to mental health experts.

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