Positive parenting strategies for the teenage years - by a leading Priory expert
- Over the past year, more than 11,500 parents have sought support and advice about their child’s mental health through charity helplines1
- A national survey found that around one in seven 11 to 16-year olds experiences a mental health issue2
- Small but important gestures, and reactions, by parents can make a world of difference to a teenager who is anxious or distressed, says adolescent psychiatrist Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg
- Parenting adolescents ‘doesn’t have to be scary’ and society shouldn’t have a toxic attitude to teenagers
A leading expert in the mental health of teens urges parents not to “catastrophise” life as the parent of a teenager.
Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg, adolescent psychiatrist at the Priory’s Wellbeing Centre in Oxford, says that often parents dread the teenage years before they even start “because of the associated stereotypes with challenging behaviour, sharing their worst fears with friends and family, saying; ‘Oh no, he’ll/she’ll soon be a teenager, how will I cope with the terrible teens?’ What they forget is the fact that children, by hearing those comments, can end up simply fulfilling those expectations.”
Dr van Zwanenberg says her most important advice for parents is to keep the channels of communication open at all times.
“Talking is vital but this can be so much easier if you already have a strong relationship with your child. Teenagers, going through many brain and other biological changes, navigate many complex scenarios and emotions and if they don’t have the resources, maybe because you have intervened too often and not enabled them to resolve some of their primary school issues themselves, or not listened to them closely enough before, the situation can become challenging for parents too because you are excluded or the target of their frustration.
“One way of keeping channels of communication open is to ensure your teenager has time to engage in activities they really enjoy and for you as parents to take a supportive interest in those activities too.
“Unsurprisingly, teenagers with a strong bond with their parents find it easier to open up about how they are feeling. Some parents find it hard to develop this bond but having shared interests can have a really positive impact. And, don’t always think the worst of your teen or assume they don’t want to spend time with you. They can be very good company – and can really appreciate your company too.
“What is critical is that when they talk to you about anything, listen to them, put your phone down, turn the ring tone off, or shut your screen away, and show them that what they say is important to you – even if they don’t replicate that behaviour in return. Validate them as much as possible.”
Recent research shows that parents who struggle to talk to their teens are not alone. Sometimes it can be as simple as tone of voice. A study carried out at Cardiff University (September 2019) amongst 1,000 14 to 15-year olds, focusing on parental ‘tone of voice’, showed that mothers wanting to persuade teenagers to co-operate got better results when they sounded ‘supportive’ rather than when they applied pressure. A ‘controlling tone of voice’ was more likely to start an argument than get a positive response.
A more supportive voice that tried to cajole and encourage rather than confront, was the most successful way of getting teenagers to carry out the request.
How to talk to teens about mental health
Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg advises: “Developing a strong bond and open communication channels with your child early on can make talking about difficult topics, such as concerns about mental health issues, much easier down the line.
“Most primary schools have started including discussions about mental health within their curriculum. Ask your child about the information they have discussed during the day so you can open up the conversation, and then allow them to lead the chat and share what they have learned. This will help when they are teenagers.
“Parents may find it helpful to discuss real-life situations with their teenager, such as family friends that have suffered from mental health issues in the past but have since received help and recovered. This can help young people to see that things can get better and that situations change. The important message to get across is that mental health issues are common but treatable.”
What should a parent do if their child won’t open up?
“Let them know that there are other ways to communicate with you, such as text or email. If they still don’t want to talk to you, encourage them to speak with an adult they trust. Even if they don’t want to talk to you, you can still spend time with them just relaxing in the same room as them as this can have a positive effect and help build on the relationship.
“If you continue to feel worried about them, make sure they’re aware of confidential helplines they can use to speak to someone who may be better equipped to offer help and guidance to their problems.
“Make sure that you stay calm. Choose a time to talk to them when you are calm, not tired, and free to talk. Talk when you are walking somewhere or have a ‘sideways’ conversation when you are in the car.
“Remember that it can be normal for a teenager to not listen to you and sometimes they have to learn from their own mistakes. But you can still listen to them and this in itself will be productive.
“Comments such as ‘I can understand why you felt that way, or I see why you reacted that way’ do not mean you approve but do make them feel understood. You can then go on to say, ‘if it happens again you could consider….’ and give examples of other options.
“Remember that young people tend to live up to expectations, if they are told “I knew you wouldn’t work hard enough”; they probably won’t. If they are told “I know you can do, I’ve seen how hard you work when it really matters”; they will probably work.”
How to establish boundaries
“You can try involving your teenager in a discussion of what fair boundaries are and the potential consequences of different options. By being involved in these conversations, they are more likely to adhere to them and may also be able to alleviate some of your concerns about having slightly wider boundaries than you are comfortable with.
“Make sure that you reinforce the importance of trust between you, and that once it is lost it takes a long time to regain. Also, try to form a network with their friends’ parents so that you can discuss situations together, and then you are all able to come to a consensus in order to prevent comments such as ‘all my friends are allowed’.
How to respond to mood swings
“Firstly, you need to remember to not take mood swings personally. Stay calm and consistent despite your teenager’s reaction. This can reassure them that you are there as a safety net for them and make them more likely to come to you when they have issues in the future.
“If their mood swings are having a negative impact on their ability to function, try talking to them about this specific behaviour and maybe suggest that visiting the GP could help.”
What to do if the relationship seems to be breaking down
“If this starts to happen, take a step back and try to look objectively at the communication pattern your family is using. Families tend to fall into patterns of communication and ways of reacting to each other; some can be helpful, others unhelpful.
“Families work as a system. If small changes are made in a system, everything has to change. If you make little changes to the ways you are communicating, you may find that this could have a positive impact on your son or daughter’s reaction to you.
“If you think the relationship has reached a difficult place, you may find that engaging with a family therapist may help with rebuilding the relationship.”
Where else to get help if you're struggling
You don't have to suffer in silence if you're struggling with your mental health. Here are some groups you can contact when you need help:
Samaritans: Phone 116 123, 24 hours a day, or email firstname.lastname@example.org, in confidence
Childline: Phone 0800 1111. Calls are free and won't show up on your bill
Platform 1 men's community group: Support for issues including mental health problems and addiction recovery. Visit the website or call 01484 421143.
Andy's Man Club: email@example.com
PAPYRUS: A voluntary organisation supporting suicidal teens and young adults. Phone 0800 068 4141
Mind: A charity offering support and advice for people with mental health problems.
Students Against Depression: A website for students who are depressed, have low mood, or are suicidal. Click here to visit
Bullying UK: A website for both children and adults affected by bullying. Click here
Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM): For young men who are feeling unhappy. There's a website and a helpline: 0800 58 58 58
MindOut: Provide support and advice on mental health for members of LGBTQ communities. Phone 01273 234839
Youngminds - https://youngminds.org.uk/
Royal College of Psychiatrists - https://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/
Safe and anonymous online support for young people is also available via KOOTH (www.kooth.com) and Big White Wall (www.bigwhitewall.com).
Coping Skills App
Priory’s Wellbeing Centres
Across the UK, Priory’s Wellbeing Centres bring swift access to patients in need of mental healthcare. Priory is an approved provider for all the UK’s leading private medical insurers. Most outpatient therapy services are covered as standard by the majority of insurers, meaning people may be able to access treatment at no additional cost. Priory also provides self-pay options for individuals and families, along with arrangements for businesses looking to support their employees. Too often people do not realise their health insurance will cover a mental health assessment and treatment.
Priory Wellbeing Centres are also located in Birmingham, Southampton, Canterbury, Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Greater Manchester, London (Fenchurch St) and Oxford. The Priory Group also opened its first overseas Wellbeing Centre, in Dubai.