Top 4 Challenges Parents Experience While Supporting Teen Mental Health



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ParentsCanada and Common Compass conducted a survey asking Canadian parents to identify current challenges and concerns about their pre-teens and teen’s mental health.

Here are the findings:

Sleep is a top concern, with 52.5 per cent of parents worrying that their children were going to bed too late or not sleeping enough.

Social anxiety is another concern—38.1 per cent of parents identify “social anxiety” challenges specifically, with another 34.5 per cent adding “challenges making friends.”

Low self-esteem and social media use are two other top challenges: 25.2 per cent are worried about “low mood and depression” with 17.3 per cent concerned about “perfectionism.” When it comes to online interactions, 38.1 per cent of parents are worried about social media use.

We asked parents if schools were helping when it came to their pre-teens and teen’s mental health: 52 per cent of parents stated that general awareness campaigns were most visible and some motivational speakers at assemblies, but they lacked a school-wide strategy or access to student mental health training.

Parents are not alone

Parents have been through the wringer these past two years. Between balancing the demands of work and family life under financial stress while navigating the uncertainty of pandemic waves, it is important to pause and reflect on the experience of supporting teen mental health during this time. You are not alone in this uncertainty, even though it might feel that way.

“Parents are frustrated at the lack of timely and accessible mental health supports for their children,” says Leisha Zamecnik, executive director of Common Compass, a non-profit organization that works with schools to develop and facilitate evidence-informed mental health programs. “It’s difficult and confusing for them to navigate the system and they want the knowledge and skills to support their child’s mental health, particularly during this time as they try to return to a sense of normalcy at this stage of the pandemic. Parents have shared with us that they are particularly looking for support with social anxiety, healthy social media use, low self-esteem and sleep.”

“My hope is to help assure them that when they look around at other parents at sports practice, parent council or on social media, they know that nearly every one of them is struggling with how to best support their children during this time,” she adds. “As parents we have a lot in common with one another. We need to raise one another up.”

How to help with social anxiety

Since teens thrive in predictable and structured environments, the disruption of everyone’s routine by the COVID-19 pandemic has made it hard for youth to cope and feelings of social anxiety have increased. Even before school closures, e-learning, increased family stress and the disconnection from peers caused by the pandemic, social anxiety was a mental health challenge on the rise.

You can help socially anxious teens by keeping daily routines as predictable as possible and staying in touch with teachers, friends and family members to eventually ease the transition back to regular life.

“Routine and predictability are key,” says Zamecnik. “We need to help teens understand what to expect and how to prepare for situations that they may find anxiety-provoking. Helping them split larger, seemingly daunting social outings into smaller, more manageable steps can help them to gain confidence.”

Whether schools were closed or remained open, the learning and social experience of classrooms was disrupted and that lack of regular contact with teachers and peers has made the issue of social anxiety worse. Since many do not recognize what they are struggling with, education and sometimes intervention is needed. Besides being worried about the pandemic, many teens feel anxious about missing out on important life events and the uncertainty of their future.

How to manage social media use

Even before social media played a role in everyday life, parents and teachers were busy supporting teens as they matured. While social media use is not always a direct cause of mental health challenges, it is a nearly inescapable part of daily life with some consequences and teens need to be shown healthy ways of using social media platforms.

Sensational stories about social media may be causing parents and teens more stress and anxiety than its actual use does. It is important to recognize that the information we receive about social media may be holding us in a negative use cycle, so it’s helpful to take time to create a balanced approach.

“I think it’s important that parents explain how addictive social media is designed to be,” says Zamecnik. “Algorithms are intentionally created to draw you in and keep you there for as long as possible. This is how they profit. Education is key. You can also ask them how much social media would be ideal for them and help them stay within those limits.”

While excessive use of social media can expose teens to harmful behaviours such as cyber-bullying and increased self-criticism through comparing their lives with snippets of others, these behaviours are often learned offline. Teens who socialize online and offline have the highest levels of self-worth and self-esteem. Finding that balance and working with your teen to come to an open understanding of how screen time affects physical and mental health is important. For example, explain why and how the rules are implemented as well as how you as a parent will follow similar rules.

How to raise self-esteem

Like social anxiety, teens experiencing low self-esteem are influenced by relationships at home and school. Devices and social media accounts have been teen’s primary social connection at several points during the pandemic. While staying connected is important, it also means that comparing themselves to idealized versions of others on social media has become easier while opportunities to see other people’s less-than-perfect realities have become rare. This has a major impact on mental health.

“The single most important thing a parent can do to strengthen the parent-child bond is to really listen to their child,” says Zamecnik. “Over time, this strengthens the relationship and contributes to improved self-esteem.”

Since it is difficult for parents to see their children in emotional pain, it becomes a reflex to react to negative comments without acknowledging their emotions. “Everyone hates me at school” is often responded to with “That’s not true, honey. Don’t say that!”

“Validation is not agreement,” adds Zamecnik. “It is acknowledging the emotion that the young person is experiencing. Instead of saying, ‘That’s not true,’ try something like, ‘It sounds like you are feeling really lonely at school. That must be hard.’ Then pause. Wait. Listen. Ask an open-ended question like, ‘What’s making you feel this way?’ Then listen some more. Resist the urge to problem solve!”

Along with confidence in hobbies or other interests, physical activity can help boost teen self-esteem and reduce stress, increase cognitive ability and academic performance.

How to find a sleep schedule that works

The disruption of sleep schedules by the COVID-19 pandemic has been harder on parents than on teens. With no morning commute to school, later start times or cancelled extracurricular activities, teens were able to adopt the natural sleep schedules that their bodies wanted and being better rested helped them navigate the stress of everyday life.

“School scheduling was not created to be centered around what is best for adolescents,” says Zamecnik. “It’s largely a function of the rhythms of larger society, particularly the work schedule. There is no question that later start times would be beneficial for students.”

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted schooling, but also allowed flexible scheduling that let some teens catch up on their sleep. The full return to in-person classrooms might also be a return to sleep deprivation and parents should be aware of that.

“Try to be as consistent with sleep as possible each day of the week and minimize changes from weekends to weekdays,” adds Zamecnik. “Encourage short naps since longer naps disrupt nighttime sleep. And, of course, role model good sleep habits.”

Gaps in mental health support

In addition to challenges, ParentsCanada and Common Compass asked Canadian parents to identify gaps that exist in the current teen mental health supports that are available. About 19 per cent of participants think there is a lack of resources in general (therapists, services, etc.), 16.5 per cent identified waiting lists and wait times, 14 per cent mentioned cost or insurance coverage, with another 14 per cent pointing out general inaccessibility.

“We need to be providing supports where students already spend time – in school – rather than expecting them to navigate complex systems to get the right support,” says Zamecnik. “School social workers are working tirelessly. Principals and teachers need support and they need greater capacity to create school environments that are thoughtfully designed to promote social-emotional wellbeing.”

Along with school social workers, principals and teachers, parents deserve access to the knowledge and skills to help support teens with social anxiety, healthy social media use, low self-esteem and sleep.

For more information on workshops, visit www.commoncompass.com.

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