The HSC is nearly always the most anxious and stressful time of adolescents and will place pressure on mental health.
Dealing with school stress, social identity, boyfriends/girlfriends, driving, sport, parties, money…
Our children will definitely need our help and support.
In this article I’ll share the best strategies to start an open and honest conversation about mental health with your teenage children.
1. Principle of Aircraft Emergencies
In aircraft emergencies, you’re instructed to put on your own oxygen mask before attempting to help others.
Before talking about mental health with your teenage son/or daughter, you need to be prepared to talk and you need to feel confident that you can answer any questions they may have about mental health.
You need to be aware of the factors that may increase the risk of developing a mental health problem:
- Biological factors – family history
- Adverse early life experiences – e.g. bullying, death of a family member.
- Individual psychological factors – including self-esteem, coping skills or thinking style (fixed/growth mindset)
- Current circumstances – e.g. stress from work or school, money problems, relationships.
- Serious illness or physical injury
- Drug and alcohol use and experimentation
Adapted from Headspace National Youth Health Foundation
Before you sit down to discuss mental health with your son/daughter, I suggest visiting the websites of the organisations: beyondblue (focused on depression and anxiety) and headspace .(focused on holistic youth well-being).
2. Make a comparison between mental health and physical health
Sometimes it can be helpful to make a comparison between mental health and physical health.
For example, many people often get a little sick with a cold or the flu, but only a few can get very sick with something more serious, such as pneumonia.
Tell your adolescent that people who have a cold/flu are usually able to participate in normal activities, however if they get pneumonia they will need to go to hospital.
In a similar sense, feeling worried, sad, anxious or irritable are pretty common for most people.
However, if these feelings become too intense or last for a long period of time, they will begin to interfere with school, study and relationships. This may be an indication of mental illness that may or may not require treatment.
3. Don’t ask: “So how was school today?”
Your teenage son/daughter is likely to answer with a simple ‘fine’ or ‘good.’
To talk about mental health we first need to ask better questions which give us a better picture of how their day was.
These are some better questions to ask when you pick them up after school or when you sit down for dinner:
What was something that made you laugh today?
If I called your (e.g. Economics) teacher tonight what would he/she tell me about you?
Are you worried about any deadlines coming up?
If an alien spaceship came to your school to beam someone up, who would you want them to take and why?
Sometimes it can be hard to stay engaged with a teenager (especially if a conversation feels like a lecture) but these questions often yield very surprising answers and gives them a chance to share what’s on their mind! Give them a go!
4. Share what is troubling you first
Talking about mental health is about revealing what is on our mind. If your child is unwilling to share, it can be helpful to open up the conversation yourself. Talk openly and honestly.
For example, during Year 12, my Mum was changing careers and she was often very stressed. However, once she started communicating what was worrying her and what was on her mind, even some of my own HSC stress diminished as I could actually frame what was bothering me in a much larger context.
5. Encourage a regular routine
Help your son/daughter get into a consistent school routine. This includes getting up at a regular time each morning, eating 3 meals a day and getting some exercise at least twice a week.
Help your HSC student by making sure they’re not up late on a regular basis. Try not to let them sleep in very late the next day (yes, this includes weekends!)
A regular routine helps with mental health as it can provide a small sense of control over one’s life on a daily basis as well as ensuring your child is getting enough sleep every night.
6. Give them a way out of talking to you
This may sound counter-intuitive, but sometimes the best help we can do is to say that we’re there for our dependants if they need to talk, without forcing them into it.
Unfortunately, teenagers often prefer to confide in other peers and will listen to their parents less and less during the senior years of school.
Sometimes the best thing to do is to say we’re proud of them, say we’re there for them if they need, and leave the contact information of a counsellor (or another trusted adult) on their desk.
So there you have it!
These are 6 strategies to consider when starting an honest conversation about mental health with your teenage children that are studying for their HSC. Use these strategies and remember to be patient as they’ll need your guidance through these years of elevated stress and anxiety.
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Thomas Woolley loves Economics and Business Studies. He completed his HSC in 2013 and has been working at Art of Smart since 2014. He enjoys helping out his students whilst studying B Commerce / B Education at UNSW to become an actual economics/business studies teacher in 2018. Since high school Thomas has also learned to scuba dive, salsa dance, and he can fly a quadcopter like a pro. However, he still cannot skateboard.