Supporting your teenager's mental health

The number of New Zealand youth experiencing anxiety and depression continues to increase. As a parent, it can be a scary realisation. With some teens being more open than others, it is not always easy to know how they are doing. However, there are plenty of ways to support your teen in looking after their mental health.

Invest in an alarm clock                   

Wellington psychologist Giselle Bahr, who specialises in child and adolescent mental health, emphasises the importance of sleep. In her opinion, getting enough sleep is one of the most important things teenagers can do for their mental health, if not the most important. Studies recommend teenagers aim for an average of 9 hours sleep per night. To help with this, Giselle encourages parents and teenagers to invest in an alarm clock and leave their phones in another room when they go to bed.

“People think less well when their phone is in the same room as them,” explains Giselle, “even if it’s not on. Having it in the same room as you somehow disrupts your capacity for thinking.”

Make conscious food choices

Recent studies have found that anxiety and depression are more common in people who eat highly processed, Western diets. Opting for Mediterranean meals, over fast food, during family meals and school lunches could make for happier teens, according to research published in the Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. Fruits, vegetables, legumes, wholegrains, seafood and extra virgin olive oil all fit in to a typical Mediterranean diet.

Encouraging your family to consume a balanced diet is a great step toward supporting your teenager’s wellbeing, self-esteem and overall mental health. If you are ever in doubt, consult a registered dietician.

Give the gift of yoga

Next time you are looking to buy your teen a gift, consider purchasing them a gift voucher for a yoga class. Yoga positively effects mental resilience and wellbeing, explains yoga teacher Haidee Stairmand. It allows “the mind to become interested in the body, through breathing and moving,” she adds.

Slower styles of yoga, including yoga Nidra meditation, can be beneficial for relaxation and mental wellbeing, advises Haidee. “Your body will tell you after your practise if that was for you or not. Slowing down feels good and gives us permission to slow down in other areas of our life too.”

Encourage social connections

“Social connection is the most important thing for a human being to have”, says Giselle. Research supports this, with a study published in the Journal of Health and Social Behaviour finding that social connections influence mental health, physical health and mortality risk.

Offering your teenager support and encouraging them to be around positive, supportive peers could make a significant difference to their mental health – particularly if they are struggling with depression.

“A strong support system, such as friends and family, is crucial in helping people with depression to combat isolation and going through it alone”, advises registered mental health Nurse Jed Manalo.

Talk about the important stuff

Talking to your teenager about what matters to them, what interests them and who they want to be, is important for their mental health. Psychologist Giselle Bahr states that it is important for teenagers to know that they can control who they are and how they present themselves. She advises teenagers to be aware of their feelings, as they help us to figure out what we care about.

The more your teenager understands who they are and what they value, the more their confidence is likely to grow. As a result, your teen will be less likely to worry about what others think. It’s a great way to build mental resilience.

Introduce healthy breathing habits

 If you notice your teenager frequently sighing and yawning, struggling to sleep, or feeling anxious and out of breath, they may benefit from a visit to a breathing therapist.

Tania Clifton-Smith is the director of BradCliff  Breathing, where she helps people of all ages balance their mental and physical health by teaching healthy breathing practises.  Tania recommends the following to experience healthy breathing patterns:

  • Breathe in the nose and out the nose with the abdomen gently rising and falling. Breathing like this at a resting 10-14 breathes per minute puts our body’s physiology into a state of balance, working the correct muscles and calming the mind.
  • Stop, relax shoulders and breathe out. You cannot panic with relaxed shoulders. This sends a message to your brain and body that all is well.
  • Get in touch with your doctor if you experience breathing discomfort, erratic heartbeats, chest pains or dizzy spells.

Assure them that it is ok to seek help

We all come up against challenges in life. The good news we don’t have to deal with everything alone. This is so important for teenagers to know. Ensure your teen knows that there are so many people out there who have their best interests at heart. List these people for them, including yourself.

“It might be a family member, a school guidance counsellor, a church minister or it might be a youth worker”, adds Giselle.

If your child is struggling with anxiety, mental health Nurse Jed Manalo suggests seeking the help of a mental health professional.

“Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is a beneficial skill to use for people with anxiety”, explains Jed. “The basic premise of CBT is that it is our thoughts, not external events, that affect our emotions. The same event can happen on different people but everyone will perceive it differently and thus feel and act differently. If you can challenge your thoughts and how you perceive the situation, you can change how an event affects you emotionally and therefore change how you act.”

It can also be helpful for your teen to know that many helplines are just a call away.



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