Mental Well-being

Raising Teens

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According to a new survey by the Department of Education, more than one in three teenage girls now suffer from anxiety or depression.

A study of 30,000 pupils found the number of girls with poor mental health rose by 10 per cent in the past decade – and they were twice as likely as boys to report symptoms.

According to the Daily Mail the research also found teenagers from more affluent backgrounds were more likely to suffer from anxiety or depression than the less well-off.

All of this comes as no surprise. Instead, I awoke listening to BBC Radio 4 Today program’s coverage of this story with a dull sense of frustration. I asked myself why – even with these devastating figures – we still do so little about mental health in general and teenagers in particular.

Why, when we know young people are struggling with huge hormonal changes and have still to develop really advanced cognitive powers, do we sit back and watch this social tragedy unfold.

The report highlights the problem for girls. I can see this is true. Girls are more invested in some areas of social media, they can be more competitive in an inappropriate way and, crucially, are not as keen as boys to head for the sports field. Those that do, often find relief from stress and anxiety. The right kind of competition is a good thing. Inappropriate competitiveness is not.

Young girls and boys are the greatest legacy for future generations and yet we fail to make a critical investment that will secure their resilience and strength; a personal foundation that would help them prosper and contribute to a thriving society.

The report highlights problems with social media and the challenges children face with aspirational parents who exert undue pressure over exam success. These are certainly critical factors and there may be other – highly individual – triggers.

Yet, there is little point in focusing on negatives; the Internet and so-called pushy parents are a fact of life. The truth is, social media is here to stay and good parents will always want to support their children even when they mistake pressure for guidance.

The answer may be to concentrate on the positive aspects of life. Of course this sounds so easy. It isn’t. Just because we know what should be done doesn’t mean we choose to do it.

For seven years I worked on ITV’s Tonight program. I interviewed some of the best child psychologists and therapist in the UK, Holland and the US. They all agree on a few key points.

  • Children need a firm foundation which allows them to feel secure
  • They need the courage to fail; to know that they can fall over and you will pick them up.
  • They need plenty of real love and only a little indulgence.

These key points are underpinned by some practical issues.

  • Children need regular, physical exercise – preferably in the open air.
  • They need a diet within which processed food is restricted.
  • They need to understand how to build mental strength; that it is not just a genetic gift but something that can be taught.

This last point is vital and yet often overlooked.

Watch any athlete at the Rio Olympics and you will see years of hard physical training coming to fruition. Yet, just before the event when their physical efforts subside before the final push, you will see them using their mental focus. This is the evidence that parallel to their physical training is the psychological coaching which gives them the mental endurance to successfully compete; not necessarily to win but to have the best chance of winning.

Raising a child is like coaching an athlete. It is not easy. There is no short-cut.

Sometimes we forget that.