An interview with Chartered Clinical Psychologist Dr Martha Deiros Collado on tween and teen mental health and the burning questions caregivers have on how best to parent them in today’s world.
We were thrilled to team up with the amazing Dr Martha Deiros Collado as part of our celebration of the month of Children’s Mental Health Week. Martha has a wealth of experience working with children, young people and their families and it’s her mission to help them overcome difficulties so they can live out their preferred futures. We were keen to get her take on the subject of Tween and Teen Mental Health and the burning questions caregivers have on how best to parent them in today's world for our guest blog page.
Ali and Martha had a really insightful discussion on this on our Positive Planner Instagram page. You can catch it here if you missed it. Martha herself also has an incredible Instagram page full of hints and tips on parenting kids, tweens and teens. Go check it out here.
1: Where can we best focus our attention to help support tween and teen mental health?
Life has never been tougher on a global scale - and tweens and teens are being hit the hardest.
There is a myth in our society that children need to ‘toughen up’ and learn to ‘get over’ things faster, whether that be not winning at a race, falling over, or being teased by a sibling. The hope is this ‘tough love’ attitude prepares children to face tough situations because let’s face it, life is not easy. The expectation that children need to learn to manage disappointments and challenges – on their own – is rooted in our Western obsession with individualism. But this has been proven to have no real evidence base.
Brains do not fully mature until our mid-twenties and recent neuroscientific research shows that leaving kids to ‘figure it out’ on their own is not the way to build resilience. In fact, if we want our kids to cope with hardship, we need to support them in developing skills.
Being resilient does not mean having fewer emotional reactions. It’s about having the skills to manage and respond to emotions in a healthy and positive way. Kids who are sensitive can (and do!) have the same resilient adaptability as any other child. Allowing your child to experience their emotions fully is the first step towards resilience.
Some simple strategies you may wish to try towards this include:
Acknowledge how they feel to help them put words to feelings AND show your acceptance of any emotion they have.
Instead of: “Why are you crying again?”
Try: “I can see you’re sad, it’s okay to cry. You can cry as much as you need to. I am here for you.”
Take time to listen attentively when they share their worries without jumping to fix or rescue. Ask them how they would like you to support them and encourage them to come up with their own solutions.
If your child says: “I’m going to die of embarrassment speaking in front of my class.”
Instead of: “Once you’re up there you’ll be fine! You know your stuff.”
Try: “You’re feeling scared about this presentation, I hear you. It is a big deal. What do you think would help you feel more confident? Let me know if I can help you with anything. I am here for you.”
Use open-ended questions to help your child articulate their feelings and normalise that all feelings are valid. Opening opportunities for conversations like this also helps tweens and teens develop problem-solving skills. Questions that can be helpful include What, When, and How rather than using ‘why’ questions that can often be polarising and lead to conflict.
Instead of: “Why did you do that?”
Try: “What made you want to do that?”
Or: “How come you decided to do that?”
Or: “I wonder when you did that what you were thinking might happen?”
2: How can we tell if they are just trying to push the boundaries or if there is a genuine mental health problem?
Teenagers are a lot more vulnerable to ups and downs with their mental health because their brain is going through the greatest period of growth since the toddler years and this process aligns with huge physical, emotional and psychological changes. Teenagers go through a huge metamorphosis from children to adults and it can be filled with big emotions, impulsive behaviour, and limited ability to show empathy, logic or understanding of the consequences.
Adolescents find it hard to understand how their behaviour may impact on others or feel concern for how others might be affected by their behaviour. They have a feeling of ‘invincibility’ and are more likely to take more risks with their health and ignore any guidance set by adults.
Teenagers need a new set of limits and boundaries, one that is re-negotiated to allow for their needs of independence to be fulfilled alongside continuing to keep them safe and setting limits to ensure they are taking ‘healthy risks’.
Some signs that your child is a healthy teenager:
- Not just following or agreeing with what you say to keep the peace but openly sharing their opinions and thoughts
- Taking risks and trying out ‘new things’ with their health, in relationships, and physical challenges
- Changing their appearance through wearing different clothes, their hair, their body art/jewellery
- Sleeping, eating, and/or physically moving in a way that is different to how they were behaving before in these areas
- Wanting to spend all their spare time with their friends including retreating to their room to get away from family activities to be with friends
Some signs that your child may be struggling more than most:
- Irritability, anger, and/or tearfulness that happens more frequently and more intensely than times when they are content, smiling or enjoying activities.
- Putting themselves at risk in a way that is harmful to them and/or others (eg. taking drugs, engaging in precocious sexual activity and/or getting into a relationship with someone who is significantly older or younger than them)
- Using self-harm to cope with difficult feelings (including any form of cutting, misusing drugs or medication)
- Significantly losing or putting on weight rapidly and in a way that affects their daily routine and relationships (e.g. restricting foods, over-exercising, and avoiding eating in front of family and friends)
- Withdrawing significantly from social contacts. Including avoiding meeting with friends outside of school hours and not wanting to spend family time at home with parents and siblings.
However, there is no threshold for seeking support for mental health. You do not have to wait for things to escalate to a level where their mental health has deteriorated significantly. Often getting a different perspective on a situation and making small changes can have a huge impact on all of you at home. Think of it in the same way as visiting your GP or healthcare provider when something isn’t quite right even if it isn’t serious. As a parent, if you ever feel concerned about your child’s mental health, never doubt that seeking support may be helpful to you. At a minimum it will offer you reassurance or give you an idea of what the best next steps are to support your child.
3: What are the effects of digital exposure on tween and teen mental health?
The current generation of teens is the first to have access to social media at any moment in their pocket. This makes it more available than a drink of water! Social media use has benefits, but there is no evidence that these benefits outweigh the harm of use without age-appropriate limits and boundaries.
The evidence tells us social media interferes with sleep, reduces face-to-face interactions, gives children a warped sense of reality, and their immersion in a virtual world delays emotional and social development. Furthermore, when children spend a lot of time on social media, they get a skewed view of the world, one that shows unrealistic expectations about bodies, faces, and ideals about happiness. This can lead them to internalize a message of inadequacy and not feeling ‘good enough’ in comparison to the images they are bombarded with.
Some questions that may be useful for you to reflect on as a parent include:
- Do you have strict boundaries around screen time?
And this is for children, teenagers AND ADULTS in your home.
- Does screen use ever interfere with what you want to do as a family?
This will obviously vary from family to family, but face-to-face social interaction is vital to development. No amount of social interaction through a screen is an effective substitute for this. We need face-to-face interaction to develop basic social skills.
- Does screen use interfere with sleep?
Current guidance suggests all screens should be switched off 1 hour before bedtime (this includes TV screens). Blue light from screens has been shown to affect the production of melatonin, the ‘sleepy hormone’ and this can lead to disruptions in our body clock.
- Are you able to control snacking during screen time?
When meals are eaten in front of screens the evidence shows we lose track of how much we eat and our brain misses the signals for satiation (ie. fullness). Evidence suggests that the longer children spend looking at screens the more calories they eat.
4: How can we teach and encourage them about the importance of self-care?
You are one of the main factors that contributes to your child’s mental health and wellbeing. Meeting your own needs, therefore, is a radical act of LOVE towards your child and yourself. No parent can manage to meet their child’s needs when they are tired, hungry, or if their own needs have been neglected. Labour laws state that an employee must take lunch and rest breaks throughout an 8-hour working day. Why, then, do we think we can ‘parent’ children without taking a break from THEM and doing something for ourselves?
If you want to teach your child the importance of self-care, start by modelling what self-care looks like.
A few ideas might include:
- Eat and hydrate regularly. Find ways of creating meals that nourish you and your family. Pausing to eat or having a snack can really shift the atmosphere and food will help your energy levels and keep you healthy.
- Sleep. It improves your mood, ability to think with clarity, memory, immune function, nervous system and cellular repair and growth. Prioritising sleep is a big act of self-care.
- Look outdoors. Listen to the noises on the street, bird song, the leaves swaying in the trees. Touch some grass, look out for mini beasts. Notice how the mood changes when you go back indoors.
- Move your body. Get physical on your own or as a family and watch the mood shift.
- Practice kindness with yourself first and foremost. Seek to find kinder attributions to your behaviours. You are your child’s greatest teacher so model kindness with words of support, empathy and encouragement.
- Spend family time doing any of the activities above or anything else that works for you. Carve out space for social time in your day and model the importance of this to your kids.
- Notice your accomplishments at the end of the day. Do this as a family exercise and share a proud moment you have witnessed your child/partner/yourself make today. Don’t overlook everyday tasks - celebrate what you've managed to do. You will be amazed at how much you have already achieved! Recognising that you have reached the end of this day is a huge accomplishment. Save the rest for when you have the energy.
5: What is the best piece of advice you would give parents and carers of tweens and teens?
Focus on the relationship with your child. The more you succeed at connection with your teenager, the less you have to work at everything else.
Get to know them. You have seen your child for years, but do you really know this new person developing in front of you? Listen to your teen the same way you would when you meet a new person. Ask questions, show interest in their opinions, hold a non-judgmental stance about what they like. The more you do this, the more you will hear new things about your teenager’s inner thoughts and feelings.
Show Acceptance. Teenagers like to feel special and unique and that they are valued for who they are (who doesn’t?). Showing that you accept them fully, with their mistakes, their emotions, and their individual life choices gives them the message that there will always be space for them in your home, even when they have moved away.
Let them know they belong by joining them. Teenagers want to ‘fit in’. It is important that they have a space to do this with friends and same-aged peers, but it is also critical that they feel they belong at home, with you. Intentionally do family activities that bring up the spark in your teenager. This may be having cake at the bakery or going on bike rides or playing video games! JOIN your teen in their preferred activities, show an interest in their world. Make home a place that doesn’t function the same without them because they are at its core.