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How to break the wall of silence

05 May 2017

Against a backdrop of new research depicting the declining mental health of young people, particularly girls, we ask experts for their top tips on what teenagers really need


Sonia Mainstone-Cotton, nurture consultant

RECOGNISE and use “emotion language” with your teenager. Acknowledge how they are feeling. You could use words such as: “I know you are feeling upset about falling out with your friend, it’s OK to feel cross and upset. When you are ready, I am here to help you think about a way forward.” Don’t belittle their feelings or come up with immediate solutions, but be there to listen. Help your teenager to use emotion language with themselves, for example: “I know I am feeling scared, that is OK and normal; it’s an exam, every 16-year-old taking exams is feeling scared right now.”

Many children learn at a young age to self-criticise. If we can teach our teenagers to be self-compassionate, we are offering them a great life skill. Being kind to themselves is particularly important for girls and boys who are high achievers, and who have high expectations. Learning to be self-compassionate starts with their emotional vocabulary, but also is about encouraging them to recognise when they need to take a break from working hard, or to treat themselves nicely: going outside, listening to their favourite music, reading a book, having a drink, or by eating some food that makes them feel good. During exam time, or when they are feeling very stressed, encourage them to think about what they find life-giving, such as seeing friends, going for a walk, doing art or exercise. Then ask them each day: “ What will you do today that makes you happy?”

Teenagers experience so much turmoil: they are independent young adults, but still partly children. Support teens emotionally without being patronising; empathise with struggles instead of being judgmental. A teenager might feel overwhelmed with school or home, and may not have enough time to balance school work, social life and earning money, and they should not be pressured to. To nurture themselves they may need time with friends outside of home and school, and should be supported in this.


Sonia Mainstone-Cotton, is a nurture consultant and wellbeing trainer. She is the author of Promoting Young Children’s Emotional Health and Wellbeing (Jessica Kingsley, 2017)


Bex Lewis, digital media expert

DIGITAL media are now a part of everyday life, especially for teenagers. Ensure that they become part of every day conversations: what have they seen that was interesting, what was troubling, can they show you how to use something? Familiarise yourself with the opportunities and risks online, as you would any other space that your children are involved in. And define your boundaries. For example, try putting phones away at mealtimes (as I had to do with the book I was reading as a child) for a week and see if it changes things: talk about what’s changed, and whether it’s worth continuing. Many families design agreements about appropriate use of technology, including time, place, and on what basis technology might be withdrawn (a quick search will give examples to build from). A valuable exercise is to get your teenager to list the top ten values they want to demonstrate online (honesty, friendliness, etc.). Consider a list of behaviour to avoid as well, and the consequences of engaging in those negative practices (news stories can help prompt conversation).

Teenagers are often bright and inventive, able to raise interesting questions unencumbered by assumption or jadedness. These questions could be about life, their dreams, or deep theological questions. Look for opportunities to encourage questions, exploration and creativity, rather than shut them down. The internet offers good opportunities to explore these questions, either through a search of material online (teaching them critical engagement is key), or allowing them to become part of groups in which topics are discussed, in the knowledge that you’ll be alongside them (either physically, or as someone they can talk to about the material they encounter). I always appreciate students who understand that there’s often not a ‘right’ answer, but persistence, problem solving and an enquiring mind are key.


Dr Bex Lewis is senior lecturer in digital marketing at Manchester Metropolitan University and director of Digital Fingerprint. She is the author of Raising Children in a Digital Age (Lion Hudson, 2014)


Mary Hawes, youth and children’s advisor

BITE your lip, even if you don’t approve of their choice of boy/girlfriend. But you will need to be there for them when it all falls apart. At times they need someone who isn’t their parent to confide in, whom they trust. Hopefully, you have a wide reach of trusted friends who take an interest in them and can offer a listening, non-judgemental ear. This is a great role for godparents of teenagers.

Your child is getting older, and doesn’t need you to pretend that everything is all right all of the time. They want to be allowed to be part of adult conversations, to listen in, to have their say, and not to be packed off to find something else to do. They need to be with you, to see what it means to be adult.

 Be expressive. Your child needs to know you love them, and even though they might shrug off the hug, the touch, or the words, they will remember them.


The Revd Mary Hawes is the national youth and children’s advisor for the Church of England


Rachel Turner, parenting for faith expert

HELP them identify and communicate their emotions. Often teens label their emotions in broad terms: they feel “angry”, “upset”, “happy”, or they may say “I don’t know”. They may not have the language, or the experience, to label those emotions more accurately. But the more they can understand their emotions and articulate them to themselves and others, the more they can feel understood, and powerful to do something about it. Words like “misunderstood”, “neglected”, “disempowered”, “peaceful”, “stressed”, “pressured”, “insecure”, “afraid”, “relieved”, “helpless”, “disappointed”, “satisfied”, “content”, and “regretful” can help teens better say what they are feeling. Feel free to ask questions like: “That sounds tough. I wonder if you are feeling more misunderstood, or more disappointed?”

Be open about your journey. Teens see a window into how to cope with their emotions by watching adults. By deliberately allowing teens to hear about your days, and how you are defining your emotions and responding to them, it can help create a framework for how to cope with their own emotions. Try using different emotions in your language and define them as you talk about your day: “I was feeling so disappointed yesterday. I had been looking forward to that meeting for so long, and when it ended up being so different. . . I was angry a bit, and sad a bit, but most of all I was disappointed. Just disappointed that all my hopes for what could come out of that meeting didn’t happened. I need to really re-think.” They also need to see how you protect and develop your mental health. Share stories of how you made mistakes in the past, and what you learned. Share about times of struggle and how you climbed out. Give them the raft of stories they need to be able to see that mental and emotional health is a journey for all people, and it’s important for them to make powerful choices about it for themselves.

Praise what you want to see. There are so many times teens make good decisions to take care of themselves and it’s important that we recognise and acknowledge it. “I just wanted to say how much I admire how you have been making sure your brain has had enough sleep throughout this exam period. I wish I had been that wise at your age,” goes a long way to encourage them. Whether you notice them defriending someone who is rude to them on Facebook, or sticking up for themselves with friends, or just trying new things, notice what they are doing and affirm the boldness and wisdom they are displaying. They are learning to make choices and they will be making many good ones. Show them that you admire the great ones they make.


Rachel Turner is the parenting for faith pioneer at the Bible Reading Fellowship (BRF). She is the author of four books on parenting, and a Parenting for Faith course


Dean Pusey, diocesan youth advisor

LISTEN with your ears, not your mouth. Avoid being judgemental and to try not to react. It is easy for a parent to have huge expectations and hopes for their child, but increased expectations can result in increased anxiety. Actively listening to your teenager means hearing and understanding what is being said, para-phrasing back to them what they are telling you, and being wholly emotionally and physically present (not on your phone, or watching TV) whilst they share how they are feeling. It’s also important to find out what hopes, aspirations and dreams they have and how these can be supported positively. With all that listening, there is a place for speaking. Get used to talking about emotions as a family and being open about them: what makes you happy or sad? Has there been a history of mental health difficulties in the family?

If your teenager is struggling ask how you can help. Support is such a broad term and means different things to different people. Your teenager may well benefit from another trusted adult to talk to, so don’t be frightened to suggest or implement this. It is not easy to be “present” to what seems like pain. The important thing is to help them realise that they are not alone. It is important to consider your own culture’s acceptance of mental health concerns. In some communities there may be feelings of shame and concern over the perception of the wider community. Be aware that you may also need support.

Perhaps you can help, but sometimes you can’t. Be prepared to say “I’m sorry” or “I don’t know”. Don’t try and fix them by having all the answers. You don’t, and you won’t. You can work through the challenges with prayers alongside practical support. The following organisations might be helpful: Young Minds; Mind & Soul; Think Twice; Self Harm UK.


Dean Pusey is the diocesan youth officer for the diocese of St Albans. CONCRETE mental health and young people think tank is made up of youth workers, young people and specialists in the field of mental health


'They don't want you as a friend' - Steve Biddulp, child psychologist and best-selling author

ALTHOUGH they look smart, sometimes they aren’t. Brain development in teens is very uneven and they actually go backwards in the early teens, having real problems thinking through consequences and making good choices. They need our help. Don’t be fooled that because they sound logical, and grown up, that they actually are.This is the age when sensible girls go into a coma on straight gin while out with some friends, or have horrible experiences sexually, because they just didn’t think that could happen. So, encourage their independence, their growing freedom, but keep a clear sense of where, what, when, and who with. Set healthy boundaries for them, proving their trustworthiness: having clear agreements on getting home, being able to be contacted on the phone, having a “come and get me, I am out of my depth” code for texting you. By having some backbone in how you deal with her, calmly and logically, she will gradually grow strong in herself and in her dealings with others.

They have a second childhood. Subtract 12 from her age. Then you will have an idea what she is going through - AGAIN. Thirteen year-olds are often very babylike, soft and dependent. It’s a great chance to repair attachment if in their babyhood things were stressful or rushed, or you were sick or absent some of the time. Fourteen-year-olds can be like two-year-olds: fractious and wanting their own way. Making them prove themselves and be accountable is fine. Stay affectionate, but be relaxed about their need for space, and that they might be moody and temperamental. Of course, be sure that you still check in as to how they are going, or if anything is seriously wrong. Aunties can be a big help at this age. Fifteen is much easier, and so on.

They don’t want you to be a friend. They want you as a parent. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be very close to your teenage girl and have deep talks with her, and be affectionate and have fun. These are the joys of parenthood. And one day, when she is 25 or 30, you can be truly friends. But in the teenage years, its about her sharing and you listening. And you do something a friend doesn’t: you can be unpopular for her own good. Also, it’s good not to be as worried about clothes, fashion, figure or hair as she is (if she is, hopefully not too much). She doesn’t need competition either. A frumpy mum and dad create a certain relief in a teenage girl.


Steve Biddulph has sold more than four million books on parenting and family life. His latest book is 10 Things Girls Need Most (Thorsons, 2017)

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