[ parenting the teenage years ]
It may surprise some
parents to learn that
one in five people will
& your teenager
experience a mental
illness in their lifetime.
Teenagers are no
exception, with one
study finding more
than 20% of
12 and 16 have mental
Kids Help Line, a confidential telephone Similarly, eating disorders aren’t just Promoting good mental health in young
support service, has seen a 200% out-of-control diets, but mental health people is the key to preventing mental
increase in mental health calls since problems which need to be addressed. illness. Young people need to learn how
1994. Depression, anxiety, attention Parents of teenagers with mental health to deal with life’s obstacles. A healthy
deficit disorders and problems managing problems will often wait to see if a problem self-esteem, good relationships with family
anger were major concerns for kids sorts itself out. However, if a problem members and school friends can help
aged 10 to 14. For callers between lasts for more than a few weeks and has teenagers weather the ups and downs
15 and 18, the major problems were a significant effect on the young person’s of adolescence and help ward off potential
depression, self-harming behaviours, day-to-day functioning, it is probably time mental health problems.
suicidal thoughts and anxiety. to seek help. Remember the earlier the
Unfortunately, some people still think intervention, the better the results. Like common adolescent
of mental health in terms of ‘madness’ or most physical illnesses, mental health mental health
‘craziness’. This stigma can discourage
parents from contacting services when
problems can be treated. Effective
treatments including counselling and
their children need help. Your General support from community-based services x Depression
Practitioner or community health centre can can make a difference and can help x Eating disorders
be a good starting point for getting help. prevent problems recurring. x Anxiety disorders (such as panic attacks)
Depression, for example, has a big x Challenging and disruptive behaviours
Promoting good mental health x Attention deficit hyperactivity disorders
impact on a young person’s life. It can
Young people today face unprecedented (difficulty concentrating, easily distracted)
impair their ability to enjoy life, affect
levels of expectation. Even some older x Post-traumatic stress
school performance and relationships
people spend their lives thinking, “this x Psychoses (distorted perception,
with friends. But rather than being seen
relationship (or these children, this job) hearing voices, paranoia)
as an illness, depression is sometimes
will make me happy”. Today’s world is x Suicide
seen as a personal weakness or failure.
also intensely competitive. Teenagers are
Extracts from the having to face these challenges much earlier.
Sources for Mental Health, Depression and Eating
Too many end up seeing themselves as Disorders: NSW Health, Kids Help Line, Reach Out
website, NHS website. Additional information for
Family Help Kit failures or ‘losers’ at an early age. Suicide and Depression pages came from ‘Leaving
Early’ by Bronwyn Donaghy
[ 12 ]
[ health & wellbeing ]
– they’re not just about being thin
case study Fashion pressures Anorexia and bulimia
Alison’s parents were becoming Many girls also experience pressure – the warning signs
concerned that she wasn’t eating from a society that promotes thin females. If the answer to many of these
as well as she used to. It had been The media, advertising and popular culture questions is ‘yes’, your teenager may
nearly three weeks since she’d had all glamorise a thin ‘look’ in women by have an eating disorder.
a proper ‘sit down’ meal. She was promoting the illusion that a perfect body Is your teenager:
also becoming increasingly moody brings with it a perfect life. x significantly underweight for their
and argumentative which was unusual But most women do not conform age and height?
for her. Each time her parents tried to this ‘fashionable’ thin look. Research x binge eating then feeling guilty?
to talk with her, she would tell them shows that if women were the same x telling you or friends that they’re fat
to “leave me alone!” size as mannequins they would not have no matter how thin they become?
Her brother Mark said a few weeks enough body fat to be able to menstruate. x saying they have a sense of control
Photography by Warwick Orme
ago he heard some girls at school Nature did not get it wrong but the when they say ‘no’ to food?
teasing her about being a bit chubby. pressure to be thin makes some girls x going to extreme lengths to
She wasn’t – but one of the girls was dissatisfied and unhappy about their control/reduce weight such as:
jealous because a boy they all liked body image. – inducing vomiting
asked Alison out on a date. As if Though disordered eating is common, – fasting or restricting food intake
this wasn’t bad enough, Alison’s face serious eating disorders are not common. – over exercising
began to break out in pimples soon Eating disorders affect both sexes, – misusing laxatives, diuretics
after which made her feel even more adolescent girls are particularly vulnerable. (fluid tablets), diet pills or
unattractive. Surveys indicate that girls as young as purgatives?
6 to 8 years-of-age can believe an ‘ideal x avoiding eating with the
weight’ is thinner than their own body. family or going straight
Alison’s story shows how problems can More and more boys are also worrying to the bathroom after
arise from seemingly trivial events. As about body image. For example, some eating?
adults, we tend to ‘shrug off’ these young men feel they need to ‘bulk up’ x eating large amounts
moments, but for adolescents this is not to be accepted and successful. of food without gaining
always so easy. They’re often experi- Eating disorders are serious concerns. weight (due to vomiting
encing many changes in their lives As with all mental health issues, the earlier or laxatives)?
and lack an adult’s self confidence professional help is sought the better the x eating compulsively,
or experience to deal with them. outcomes. hiding food or eating
Feeling they can control at least one Anorexia and bulimia – the most in secret?
part of their lives through eating is common x wearing loose clothes
common eating disorders
among female teenagers (and a smaller to hide their body?
Eating disorders are preoccupations with
percentage of boys) with eating disorders. Have they:
food, weight and appearance to the point
For some, not eating acts as an x stopped having
where a person’s health, relationships and
emotional ‘pain reliever.’ Nothing else their period?
other aspects of their day-to-day life are
matters except how much they’ve eaten, x lost their appetite
affected. Anorexia Nervosa (anorexia) and
what they weigh, what they’ll eat next and for more than
Bulimia Nervosa (bulimia) are the most
how much control they can exercise over common. With anorexia, a person worries 2 or 3 weeks
their food intake. By limiting their feelings about becoming fat or gaining weight no (not just temporarily
to only food, other problems seem to matter how thin they become. With bulimia, from a cold, upset
disappear or become easier to manage. the person has repeated bouts of binge stomach or minor
Family problems, bullying, study eating and then tries to compensate in ways illness)?
pressure, low self-esteem, poor self-image, such as dieting or vomiting. A sufferer can x lost some of their
and physical and sexual abuse can all be have symptoms of both problems in their hair?
underlying problems for an eating disorder. eating disorder.
[ 13 ]
[ parenting the teenage years ]
The high cost of anorexia How to help your teenager develop
and bulimia a positive body image
The physical and emotional costs
of anorexia and bulimia are high. In Young people are very conscious and critical of their weight, shape and
extreme cases they can cause death. appearance. Like self-esteem, helping your teenager develop a positive body
Physical effects image is a ‘gift for life’.
x Reassure them about body changes during puberty (see page 4 for more
x Growth of fine, downy hair
x Help your teenager discover what they like and value about themselves.
over the face and body
x Discourage family members from criticising each other’s appearance.
x Difficulty thinking clearly
x Think about how your own eating habits and attitudes to body image may affect
x Sensitivity to cold
x Fertility problems
x Don’t single out overweight kids for special health regimes and include the whole
x Erosion of tooth enamel
family in the goal of health and fitness.
and tooth decay
x Encourage your teenager to express their emotions in effective and appropriate ways.
x Osteoporosis (weakened bones)
x Keep plenty of healthy snacks such as fruit and bread in the house.
x Anaemia (problem with the blood)
x Point out that healthy, attractive, successful people come in many shapes and sizes.
x Kidney problems
x Explain how TV and magazine images are often changed to make women look
x Abnormal heart rhythm
slimmer than they are.
x Ruptured stomach
x Start early – the best time to help your child develop a positive body image
is well before their teens.
and emotional effects
where to get help
x Mood swings x Your family doctor
x Social isolation x NSW Association for Mental Health, Mental Health Information Service
x Family conflict 02 9816 5688 or 1800 674 200 (freecall outside Sydney)
x Guilt Monday to Friday 12:30pm – 4:30pm
x Secretive or deceptive x Eating Disorders Support and Information Line on: 02 9412 4499
Source: ‘NSW Health Family Help Kit’
– when the ‘blues’ won’t go away
Everyone gets the ‘blues’ now Recent surveys suggest up to 1 in 5
people will experience depression at
and then, but people who feel some time.
down for more than a few It can be hard to know if your adolescent
weeks may be depressed. is depressed. After all, teenagers are often
moody – but depression is more than this.
Adolescence is a period of Depression is a serious illness, and it is
significant change and important your adolescent gets help, just
like you would seek professional advice
development. For some
for a physical illness.
adolescents, it can be a difficult Sometimes it can be easy to see why
and confusing period of life your teenager is depressed. But often
depression can appear from nowhere.
and this can make them Teenagers don’t always understand
vulnerable to depression. why they feel down, or even know how
[ 14 ]
[ health & wellbeing ]
to express what they feel. This makes
it hard for parents to work out when
what are the
the ‘blues’ have turned into something causes?
There is no single cause
Many depressed young people appear
for depression. It may be
to be angry or irritable rather than sad.
a psychological, chemical
They may become hostile, take risks
or social problem, or a
and push people away.
combination of any of these.
If left untreated, the problem can
x Psychological – life events such
spiral into alcohol and drug use. This
as the loss of someone close can
can lead to more problems and make
lead to feelings of hopelessness
their depression worse. In some people,
about the future
alcohol, drugs, prescription medicine or
x Chemical – changes in brain
physical illness can trigger depression.
chemicals can cause depression
People whose close relatives have
x Social – a reduction in activities
depression are also at greater risk of
or interests can both cause
developing the illness.
depression and arise from
Many people falsely believe teenagers
should be able to shake off the emotional
symptoms caused by depression.
“If only they tried hard enough,” is often
the thought. This is dangerous, as it can
what can where to get help
make teenagers feel weak or ashamed you do? In an emergency contact your
and discourage them from seeking help. General Practitioner or local
When your teenager is feeling down,
It also fails to recognise that depression hospital Emergency Department
it’s important to listen and offer help
is a mental illness. 24 hour telephone services are:
and support them to seek help.
The good news is that depression can x Kids Help Line 1800 55 1800
Encourage them to:
be treated effectively with counselling x Lifeline 13 11 14
x talk about their feelings (let them
and sometimes with medication. With x Youthline (youth counselling)
know they don’t have to carry the
treatment, many people start to feel 02 9633 3666 (Parramatta).
better in just a few weeks. For other help, the first point
x talk to other people they trust
x ask for help when they need it of contact can be:
what are the x spend time with their friends
x join in sports, school activities
x Your local Area Health Service
(during business hours) including
warning signs? or hobbies which they enjoy and community health centres or
x persistent sadness or anger, that help build their confidence specialist child and adolescent
frequent crying x get involved in organisations that mental health services.
x difficulty thinking or concentrating, support them and help them to x Other specialists who work with
a worsening of school performance develop interests children and adolescents such as
x feelings of guilt, worthlessness, x exercise (exercise releases brain paediatricians, child psychiatrists
hopelessness, helplessness chemicals which help lift our spirits) and psychologists may also be
x lack of interest in friends, family and x find ways to relax (these can be able to provide help.
activities they previously enjoyed simple such as seeing a movie If you would like more information
x lack of energy, enthusiasm or or going for a walk or a surf) about mental health and services
motivation (feeling slowed down) x write down what they’re thinking contact:
x restlessness, irritability or agitation or to express their thoughts in x NSW Association for Mental Health,
x changes in sleeping patterns other creative ways like painting. Mental Health Information Service
– not being able to sleep or If your teenager is depressed for Monday to Friday, 12.30pm – 4.30pm
sleeping more than usual a significant period of time it is 02 9816 5688 or 1800 674 200
x changes in eating patterns important to seek professional help. (freecall outside Sydney)
– eating more or less than usual If you or they are not taken seriously
x thoughts of death, suicide or at one place then seek help else-
harming themselves. where until you are both satisfied. Source: ‘NSW Health Family Help Kit’
Extracts from the
Family Help Kit [ 15 ]
[ parenting the teenage years ]
– when young people need help
to identify which behaviours are
Suicide prevention is While all of us feel sad or unhappy
associated with an illness like depression
at some time, when young people
everybody’s business. are depressed they may feel hopeless, and which behaviours are part of their
Suicide attempts rarely helpless or overwhelmed by despair.
Remember, not all young people
happen without some with depression are suicidal, and not who is at risk?
warning. Learning how all adolescents who attempt suicide are
All teenagers are vulnerable.
depressed. However, if young people are
to recognise the early depressed they should be assessed for Few will have learnt how to deal
with everything that life can throw
warning signs and taking suicide risk.
at them and some people have
Suicide may take one life, but it affects
them seriously may help whole communities. It is a human tragedy, stronger coping skills than others.
The following stress factors may
someone close to you. especially when it involves the lives of
make a young person more vulnerable
Often this is the crucial Some young people resist asking for to suicide risk:
x loss of an important person through
first step in suicide help simply because they aren’t aware
death or separation
of the range of services available to them.
prevention. Your GP or local community health centre x recent suicide of a friend or relative
is a useful starting point. x breaking up with a girlfriend or
Possible warning signs x trouble with school or the police
Many young people may, as part of their x feared or confirmed pregnancy
adolescent development, push the limits x being a victim of sexual or other
at home, isolate themselves from family abuse (now or in the past)
members and experiment with risky x family conflict or domestic violence.
behaviour. Some families need help
what are the warning signs?
There are lots of factors which are x giving away personal possessions
linked to youth suicide. Although x talking about death and suicide,
it is not possible to prevent every such as “I wish I was dead”,
suicide, knowing about some “no one cares if I live or die”,
of the warning signs may help “does it hurt to die?”
people intervene sooner. x feeling worthless or letting parents
These include: or others down
x expressing feelings x withdrawing from friends
of hopelessness x a sudden bout of cheerfulness after
x a drop in their standard of a long period of sadness or anger.
school work and attendance This is critical. Having made a
Photography by Warwick Orme
x painting, drawing or decision (i.e. to die) they may feel
writing about death as though they can now stop
or suicide worrying about their problems.
[ 16 ]
[ health & wellbeing ]
where to get help
x In an emergency contact the
Emergency Department of your
local hospital or dial 000.
x Your local Area Health Service (during
business hours) including community
health centres or specialist child and
adolescent mental health services
x Other specialists who work with
children and adolescents such
as paediatricians and child
x The ‘Reachout’ website which
provides a comprehensive online
database of services to prevent youth
x Your local General Practitioner
24 hour telephone services are:
x Kids Help Line 1800 55 1800
x Lifeline 13 11 14
If you would like more information about
mental health and services contact the
NSW Association for Mental Health, While all of us feel sad or unhappy at some time,
Mental Health Information Service when young people are depressed they may feel
Monday to Friday, 12.30pm – 4.30pm
on 02 9816 5688 or 1800 674 200
hopeless, helpless or overwhelmed by despair.
(freecall outside Sydney)
Source: NSW Health Family Help Kit It happens to all sorts
what you can do to help? “When I first started working in this
area I was looking for reasons why
Although parents may have difficulty in talking with young people about this awful thing had happened to
personal issues, good communication is important to understanding what these particular families. I was
they are feeling and thinking. looking for flaws, for faults in the
x Listen to them. Giving them your full attention and listening can immediately way they ran their lives, for mistakes
say, “I care”. in the way they raised their children.
x Let them know you take their concerns seriously (no matter how minor they I wanted to feel safe in the
may seem to you). knowledge that it couldn’t happen
x Ask them if they’re thinking of hurting themselves. to me or mine. I discovered that
x Take any talk of self-harm or suicide seriously. there is no such guarantee. These
x Tell them that if they need help you are there for them.
people were just like me. These
x Don’t promise to keep any threat to hurt themselves a secret (keeping their
families were just like mine. Suicide
confidences is important, but you may need to break a confidence to save
can happen to anyone, anywhere,
x Stay with them if you think there is an immediate risk they’ll hurt themselves. any time.”
x Give them messages of hope and support; talk to them about alternative Gail Kirby, Community Health Educator
in ‘Leaving Early – Youth suicide: the horror,
ways of solving their problems. the heartbreak, the hope’, by Bronwyn Donaghy,
x Help them make and maintain contact with a professional who can help Harper Health 1997
(few teenagers will seek help on their own).
Extracts from the
Family Help Kit
[ 17 ]