The teen years are a time of transitions and changes – physical, social and emotional. How can we support our children as they navigate this period? Senior clinical psychologist at Institute of Mental Health (IMH) Germaine Tan shares with us her views.

To help our kids negotiate their teen hood, parents can start by paying attention to the challenges unique to this phase of their lives. Germaine points out some signs to look out for, such as insufficient rest, concerns over their body image, and out-of-norm behaviour such as defiance and rebellion.

Growing pains

Teenagers, who are prone to staying up and sleeping in late, often do not get enough rest, Germaine notes. Such disruption of regular sleep-wake cycles may have an impact on their mood and other behaviours. Sufficient sleep is essential for the mind and body to rejuvenate.

Teen hood is also a time for exploring our identity and establishing a sense of self. Teenagers often have to deal with physical changes and may be especially conscious about their appearances. This becomes a problem when concerns about body image are taken to the extreme and the teen pursues an unrealistic expectation of a perfect self. This could show up in changes in their eating patterns such as extreme dieting, binging or purging.

Every young person will experience their own challenges, Germaine points out, as teen hood is a process that has to take place before the child can metamorphosize to an adult. Parents tread a fine line between giving their growing child autonomy and space, and deciding which behaviours are problematic enough for them to step in. Help your children draw boundaries on which behaviours are acceptable and which are not.

As parents, we also need to learn to deal with our own anxieties. Avoid judging or blaming your teen, Germaine advises, so that your kids do not feel that their problems are minimised or dismissed. Nor should parents give false assurances or quick fixes. By taking a step back, you can help to build their teens’ resilience or capacity to solve their own problems. Instead, be present, ask open-ended questions and look for opportunities to check in with them. By validating their feelings, your teen is more likely to share their problems with you, she says.

Knowing when to seek help

How do we know when our teen needs help? Germaine suggests looking out for persistent symptoms such as mood swings, social withdrawal and a marked deterioration in day-to-day functioning. Another way is to check with various sources such as their friends and teachers.

Try finding the right moment to talk to them, she says. Some parents find it easier to get theirteen to open up over avenues such as WhatsApp, a shared journal or even letters. If your teen is reluctant to confide in you, assure them that there are trusted adults such as school counsellors that they can approach.

There are also other sources of help available such as the SOS and IMH 24-hour helplines. Parents can also check out Healthhub’s website on mental well-being and self-care resources available here. Local youth hang-out zone *SCAPE also has a physical space called CHAT that teens can go to for mental health support.

The content of this article was based on a 938 radio interview with Germaine Tan, Senior Clinical Psychologist at Institute of Mental Health (IMH).