Monday 20 October 2014

Raising Teenage Girls: Part 2 - The Happiness Project

Parents can help daughters deal with low self-esteem, depression and anxiety

Parents can help daughters deal with low self-esteem. Pictured posed by model.
Parents can help daughters deal with low self-esteem. Pictured posed by model.

Most parents will know what to do if their child comes to them with a sore tooth, a cold or a grazed knee – but what if the problem goes deeper?

On a daily basis, many teenage girls battle with depression, low self-esteem, self-harm and eating disorders. But nurturing a daughter's good mental health is often a parent's blind spot.

The 'My World Survey', the first of its kind to address the mental health of young people in Ireland, revealed that one-in-three between the ages of 12 and 25 has experienced mental health distress.

The survey showed teenage girls display lower levels of self-esteem than male peers, are less likely to cope well with problems and more likely to suffer higher levels of depression and anxiety.

"It's difficult to say whether young girls today face more mental-health issues or whether, we have as a society moved the subject out of the shadows and are prepared to discuss it more openly," says Dr Joseph Duffy, director of clinical governance and clinical psychologist for Headstrong, the national centre for youth mental health.

"Certainly social media has added an extra layer of pressure in terms of being able to measure their popularity.

"The financial stress that families are now under also means that what our young people expected in terms of activities, clothes and pocket money may have changed.

"Adolescence is very much about fitting in, carving out an identity and belonging and anything they see as an impediment to that can be interpreted as catastrophic."

But in a world where teenage girls are often tucked behind the screens of their smartphone or iPad, headphones in – how can parents know if their child is experiencing emotional distress?

Common triggers tend to be transitions such as a change in school or college or starting out with a new circle of friends.

Relationship breakdowns among family or friends can also cause stress. According to the survey, teens (female and male) cited the top three causes of stress as school, family and friends.

"But we can't under-estimate small issues which can trigger mental-health worries," says Dr Duffy. "It's important for parents to watch out for anything out of the ordinary in your daughter's life. Are they over or under-sleeping? Over or under eating? Socialising more or withdrawing more?

"Instead of showing normal levels of anxiety, do they suddenly appear blasé about issues that would have concerned them in the past?"

Broaching a mental-health concern can feel overwhelming for parents. "There's a common fear among parents that they might make the problem worse by mentioning it or put the idea in their heads," says Helen Keeley, consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist and clinical advisor for ReachOut.com.

"Parents need to keep the lines of communication open and mean it when they say they're willing to hear anything the child wants to talk about."

Opening up discussion in the car, when it feels more casual and using events like World Suicide Day as a way into a topic can help.

"It's also important to try and use neutral language and ask her what she thinks and feel rather than impressing your own view point and opening with: 'Isn't that weird ... you'd never do that would you'?" says Helen Keeley.

Irish Independent

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