Raising Teenage Girls: Part 2 - The Happiness Project
Parents can help daughters deal with low self-esteem, depression and anxiety
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.
"That isn't the case; parents need to show they are open to having these conversations even if they are uncomfortable.
"So often, young people in crisis don't talk because they don't want to feel they're overburdening another person or they feel that person won't be open to what they have to say.
"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.
While they are by no means problems unique to teenage girls, statistically young women and more likely to self harm and are more likely to develop an eating disorder than boys in the same age category.
Recent figures from the National Registry of Deliberate Self Harm show that self-harm is most common among girls between the ages of 15 and 19.
But where parents can go wrong is in seeing these behaviours as the problem itself, rather than recognising it as demonstrative of a deeper emotional distress.
"Self-harm is a way of coping with some kind of distress," says Helen. "Girls are more inclined to get angry internally. Self harm is a signal they are unhappy or having to cope with something very difficult."
Jacqueline Campion, school co-ordinator at Marino Therapy Centre: Institute for Eating Distress Studies, agrees that it's important to understand what's behind an eating disorder.
"Parents often focus on the food and decide that they'll fix the problem by making sure their daughter doesn't skip meals," she explains.
Instead of focusing on labels like 'anorexia' or 'bulimia', Jacqueline prefers to refer to eating disorders as 'eating distress' (ED). "An eating disorder is the just behaviour," she explains. "Food and eating isn't the problem, distress is the problem."
A lot of the time this distress is down to what Jacqueline refers to as 'super sensitivity', people who find it hard to deal with the pressures of every day life, absorbing negativity and turning it into negative behaviour and negative actions.
"As parents there are a lot of things that can stand in the way of opening up dialogue on mental health and eating distress," says Jacqueline.
"They can feel guilty, but guilt is a luxury we can't afford because when it gets strong it often turns into denial."
Jacqueline's Iceberg site (eatingdisorderselfhelp.com), Bodywhys.ie, Headstrong.ie and ie.ReachOut.com all carry important information for parents and young people on mental health. But it's important to remember that, while teenage girls may be vulnerable, they are also resilient.
"There's no denying that mental health is a huge issue for young people," says Marie Duffy editor of youth support website, SpunOut.ie.
"For teen girls in particular the pressure to have the perfect body on top of grappling with issues like sexuality, where they're going in life and what they're going to do after education is a huge amount of stress.
"But young people are resilient. On the website we hear from girls who have gone through awful times and are able to look back and see what helped them."
She adds:"Parents shouldn't be terrified that their daughter will have a mental health problem, but just being aware what can happen could make all the difference."
* headstrong.ie: The national centre for youth mental health. 16 Westland Square, Pearse Street, Dublin 2. Contact: 01-472 7010; firstname.lastname@example.org
* eatingdisorderselfhelp.com: Specialises in eating distress (ED). Contact: Catherine O'Grady 086-195 3537
* bodywhys.ie: The Eating Disorder Association of Ireland. PO Box 105, Blackrock, Co Dublin; 01-283 4963; email@example.com
* reachout.com: Provides information on stress, anxiety, bullying, suicide, depression, bipolar and other issues. Contact: 01-764 5666.