Exam stress, TikTok and money worries: a parent’s guide to dealing with teen mental health

 (Tom Hull Photography Ltd 2021)
(Tom Hull Photography Ltd 2021)

Parents are only as happy as their least happy child, the saying goes. In an era when young people are in the grip of amental health epidemic, the impact is felt by the whole family.

School pressures, bullying, social media use and cost-of-living concerns are fuelling teen anxiety, with one in five youngstersmissing school or work because of their mental health, this year’s Prince’s Trust NatWest Youth Index has revealed.

Just over one third of the 2,240 16-to-25-year-olds questioned worry that poor mental health will stop them achieving their career ambitions altogether.

It is little wonder then that nearly half of parents with secondary school-aged pupils reported feeling anxious about their child’s emotional health and wellbeing in a recent NSPCC poll of 2,000 adults.

“We know that being a parent is never easy,” said Hayley Garner, London and South East local campaigns manager at the NSPCC. “In light of the cost-of-living crisis, emerging online threats and increasing mental health concerns, it is unsurprising that many parents across the UK are anxious about their children.”

Parents can be forgiven for feeling out of their depth or panicking, but there are ways families can help.

Seven ways to help your anxious teen

  • It is important to listen to teenagers, validate their feelings and give them reassurance, according to Garner: “Let them know you’re there for them, you're on their side and be patient and calm, even if their behaviour upsets you.”

  • Help teenagers create new and healthy ways to cope that will last well into their future. This could be through activities such as yoga, breathing exercises or mindfulness.

  • If you have particular concerns, encourage your teenager to talk to their GP, someone at their school or contact Childline, especially if they’re finding it hard to talk at home.

  • Professor Vivian Hill, from University College London’s Institute of Mental Health, suggests having regular “emotional check-ins” with your child; one-on-one private time to ask them how they are doing.

  • If your teenager is revising in their bedroom until 2am, it is time to intervene. Get them to go for a walk and talk about the topic they are worried about. Research shows that stepping into nature is beneficial to wellbeing.

  • Know when to challenge and when not to. If you both get angry, it can escalate to a full-blown row. Don’t go up the stress curve. Wait for everybody to calm down.

  • Check your child’s phone and social media regularly, particularly with younger teenagers, to see what they are looking at and with whom they are in contact.

In interviews with Step Up, young people themselves highlighted the harm caused by social media’s obsession with unrealistic body images and unobtainable lifestyles.

“TikTok has very high beauty standards, even for pre-teens,” said teenager Maya Abebe. “When older people were growing up, they had that opportunity to go through the teenager phase and not worry about being ‘ugly’. We don’t have that time because of social media.

“The commodification of girls on social media, particularly black girls, is terrible. For you to be considered attractive as a black girl, you have to be exceptionally attractive just to be comparable to a white person, and have Eurocentric features. For us to be set a standard which says ‘this is what you need to look like to be attractive’ is so harmful. It affects lots of kids.”

Unrealistic body images on social media are a big cause of concern, especially for teens and pre-teens (Alamy/PA)
Unrealistic body images on social media are a big cause of concern, especially for teens and pre-teens (Alamy/PA)

Her classmate Sammia Abdi-Rabi criticises a trend on TikTok where young people boast about how much money they spend each week on hair, beauty and fashion. “It’s all about, ‘Come to Oxford Street and spend lots of money,’” she said. “Glamorising the amount they can fritter away on clothes.”

Such posts are particularly harmful at a time when rising prices are taking their toll. For 15-year-old Sabrina Abukar, living in the capital heightens concerns.

“Rents here are higher and the cost of living hits harder because it is more expensive,” she said. “We know that by the time we are at an age when we are responsible for our own housing and rent, it will be much harder for us.”

Professor Hill, a member of the British Psychological Society’s Division of Education and Child Psychology, said that from her visits to schools it was clear that pupils as young as eight years old were worried about how their parents would afford rising prices.

“I noticed that a young boy I saw recently had these amazing maths skills,” she said. “He was so good at mental arithmetic because, going round the supermarket, he was working out the cost of everything and how much the family can spend per day on food; if they can afford that particular yoghurt or loaf of bread and keep within their budget.”

“Nearly half of parents with secondary school-aged pupils reported feeling anxious about their child’s emotional health and wellbeing”

Overcrowding at home with teenagers struggling to find a quiet space for school work, gang culture leaving children feeling unsafe and scared of going to certain areas, and the uncertainty fuelled by wars in Ukraine and Gaza add to feelings of stress, warned the professor.

But there are bright spots. In more positive findings, research suggests that young people in the capital demonstrate a higher level of resilience than those elsewhere. A Teacher Tapp poll last year suggested young Londoners were more motivated than other teenagers and in a Studiosity survey, 85 per cent of university students in London described their wellbeing as “good” or “okay”.

For more expert education support and career advice visit The Evening Standard’s Step Up Expo at London Olympia, 28-29 June 2024; stepupexpo.co.uk