One week before last month’s school holidays my early adolescent son and I had been planning some fun activities to enjoy together during my days off work. But, by the time the holidays had arrived, for no apparent reason, he didn’t want anything to do with me.
With sons especially, mothers often become heartbreakingly aware of adolescents withdrawing affection as they start to assert their identities and independence as young men.
At the same time boys may often feel a deep sadness about this growing distance from their mothers and start arguments as a more 'manly' way to communicate with her.
But how does a parent differentiate between a child going into the adolescent tunnel of ‘normal’ moodiness and anxiety or depression?
Concerned about my own son’s sudden and seemingly 180-degree personality spin I reached out to family and mental health counsellor Jennie Fitzhardinge. Empathetic and down-to-earth, Jennie has extensive experience providing one-on-one counselling to school students, including those who have been impacted by a boy dying by suicide.
She says all teenagers can be bad-tempered, but what parents, carers and friends should monitor is the frequency and duration of their moodiness. This can present as an apparent depressed state causing them to withdraw or have unhelpful thoughts. Alternatively, anxiety can be expressed as anger.
Another important guide is the impact of the emotions and behaviour on an adolescent’s schoolwork, relationships, physical health, enjoyment or everyday activities.
“If symptoms are present frequently for more than two weeks, have a conversation with your child about what you have noticed, as gently as possible, or seek help, whether that be from a school chaplain or a counsellor, an app (some useful ones are recommended below),” Jennie says.
She also advises against reacting to teens’ anger with further rage or exasperation.
“Instead get curious about what’s behind the anger as it is often a secondary emotion that masks sadness, guilt, fear or anxiety,” she says.
What helped prevent me getting into a shouting match with my son was removing myself from him for a period of time to reflect on what may be behind his change of mood. I also reminded myself of my own insolence when I was that age and to be forgiving, while of course maintaining certain boundaries. And I remembered my grandmother saying: “It’s when children are most unlovable that they need love most.”
A more insidious symptom of anxiety or depression can be perfectionism.
Jennie says a boy whose suicide impacted on other teenagers she counselled was popular, involved in a sport excellence program and was not recognised as suffering from anxiety or depression.
“It is easy to identify the young people who won’t leave their room, or won’t go to school, or suddenly become angry and aggressive all the time, but perfectionism and putting oneself under unreasonable pressure to perform highly can also be signs of a dangerous anxiety,” she says.
“If you are thinking something like ‘There’s nothing wrong with perfectionism, it gets things done’, you may want to take a closer look at how your whole family is functioning as you could be missing some warning signs.”
There are resources (referred to below) to help parents determine whether their adolescent is “just full of teenager ****” as my husband bluntly puts it, or whether they should be more concerned.
Other behaviours that can have a major impact on mood include:
Sleep: Teenagers need 10 hours sleep a night, Jennie says, with no screen time an hour before bed time because this affects melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep and wakefulness rhythms.
Exercise: Jennie says any exercise is good, as long as it’s something that’s enjoyed on a regular basis. Meanwhile Australian expert on adolescent boys Dr Arne Rubinstein emphasises the importance of spending time outdoors for mental and physical health. He references American author Richard Louv, who coined the term Nature Deficit Disorder.
How can parents help?
Jennie suggests a few strategies that may help prevent serious concerns from arising:
- Given that teenagers talk to each other more than their mum and dad, this means parents must equip their children to talk to friends, including friends beyond their school, family members, and to encourage a safety net around their children.
- Jennie adds that even if your child is mentally healthy, it is worthwhile talking to them about anxiety and depression so they can help their friends.
- She reminds parents to also think about how much they are asking their children to contribute to family life.
“I think it is more than a coincidence that every single family that I have worked with where an adolescent has severe anxiety and/or depression, that adolescent has not had to do any household chores,” she says.
“The purpose is not to have a tidy house. It is for them to experience contribution, responsibility and capability. And ideally this should start when they’re young. You might have to wipe the bench down again, or wash a few dishes again, just make sure you do it after they’ve gone to bed. You don’t want them to internalise the message that whatever they do, it isn’t good enough.”
So food landing on the floor en route to the sink is now being tolerated more at our place.
As for my teenage son, while I’d spoken to Jennie about his behaviour, her words made me reflect more on my own reactions and parenting style.
He has long been told by me that he must be mindful that other kids who may be judged to be “a bit weird’’ may be going through some private issues they don’t wish to disclose in the playground.
Now I had to display that same level of patience and understanding towards him that I have asked him to show to others.
At a more specific level I gently suggested he speak to a school counsellor. That idea was met with the reaction I expected so I, not feeling embarrassed about walking in and out of that office, will have a chat with the counsellor myself to get some advice about his individual issues.
Raising Children Network, with the Centre for Adolescent Health (raisingchildren.net.au) lists behaviour that could be hiding and underlying mental health problems.
There are some free apps recommended for teenagers including:
Youthbeyondblue has launched "The Check-in". It is a great, easy to navigate app especially designed for teenagers.
Other apps include:
Kids Helpline: 1800 55 1800
Jennie Fitzhardinge (Masters in Counselling, Murdoch University), Navigator Counselling and Communication. Contact: 0419 195 568 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Carl E Pickhardt PhD, “The challenge of mothering an adolescent son”, Psychology Today
Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv