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Growing pains: Supporting teenagers through the top 4 emotional stressors

Navigating the adolescence minefield can be tough for both teenagers and their families. An expert shares tips on how parents can play a supportive role to help their children work through key challenges.

Growing pains: Supporting teenagers through the top 4 emotional stressors

Parents can act as pillars of support for their teenage children. Photos: Shutterstock

After failing her Secondary Two exams, Jane* was told that she would be retained at the same level the following year. The 15-year-old was overwhelmed by a deluge of negative emotions – she was disappointed in herself for failing, anxious that her friends would move on and guilt-ridden for letting her parents down.

Dr Ong Lue Ping, senior principal clinical psychologist and director of allied health at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), Singapore, recounted how Jane’s parents made a concerted effort to care for her needs, instead of coming down hard on her. “They spent more quality time with the teenager, assured her that they were proud of her and came up with solutions to address her anxieties.”

They also discussed with Jane the subjects she needed more support in and worked with her to set realistic academic goals. “After clarifying her parents’ expectations and being more aware of her strengths and abilities, Jane became more confident and developed a healthier self-esteem,” said Dr Ong. “Her mood improved substantially and she went on to be the monitress in her new class.” 

According to Dr Ong, academic stress, self and parental expectations, peer pressure and personal relationships form the top four stressors faced by teenagers today. Here’s how parents can help their teen work through these challenges, while acting as pillars of support for their emotional health and well-being. 

STRESSOR 1: ACADEMIC STRESS

Dr Ong Lue Ping, senior principal clinical psychologist and director of allied health at the Institute of Mental Health recommends that 80 per cent of a teenager's time be spent on academic commitments during term time.

Having to juggle multiple tasks including homework, project deadlines, weighted assessments and co-curricular activities, it sometimes seems like many teenagers are busier than working adults. 

To avoid burnout, Dr Ong recommends an 80:20 rule during the school term – 80 per cent of your child’s time should be spent on academic commitments, and 20 per cent on personal pursuits such as gaming and using social media. During the school holidays, this ratio can be reversed. 

Parents can support their child by discussing academic goals at the start of the first semester. “Try to identify any academic challenges your teen may have early in the year, so that assistance can be sought in a timely manner,” advised Dr Ong. 

When it comes to leisure, he recommends a balanced approach: “Set appropriate time limits on personal pursuits during the school term but allow teenagers to decide how they want to spend their spare time during the school holidays.” 

STRESSOR 2: PERSONAL AND PARENTAL EXPECTATIONS

Dr Ong believes that teenagers should be less hard on themselves and set achievable goals vis-a-vis academic pursuits.

To cultivate a healthy attitude towards grades, teenagers need to set realistically achievable expectations, and also learn to be less hard on themselves, said Dr Ong. “Recognise that external factors may sometimes affect your school results, but having the right attitude will help you progress in the long run.” 

Parents should provide assurance and support, find out what their children are interested in pursuing and help them map achievable milestones and targets. “No matter the results, celebrate their efforts,” said Dr Ong. “After all, every child develops at his or her own pace – some blossom later than others.” 

STRESSOR 3: PEER PRESSURE

Open communication between parents and their teenagers can help the latter better manage peer pressure.

Peer pressure from social media and the Internet can exert a powerful influence, shaping the way teens behave. How can parents help their children establish firm boundaries in the face of peer pressure? 

The answer is open communication, said Dr Ong. “Remind your children that they can talk to you anytime, and that it is okay for them to say no whenever they feel uncomfortable.” 

Active listening is an important part of open communication, where the parent remains present and shows genuine respect for what their child is saying. “Put away our devices and pause what we are doing to truly listen,” recommended Dr Ong. “In addition, the tonality is important. Use open-ended questions to encourage your teen to share more. Remain as open as you can in the conversation and refrain from making quick judgements.” 

STRESSOR 4: PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS

Engaging in a common interest or hobby can help foster better parent-child communication.

In adolescence, friendships become more important as teens establish their own identities. This might result in parents and teens beginning to see differences in opinions and life priorities – a frequent trigger for conflict.

Dr Ong urged parents to be respectful of their teenager’s need for self-identity while making sure to spend quality time engaging in a common interest or hobby, so as to keep communication channels open.

“Use these bonding sessions to model positive behaviours in relationships and invite your teenager to share his or her views, problems and friendships,” he said. “Provide guidance and support, and be sure not to dismiss or minimise the relationship issues they are facing.” 

WHEN THE STRESSORS BECOME TOO MUCH

Seek help early if the day-to-day functioning of your teen is impacted, advises Dr Ong.

The adolescent years can be turbulent times and parents need to take note if their child’s behaviour is concerning. For example, feeling moody is common for many teens, but frequent anger or emotional outbursts may be a sign of something more serious. Similarly, feeling down for two weeks or more is a red flag. 

“It may be a sign of a bigger issue if the day-to-day functioning of your teen is impacted,” said Dr Ong. “For such cases, seeking help early is important.” 

Advising parents not to hesitate, he added: “Consulting a helping professional such as a counsellor or a psychologist on mental health issues is just like seeing a doctor when we feel physically unwell. With proper rest and intervention, we can recover and feel better. If we ignore the issue and leave it untreated, it may lead to more serious problems.”

Learn how to build a positive relationship with your teen and respond in times of mental and emotional distress by visiting Spot The Early Signs.

*Not her real name. 

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