Our teens’ mental health can be impacted by distance from family and loved ones. Here’s what to expect if you are sending your children to boarding school.
A surprisingly large number of Australian teens are struggling when it comes to mental health issues. The Young Minds Matter Survey for 2013-2014 showed that almost one in seven children and adolescents aged between 4 and 17 years experienced mental health disorders in the previous 12 months. This number is equal to about 591,000 children and adolescents across our nation.
Two years later, the Youth Mental Health Report raised that number to one in four of all young people aged 15-19 years of age. And with the impact of COVID-19, we are seeing mental health services swamped as more and more people come forward with mental health issues – including young people. A Mental Health and Wellbeing report from Headspace showed high levels of distress for one in every two young people.
These are alarming statistics, and show that our teens are already facing an uphill battle when it comes to their own mental health. However, some boarding students may face an even more difficult time managing stress and anxiety, as well as general emotionality, at various times in their schooling journey.
Teens Mental Health and Distance: What to Expect
A longitudinal quantitative study gathered data from 76 male and 74 female Western Australia boarding students at beginning and ends of Grades 7, 8, and 9. The findings showed that both boarding and non-boarding students had increased depression, anxiety, hyperactivity, and emotional symptoms, while also reporting decreases in prosocial behaviour throughout the school years. However, boarders reported ‘significantly higher’ levels of anxiety and stress at the end of Grade 8 and ‘significantly’ higher emotional symptoms at the beginning of Grade 8 and the end of Grade 9.
This signals that Grade 8 and Grade 9 may be particularly sensitive times for your teens mental health as these may be the more challenging times for boarding students. It’s important to pay attention.
How to Support Your Boarding Teen During Challenging Times
Your teen needs robust mental health to build strong relationships and deal with challenges. But it’s not always easy. Here’s how you can help.
- Focus on connection. Your love is the strongest scaffold your teen can have. When physical connection can’t exist, regular high quality connection touchpoints while they’re away will be incredibly important.
- Show interest in your child’s life. Ask questions, make observations and let them talk to you about what interests them (even if it doesn’t necessarily interest you).
- Brainstorm solutions together. When things do get difficult and your teen comes to you with a problem, work together to brainstorm solutions. Resist the urge to lecture or problem solve for them. Instead, get their ideas, share yours and find an answer collaboratively.
- Encourage them to get physical. Physical activity can help teens work out some of their emotions and release feel good endorphins. It’s also a great way to stay healthy, have more energy, feel confident, manage stress, and sleep well. Encourage them to join a team, get active, and be involved.
- Eat and sleep well. You obviously can’t be with them to make sure they are taking care of themselves. But to the extent that you can, help your child to make healthy eating and sleep choices. Both of these contribute to mental health and can help them manage stress, anxiety and their growing responsibilities.
Research shows that parental monitoring is associated with better teen outcomes. This doesn’t mean stalk them. It does mean you need to know what’s going on in their lives. Gentle conversations, kind questions, and an appropriate level of monitoring (not nagging) will help them feel cared for, and is associated with smarter decision making and better mental health for them.
When to Seek Professional Help
Recognising when your teen may have a mental health problem, versus the normal low and high moods of the teenage years, is important. If your child shows any signs of a mental health problem, it’s important that you seek help from your GP or another mental health professional as soon as possible.
You won’t always be able to tell the difference, but some signs that your child might need professional help might be when they are feeling hopeless, persistently lacking motivation, or having trouble coping with everyday activities. Be aware of sudden changes of behaviour that don’t seem to have any underlying reason, and troubles with eating or sleeping. And even complaints of physical pain – such as headaches or stomach aches – can be indicative of a larger problem.
Some other signs to look out for:
- A drop in school performance, or sudden refusal to go
- Avoiding friends or social activities they used to enjoy
- Being aggressive or antisocial
- Being very worried about weight or physical appearance
Listen to Your Gut
The signs above are in no way exhaustive. The best thing that you can do as a parent is to listen to your gut. You know your child. So trust your intuition if it’s telling you there might be something wrong with your teen’s mental health, and always follow up on any worries that you might have.
Your child may be learning at a distance, but as long as you remain connected to them and keep them close, you’ll be able to help them through the challenging times that affect all teens.
Article by Dr Justin Coulson, Happy Families