How can I improve my teenager’s low mood? - Independent Article
Psychologist Dr Beth Mosley tells Lisa Salmon how better communication, tackling negative thoughts and improving rewards can lift a teenager's mood.
If there’s one thing associated with teenagers more than anything else, it’s moodiness. But although low mood is extremely common in teens, what’s just as common is that parents don’t know what to do about it.
Adolescence is the highest risk period of life to experience depression, and half of adult mental health disorders start before the age of 15, says consultant clinical psychologist Dr Beth Mosley, who provides specialist mental health support to children and their families.
“Seeing the signs of low mood in your teen can be worrying if you’re a parent,” she says. “The questions you may ask are likely to be, what are the usual highs and lows of adolescence, and what is something to worry about? Why might my teen be struggling with low mood, and most importantly, what can I do as a parent to help if my teen is feeling down and showing signs of disengaging with life?”
Mosley, the author of new book, Happy Families, which is about the most common issues affecting children’s mental health and how parents can help, says although everyone will, at some point, experience low mood, sadness, irritability and loss of interest in things they enjoy, usually such feelings are linked to problems in life.
But changes associated with puberty, and brain restructuring, mean adolescents are especially vulnerable to mental health problems, says Mosley, who explains: “These changes increase the possible impact of life stressors and, thus, their vulnerability to mental health difficulties.
“The brain changes in adolescence mean teens feel emotions more intensely – both the highs and lows – meaning it’s not unusual to see them experiencing waves of low mood, particularly in the face of challenges.”
She says if a teen’s low mood doesn’t go away, and prevents them doing the things they need to, like schoolwork and spending time with others, it would be wise to consider seeking help. The teen’s school may be able to suggest local support.
But she adds: “Whether your teen experiences passing or more persistent low mood, the good news is that the brain is flexible and ripe for learning in adolescence, so there’s a lot we can do to support our teens when they’re experiencing low mood.
“Importantly, this support will likely improve your relationship with your teen, and help protect them from developing mental health difficulties in adulthood.”
If your teenager’s mood is low, these are the things Mosley says might help them…
Encourage them to do what’s important to them
When someone feels low, they tend to do less of what’s important to them, meaning they get less rewards from life and feel lower, Mosley explains. This is the low-mood cycle.
Conversely, by doing more of what’s important to them regularly, they get more reward from life and start to feel better – this is the feel-good cycle, she says. So rather than a teen waiting until they feel better to do the things that are important to them, low-mood teens should do them now to break the low-mood cycle.
“Determining what activities they can do more of and what unhelpful activities to do less is a key first step,” says Mosley. “You can support your child by providing more opportunities to do what’s important to them and increasing access to rewards. Give them practical support to do the activities they enjoy, provide encouragement.”
Communicate better with them
Mosley says that low mood can make it difficult for teens to communicate, but parents learning key communication skills can support how they communicate with their teens and, in turn, help improve their mood.
She says being careful how you say things, through tone of voice and nonverbal body language, is important, as teens are more sensitive to criticism and negative social feedback. But there are six communication skills in particular that parents should try to use. They are…
Picking the right time to have a conversation. “Open and honest conversations are most likely to happen when we’re feeling calm and not under pressure,” says Mosley, explaining that it’s important to be aware of when your teen isn’t in the right frame of mind for a difficult conversation, and to learn to respectfully pause the conversation and reschedule it for a better time.
Starting a sentence with ‘I’ rather than ‘You’ can make a huge difference, explains Mosley, who says starting with ‘You’ often has a blaming tone and makes the teenager defensive and stops them from listening, whereas starting with ‘I’ can explain how you’re feeling, which can’t be disputed and starts a whole different conversation.
Instead of over-generalising and using words like ‘always’ or ‘never’, Mosley says it’s much better for parents to be specific and provide an example of a recent event, rather than things that have happened over months or years. She says over-generalising is more likely to make teens feel awful, and less likely to spark a collaborative conversation.
Imagining how a young person might feel in/about a certain situation can also help, she says. “Understanding someone else’s point of view, and expressing this to them, can make it easier to have a collaborative conversation and avoid an argument,” she explains. “When we’re particularly worried about our children, thinking about how they feel can sometimes help us connect with them.”
If you go into a conversation with your child knowing what you want from it but being aware you might not get it, be prepared with some alternative solutions, Mosley advises. “Having a few solutions in your back pocket before you go into a discussion enables you to show you’re willing to compromise so you don’t get stuck in a stalemate situation,” she says.
Although you may not initially get the response you hoped for from your child when you try a new way of communicating with them, it’s vital to persevere, stresses Mosley, who explains: “With these communication hacks we should begin to see communication with our children become healthier and more productive.”
Tackle your negative thoughts and help your teenager do it too
Mosley advises parents to reduce the habit of getting stuck in negative thinking by trying these tactics, which she suggests should be shared and modelled to teens.
Remember it’s just a thought and it doesn’t mean it’s real. “Remind your teen that thoughts are not facts, they are ideas and they don’t predict the future,” says Mosley.
Let negative thoughts come and go, rather than fixating on them and becoming overwhelmed, she advises, and take the power out of the thought by sharing it with others. “Getting another viewpoint can stop unhelpful thoughts growing in magnitude,” she says, and suggests parents provide opportunities for teens to share their thoughts with them, on car journeys and walks etc.
As many young people get stuck on social media, dwelling on distressing thoughts, Mosley suggests: “Help your teen notice this cycle and learn the art of moving to another activity, even if it’s just moving to a different room or doing some physical activity.”
She adds: “If your teen is feeling negative and self-critical, move away from nagging and towards helping them refocus their energy on something they enjoy and/or resolving the underlying problem.”