Back in your school days, if you ever complained about feeling stressed, those from the older generation may have said something like this in response.

“Stressed? You’re so young. You only need to go to school, do your homework, sleep and eat. Your parents must work and earn money for you.”

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In light of the responsibilities of adulthood, teenagers’ problems usually get dismissed and remain in the dark until they manifest themselves in slipping grades, bad behaviour or absenteeism.

Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist from Dr BL Lim Centre for Psychological Wellness, reckons that more attention needs to be paid to mental health in children because it is “simply not true that children and youths do not have worries”.

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He said: “Younger children can be stressed with bullying and school work, leading to anxiety and depressed mood. The adolescent period can be an emotionally tumultuous time and many psychiatric conditions do arise from the age of 15.”

Senior clinical psychologist from the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH), Brian Poh, agrees. He cited school, relationships (friendships, boy-girl, bullying) and family problems as some of the common stressors to children.

Young people problems are problems too, so give them the help they need

Accepting that the youths of today have legitimate problems is just the first step for parents. Poh also encouraged parents to acknowledge that help is needed, despite the misconceptions and stigma attached to mental health conditions. Parents should always be on the lookout for any signs of stress that manifest as emotional or behavioural changes. In some cases, there may even be physiological symptoms such as difficulty breathing, panic attacks, anxiety or sleeplessness.

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To do that, parents should maintain a good relationship and communicate openly with their children from young. As Dr Ong Say How, senior consultant and chief of the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at IMH, explained: “When parents communicate well with their children, they may find it easier to bring up difficulties that they may be facing in life.”

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As simple as it may sound, though, it’s often harder to execute in reality. After all, almost everyone can relate to having difficulties opening up to their parents sometimes. In fact, when commenting on teenage suicide rates in 2016, Samaritans of Singapore revealed to Channel NewsAsia that there is a “reluctance among young people to get help and support from their family when they are going through a crisis.”

So, how can parents change this? How does one begin to build a healthy relationship with their children?

On tough topics, talk with your children as equals

Dr Jade Kua, a consultant at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital, uses a “child-centered” approach with her six children – three of her own and three teenage stepchildren.

Dr Kua, 38, told The Pride: “I try to be as involved as I can without turning them off with unwanted attention. Hence, while I often open conversations with friendly questions about their week and invite them to outings, I give them the space to reject me knowing that another overture will surface soon.”

And aside from talking to her kids as equals, she seeks their opinion on issues – like her friendships – and engages them in discussions in order to understand them better.

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“Sometimes, when we watch movies together, we’ll discuss how we feel about the fictional relationships and this gives me a gauge of the parameters within which they think things through – whether it’s about morals, principles, trending themes or past experiences,” she explained.

A similar approach was adopted by entrepreneur Susan Tan, 42, and a mother of one. Some of the topics Tan talks to her 13-year-old son about include managing failures in school and life, conflict with peers, and even self-confidence issues.

In fact, she revealed to The Pride that there are no topics for her which are taboo or off-limits: “Our role is to guide them and we should share what we know as much and as honestly as possible. See the real purpose behind talking about such topics with your kids. Use age-appropriate words and examples.

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“If you are hesitant about broaching certain topics, where and who should they learn from? Google? Youtube?”

While Dr Kua and Tan are open with their children, taboos still exist for most other parents. Add to that the lack of information or personal prejudices, and you can see why it might be hard to talk about uncomfortable but nonetheless important topics like the birds and the bees or even drug use.

To get around this, Dr Lim suggested using a non-judgmental approach when initiating a discussion. “Rather than say, ‘Taking drugs is bad and I hope you are not taking drugs’, one can open the conversation with, ‘There are more cases of drug use among youths. What are your thoughts?’”

Besides the approach, parents should also look for the right opportunities to engage their children in conversation. Dr Ong suggested bonding activities such as family dinners, sports or playing computer games.

Trust is a two-way street

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For 18-year-old-student Jamie Khoo, family dinners are a way for her to bond with her parents. Recognising them as an intrinsic part of her support system, Khoo shares a lot with them. It’s also her way of building trust, which she views as a two-way street.

Khoo told The Pride: “My parents are open to all kinds of topics. Although they are sometimes quick to judge or generalise about what I go through, I am not afraid to correct any stereotypes or misconceptions they may have. My parents also trust my judgment to a large extent and by sharing more, I know that will help them trust me more.”

Even if you don’t have the best relationship with your parents, Khoo still thinks that youths should communicate with them. This will keep parents updated about their children’s lives and it “helps them to spot any worrying signs”.

For teenagers having difficulty talking to their parents, she suggested starting small.

“Start by sharing your day at school, how you felt about what you did or any observations that you’ve made in general. Do it casually over dinner for a start,” Khoo added.

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While it’s great for teenagers to make the first approach to talk to parents, Dr Kua feels parents should be more proactive in looking out for their children.

“I think we rely too much on expecting affected people to reach out to us. Often, people who have depression don’t recognise they even need help. We should be more proactive in looking out for signs of stress or depression or mental illness (such as anorexia or bulimia) in young people.”

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