There can be few greater challenges in life than being a parent of teenagers. Although my children are younger, I see the pressures of this period manifest in various ways in my consult room. Watching your children develop from kids into adults can be both rewarding and terrifying in equal measure. Teen health can be viewed through three lenses – physical, sexual and mental. Different personalities may have challenges in one or all (or none!) of these areas. Boys and girls can present in different ways and are exposed to different kinds of pressures, so parents may need to take a different approach with each of their kids.
In my opinion this should be one of the easier elements for parents as it is most aligned with the things we should be doing for our own well-being. Eating a healthy balanced diet, taking regular exercise, not smoking or drinking to excess. There are of course some physical issues which are specific to teenagers. I see lots of young people struggling with acne and the onset of periods in girls can sometimes be problematic. Sometimes teenagers need some reassurance that a physical change they’ve noticed is completely normal.
Drugs and alcohol are a particular concern for parents, especially in Singapore, where severe punishments for drug use are in force. Whilst Singapore is safer in this regard than many other countries, we should not be so naive as to think that our kids could not be exposed here. If you are concerned that your child may be taking recreational drugs, smoking or drinking to excess, have an open conversation with them and if this does not allay your concerns, have a chat to your GP. Also note that vaping/e-cigarettes, commonly used by teenagers overseas, are illegal in Singapore.
Surely one of the most difficult topics to discuss with your children! I think taking the lead on this and talking openly and frankly with your kids is key. Remember, if they don’t learn this stuff from you, they’ll be learning it from the internet or their friends. Teenagers these days aren’t having any more sex (on average), any younger than previous generations, but they are being exposed to it in different ways, often online.
Young people who are starting to become sexually active need to be aware of their contraceptive options, as well as how to reduce their risk of STDs. Teenagers can see a doctor for these issues in Singapore without their parental consent, if the doctor deems them to be competent and mature enough to make an informed decision. It is important to note that the legal age of sexual consent in Singapore is 16. At Osler Health we can undertake comprehensive STD testing and provide a wide range of contraception options.
Adolescence is a period where people often experience mental health problems for the first time. Depression, anxiety, eating disorders and even psychotic illnesses can all present during the teenage years. As doctors, we have noticed over the pandemic and beyond that mental health problems in young people have increased.
It’s often difficult to know whether your child is experiencing worrying mental health issues or just going through the normal stages of teen development. This is where speaking to a doctor or school counsellor may be helpful. I try to see teenagers both alone AND with their parents to allow me to get a more complete picture. Sometimes parents come to see me without their kids just to see if their concerns warrant further assessment.
What are the common flags for identifying a problem? The below can give you some guidance, but I urge you as parents to seek help if you are concerned.
- Social withdrawal
- Change in appetite
- Change in sleep
- Change in behaviour
- Low mood. Inability to take pleasure in things.
- Physical signs of self harm/injury
- Rapid or excessive weight loss
- Refusing to eat with others
- Tooth decay in bulimia
- Obsession with weight/appearance/exercise
- Erratic behaviour
- Delusional beliefs
I would advise people to have two main goals for their teenage parenting. Firstly, be a role model – treat yourself and others with respect and kindness. Secondly, be there for them, be the person they can talk to – openly, nod-judgmental and understanding. You don’t have to have all the answers, and they don’t expect you to.
If you feel your teen would benefit from discussing something with a GP please encourage them to see the GP without you and assure them that it is confidential. It is important to note that confidentiality can be broken if the teenager is at risk of harm, for example suffering abuse or expressing suicidal intent.
Lastly, some tips
– You are a parent, not their friend. Teens crave the security of knowing their parents appreciate them, and love them no matter what.
– Check-in every day. Even if only for 2 minutes at the end of the day. They may close you down again and again, but on the 100th time you may find you are exactly where they need you, when they need you.
– Encourage good self-care and explain why. This means prioritising sleep, eating a balanced diet and exercising. This is where role modelling comes in.