Survey finds parents don’t always know if their kids are struggling emotionally


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Content type
Short article

September 2017


Sarah Johnson

As a parent of two teenage daughters, I like to think I know what's going on in their lives and how they are feeling. I also like to think that they could come and talk to me about anything that was bothering them.

But the largest national survey of youth mental health, conducted by my team at the Telethon Kids Institute, has forced me to question how much we as parents know. For the survey, we decided to question both parents and young people to see if their results matched up. The short answer is they didn't.

We discovered that many adolescents (aged 11-17 years) thought their parents only 'knew a little' bit or 'not at all' about how they were feeling. This was especially the case for young people experiencing depression, with well over half of this group providing this feedback, compared to about a quarter of those without depression.

We also found that the reporting of depressive symptoms amongst adolescents was quite different according to who you asked — parents or the young person themselves. More young people (7.7%) were found to be depressed when asked directly. However, only 4.7% were depressed based on symptoms reported by parents. Furthermore, there was low agreement when comparing adolescents and their parents — just 2%.

The results made me wonder… If we as parents don't know what's going on, then do their friends, teachers, or other people in their lives? If young people are distressed and don't feel they can turn to their parents, then where can they go? Where do they go?

Both my girls have a big group of friends. They see each other at school, out of school, and stay in touch via their phones and ipads, through snapchat, facetime, interactive games and probably other avenues I don't even know about. In many ways this is great. I never had the tools to stay so connected when I was younger. Friendship and technology seem to be firmly integrated these days.

But is this technology helping or hindering our young people during tough emotional times? Well, our research shows that it can be beneficial. In fact, more than a third of adolescents (aged 13-17 years) with mental disorders reported seeking some kind of information or help online. And the proportion was much higher for females (almost half). This is despite about 90% of parents either saying that their child had not sought information or help online, or that they just didn't know.

From my perspective as a mother, I fully encourage that independent seeking of information and I think it's good to show young people websites like eheadspace and youthbeyondblue. While I hope my children will talk to me if they have emotional struggles, I'm grateful that these websites exist if, for whatever reason, they felt they couldn't. Technology is so integrated into their lives, it makes perfect sense to give them the means to find help in a way that they are comfortable.

At the same time, I want to be sure that I am in touch and keeping the door open for communication. As a fulltime working mum, this is not always easy with the ferrying to and from after school activities, getting dinner, washing clothes, cleaning up and getting ready for the next day before falling asleep on the sofa. Not to mention penetrating the barrier of them being absorbed in devices and chatting with friends.

But being involved in a survey like Young Minds Matter, which shows that so many young people are feeling distressed, has made me very aware of the need to try to make time for a bit of chat every day. I do believe that's what my girls want too. I could be less busy.

The Young Minds Matter survey has provided a critical comprehensive picture of the mental health and wellbeing of Australia's young people today. Most kids are doing well — 86% did not have a mental disorder at the time of the survey and this doesn't seem to have changed from 15 years ago. However, 14% do have disorders (about 560,000 4-17 year-olds).

Giving young people a laptop and the opportunity to go away and answer questions in private about how they were feeling, knowing their parents wouldn't see the answers, was one of the most unique and revealing aspects of the Young Minds Matter Survey. Crunching the numbers and getting initial findings on how many were feeling distressed, depressed and engaging in self-harm came as such a shock to myself and the rest of the survey team that we checked the numbers several times.

Ideally, no child should ever feel distressed and I think it is our collective responsibility to solve this problem. Mental illness can have biological causes but it is also a social problem. Young people need access to enough of the right services at the time that they are needed. Indeed, our survey has shown that more young people with mental disorders are accessing health and school services compared with 15 years ago. As parents we can't know everything about our children but we can stay vigilant, aware and just keep talking.

This article was originally published on the Telethon Kids Institute website.

If you require assistance or would like to talk to a trained professional about the issues described on this page, please call Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or Lifeline on 13 11 14. 

If you are a young person aged 12-25 and are worried about your mental health or issues with drug use, you can also use eheadspace. eheadspace is a confidential, free and secure space where young people 12-25 or their family can chat, email or speak on the phone with a qualified youth mental health professional.

Feature image is by Jacob Ufkes, CC0 1.0.