Frequent outbursts, increased irritability and lack of motivation: Signs parents of teens should not ignore

Is it due to teenage angst or something more serious? Life transitions and peer pressure are just some of the stressors teens wrestle with. Here’s how and when you as the parent can step in

Increased isolation could be a sign of deeper mental health issues that parents of teens should look out for. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Irritable, moody, and uncommunicative – these are words parents often use to describe teenagers. If you’ve ever felt a world away from your child, you’re not alone in your frustration. But they need your support now more than ever.

Preliminary findings from a survey that was part of the Singapore Youth Epidemiology Resistance and Resilience Study, conducted by the National University of Singapore, found that about one in three youth in the nation had reported experiencing mental health symptoms such as sadness, anxiety and loneliness, with those aged 14 to 16 having more serious symptoms.

The survey, done in collaboration with the Ministry of Education and the Institute of Mental Health, involved 3,336 young people aged 11 to 18 in Singapore.

In a Sunday Times article last year, experts revealed that challenges faced by today’s youth are different from those decades ago, with the rise of social media and changes in needs and wants having a bigger influence.

Senior social worker Lim Tse Min, of Fei Yue Community Services, explains further: “Among the youths that come to seek support from us, we have observed that some of the concerns that they come with are usually related to interpersonal issues such as relationships with their friends and family, coping with academic or work-related stress and adjustments, and coping with the transitions they are going through in their current stage of life.” 

Ethan Ng, who’s 16 and preparing for his N levels, shares: “My main source of worry is the expectations of my family and teachers. While they are always supportive, there’s a sense of pressure and not wanting to disappoint them.” 

Even though national examinations are a thing of the past for Nawal Hanani, adapting to a polytechnic has its challenges. “There’s a major jump due to the difference in structure compared to secondary school,” the 17-year-old says. For her, stress peaks when tutorials snowball and anxieties about her future creep in. “My worry is that I won’t be able to get the job I want, and end up doing something I dread for the rest of my working years.”

Often a double-edged sword, social media can provide stress relief but also cause other emotional issues, such as unhealthy comparisons, to surface. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

While social media has become an integral part of their lives, it is a double-edged sword.

Both Ethan and Nawal see it as a welcome outlet for stress relief, but that’s not to say it always serves them. Nawal reveals: “I’ve compared my body to other girls on the Internet and how the same clothes look way better on them than they do on me.” 

Ethan, whose social media feed is inundated with peers who visit the gym daily, notes its effect on his well-being. “It has definitely made me start to question why I’m not doing the same, but has thankfully yet to affect the way I look at my own body.” 

So, who do they turn to when they are struggling or feel stressed out? Most find it a challenge to turn to their parents and would prefer to keep their struggles to themselves, as they feel their parents do not understand what they are going through. 

For teenagers like Nandhana Sivakumar, aged 16, close friends make better confidantes by virtue of shared experience. With her parents, she faces a “generation gap”.

“They don’t seem to understand that the rigour and standards of life have changed. They seem to think that we are exaggerating, and they unintentionally make our problems seem small by saying they went through the same thing,” Nandhana said, adding that sometimes, all she needs is assurance that she needn’t always be “at the top of her game”. 

Others, like Nawal, worry about imposing on their parents, whose automatic response is to enter problem-solving mode. She says: “They are already so busy with work, and I’m afraid they might go overboard to find a solution instead of just being a listening ear. 

“They can help by giving me time, or knocking on my door occasionally to ask if I’ve eaten. I value presence, and knowing that they are there for me helps,” she adds.

Let's talk about it

Broaching the topic of mental health can feel awkward for both parties, but it remains a necessary undertaking in showing love and support. When navigated with tact, it could even set the tone for parent-child communication down the line. 

“It is common that youths might not share with their parents due to various reasons as mentioned,” Ms Lim says. “Hence, building a close relationship and trust with your child is the key to open communication and letting them know that you are there for them.”

She explains that sometimes, teenagers may be hesitant to confide in their parents because prior attempts to do so resulted in responses – whether intentional or not – that made them feel like they were not heard.

Ms Lim advises, “The key is not to problem solve but to attend to the child's needs. When the child feels emotionally attended to and understood, then there will be higher possibilities that the child would open up and share their concerns.” 

Ms Serena Ho, senior clinical psychologist, Institute of Mental Health (IMH), shares some strategies to open the conversation tactfully and gently:

Ask open-ended questions

Seize opportunities to check in with your child by asking about their day and their latest interests or hobbies. If they are stressed, show concern by stating an observation (for example, “I see that you are troubled”) and encourage them to share, using a gentle tone and open-ended questions.

Practise active listening 

If they open up, listen attentively, avoid judging, and seek to understand their viewpoints and feelings even if they differ from yours. Try not to build an argument, minimise their problem (for example, “We faced even bigger problems in the past”), or explain their feelings away. 

Offer a listening ear and refrain from making judgements. If your child opens up to you, experts say to listen attentively, avoiding judgement even if his views are different from yours. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Jumping in with advice (like “You should try doing this instead”) or attempting to solve their problem isn’t the answer either. Instead, join them in brainstorming for solutions that they can implement independently. 

Create family routines 

In stressful times, predictable routines such as family dinners on weekdays or engaging in outdoor activities over the weekends can do wonders. They provide comfort and familiarity, while creating opportunities for stress relief and emotional connection. 

Don’t force it 

If your child prefers to keep to themselves in spite of your efforts, validate their need for privacy. Give them time and space, but show interest in their thoughts and feelings and assure them that you are always available to chat when they feel ready.  

In the meantime, watch for signs that they may be struggling emotionally and seek professional help should serious concerns arise (see "Spot the warning signs" below).

Building that bridge 

What if teenagers aren’t receptive to our strategies? Naturally, parents may feel rejected and hurt, but it’s helpful to remember that the emotional rollercoaster takes a toll on both parties. “It is at this point that teenagers need more of our love and stability. Ultimately, it is important to remind them that you are always there and encourage them to reach out anytime,” says Ms Ho. 

That said, change doesn’t happen overnight. Everyday interactions build a foundation of trust for teenagers to open up in times of stress. 

Mr Brian Chan, 48, who is a father of an 11-year-old, says he lets his son know his doors are open and that he is free to come to him at any time if he feels down and needs support. He says: “I stop everything, pay attention to him, give him space to cry, and the choice to share (his troubles) now or later. I assure him that I am here – no judgement.”

Sixteen-year-old Ethan is grateful for being able to turn to his mother, whom he calls his “hero and listening ear”. He says: “There are times where she gives the most eye-opening reply, and times where her answers are cheeky. After our talk, she always affirms me and asks if anything else is troubling me. She will always assure me that she’ll support me no matter my decision.”

“Improving communication and relationships requires time and consistent effort. Patience is key,” Ms Lim explains. “When your child feels safe enough, they will be ready to share their concerns with you. However, if your child seems to need more support, consult with an appropriate professional. 

“Every child is unique and it is important that parents keep an open mind in seeking help to engage the relevant resources in the community to support them.” 

Look out for warning signs like excessive gaming and lack of social interaction. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

That said, “typical” teenager behaviour has to be distinguished from legitimate causes for concern, adds Ms Ho. For instance, a teenager who stays up and wakes up late may be no cause for concern, but parents have to take note when their child starts sleeping all day or not at all. 

Getting help

National Care Hotline: 1800-202-6868 (8am - 12am) 

Mental well-being

Fei Yue's Online Counselling Service: website (Mon to Fri, 10am to 12pm, 2pm to 5pm) 

Institute of Mental Health's Mental Health Helpline: 6389 2222 (24 hours) 

Samaritans of Singapore: 1800 221 4444 (24 hours) /1767 (24 hours) 

Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800 283 7019 (Mon to Fri, 9am to 6pm) 

Tinkle Friend: 1800 274 4788 (Mon to Fri, 2.30pm to 5pm)


TOUCHline (Counselling): 1800 377 2252 (Mon to Fri, 9am to 6pm) 

Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 1800 353 5800 (Daily, 10am to 10pm)

Visit this website for additional resources on teen mental health and well-being.

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