(Courtesy: WHO)

A recent WHO report released in April 2017 titled “Mental health status of adolescents in South-East Asia: evidence for action” came up with some startling findings. According the report, atleast 25% of Indian students admit to feeling depressed. What is a bigger eye opener is that a significant number of students (almost one-fifth) reported low levels of parental engagement. Parental engagement was defined as how much parents understood the child’s problems or worries, if parents knew what kids were doing in their free time, whether parents checked if their child’s homework was done etc.

Low levels of parental engagement was found to significantly increase the risk of suicidal attempts, and increase the chances of kids feeling lonely or feeling anxious and also put the child at risk for substance use (cigarettes, drugs or alcohol).

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What can parents do to become more involved with their kids?

Check homework: In the report, less than half of adolescents in India reported that their parents checked their homework on a regular basis. A reason could be that parents believe that adolescents are independent and can manage these tasks themselves. Possibly that’s not the case. Considering that post Grade 7 the syllabus and classwork become extensive and complex, managing homework, preparing for exams and researching assignments needs to be done as a team work. Teachers, parents, student and tutors may need to work together to help the student cope with the pressure. A good idea would be to keep a check the classwork of kids on a regular basis and not just during exam time.

Be a link: Often the child is not just managing classwork and assignments but also liaising with friends, teachers, seniors etc to complete projects and assignments. Parents can be a great source of networking and can take over calling friends for incomplete work, procuring material for assignments, asking other parents for information, helping the child prep for class tests, doing research etc.

Be alert: Parents often live with the irrational belief “my kid will never do it”. My personal experience as a therapist has been to see parents break down in front of me when their child is discovered taking drugs, making a suicide attempt or has run away from home. So be watchful of your child. Know the phone numbers of their closest friends, monitor their activities, be aware how they spend their spare time. A word of caution: be alert but not a helicopter….hovering over kids too has negative consequences.

Keep a check on impatience. Don’t yell at kids just because you have more power. Catch yourself in time if you find your temper rising when kids don’t do as they are told. Find solutions and move past the problem. Shouting or yelling is actually an easy way for parents to release tension rather than taking the tougher way out by getting to the root of the issue and finding solutions. Do remember that while it takes extra effort and energy to find solutions, it builds your child’s self-esteem and helps them remain cheerful and motivated.

Ask: When I see a really depressed teen in my office I often ask parents “Did you try asking what’s wrong?”  The usual response is “Yes I did try…a lot of time…but he/she just doesn’t open up”. Most kids don’t open up, especially not adolescents. Parents need to find creative ways to get them to. For example my son hates discussing sticky topics in direct discussion. I usually finds he opens up more when we take walks together or when we are playing a game. Another parent I know finds that her teen is a lot chattier about boyfriend troubles or exam stress when they are out shopping or having coffee together. That doesn’t mean one manipulates their child into talking, just figures out what their comfort zone is for these discussions.

Less outsourcing: Indian parents find it very easy to outsource many parental duties to housemaids, drivers and the older generation. Being physically present is especially important considering the kind of exposure kids today are getting via the internet. Parents of a teenager recently visited me when their child was expelled from school for circulating inappropriate sexual content among his classmates. Both parents have travelling jobs and showed low level of engagement with their child. One of the suggestions I often make to such parents is that when they are not around to supervise, set an additional pairs of eyes in place. The parents of that teen downloaded child monitoring software and also hired a round-the-clock nanny. Both these steps vastly reduced the likelihood of the teen getting tempted to indulge in such behaviour.

Involve kids in traditions: With the information explosion from the internet and media, children are becoming global citizens. That’s good news. Yet without roots it’s tough to find wings. Customs, traditions, family rituals all give a child a sense of being grounded.  Much as we need to move ahead with “modern times”, it is a parent’s duty to impart knowledge of traditions to their children. It can go a long way in shaping their identity and preventing feelings of sadness and loneliness.

Parental involvement is both a protective and a risk factor. In other words, with the WHO report we have sufficient proof that healthy parental engagement protects adolescents from mental health problems. Small positive steps in involving yourself more in your teen’s life may prevent them from taking a giant catastrophic step.

This post originally appeared in the RobinAge.