How to protect our daughters' mental wellbeing

It is a scary time to be raising daughters. According to a study from NHS England last week, more than one in four women aged 16-24 now have a mental health condition. They are the most at-risk group for psychological problems, with three times more young women than men reporting symptoms of depression and anxiety. And in 2014, self-harming among young women was three times more common than it had been in 2007.

So what can we do to help ensure the mental wellbeing of girls? Here are 10 ideas from our team of experts.

1. Don't add to the pressure school places on them
"Schools are under tremendous pressure to meet targets, and a lot of that has been passed on to parents," says Sarah Kendrick of Place2Be, a charity that provides emotional support to pupils in schools. "And, of course, it's important as parents to have expectations for our children. But home should be a safe place, a haven where children know they are valued for much more than their academic ability."

2. Decide jointly on rules for phone and computer use
Instead of stressing about your daughter's use of her mobile, think about how you use your own phone. "Girls sometimes describe how they're trying to tell their mum something, and she's not really listening because she's checking emails on her phone - or it keeps buzzing the whole time with new messages," says Jane Lunnon, head of Wimbledon High School for girls. "We have to role-model how to use technology in our own lives." Parents need to lead the way by putting their devices to one side during conversations and at mealtimes. Have some rules on technology, but decide on them together, says Lunnon. "Talk to your children about what they think would work. That way, you'll nail down rules they have a vested interest in and will want to keep."

3. Take time out yourself
Remember to look after yourself and your own mental health. "Make sure you're not living a totally stressed-out life," says Mumsnet founder Justine Roberts, herself the mother of 17-year-old twin girls. "Daughters need to see their mums taking time out for themselves, getting enough sleep, and not spending the whole time in a frantic panic. And try not to go on about diets and food fads. It's not good for teenage girls to see their mum preoccupied with all this - it will make them anxious about their own diet, which is the last thing any of us wants."

4. Show them it's OK to fail
Don't forget to show them that failure is OK. Girls need to know that it's fine to fail, that we all fail at times in our lives, and that what matters is not so much failure, but how you deal with it. "You don't want failure to be this terrible thing that can't happen," says Roberts. "Take on new challenges; show your daughter how to be adventurous. And when something doesn't work out - because not everything can - she can see you pick yourself up and carry on. It's all about building resilience, which is the really important thing for our daughters."

5. Hang out with them
Do nothing, and do it together. "The precious commodity of unpressurised time is the best thing you can give them," says Roberts. "You're letting them know that you're hanging out with them just because you want to be with them. We're all guilty of scheduling time and checking our watch, or trying to do two things at once, but there's nothing that matters more than that time when you're just together, without an agenda."

6. Sit down together at meals
Try to make sure you all put away your phones and laptops and sit down together for a meal at least a few times a week to chat. If you can't eat together, sit down and talk over a cup of tea. As Lunnon says, "The thing about social media isn't just what they're doing while they're on it, it's about what they're not doing when they're on it. And that includes the time when they're not chatting with their parents and their siblings, which they need to do."

7. Listen carefully
Don't let girls fend you off. "Sometimes, they will try to push you away or say they are not interested in talking about something, but you shouldn't necessarily leave it at that," says Dr. Caroline Schuster, a chartered psychologist who works with children aged 11 to 18. "You need to get into a conversation with them about what the problem is. It's important to listen carefully - this isn't about you telling them how to cope, it's about you listening to whatever the problem is from their point of view. Of course, you can put things into perspective, and that can be very helpful, but always remember to listen first." No problem, says Kendrick, is ever too small or too big to talk about. And whatever it is that's troubling your daughter, don't dismiss it as unimportant: if it's important in her life, it's important.

8. Muscle in on their media
Tune into their world, and raise questions about it. Go to see a film of their choice; browse the websites they are visiting; sit down to watch their favourite TV show with them. "The important thing is to get a sense of the images, programs and media they're seeing, so you can start a conversation," says Schuster. "It's the conversation that's important." Be careful not to just dismiss everything they're consuming: get them to think about the messages behind what they are watching. Why do the women in adverts, or on TV reality shows, look the way they do? Does it reflect real life? Guard against sexting disasters by talking about what's acceptable to send.

"Tell your daughter, 'Before you hit post, imagine everyone in your whole school is seeing this,'" says Roberts. Talk, too, about her right to privacy, and about the fact that she should never feel pressured to behave in a certain way or to interact in a certain way. Make sure she knows she can come to you and that there's nothing you won't be willing to discuss. Lunnon recommends being "quite draconian" on tech issues. "Remind your daughter that you pay for her mobile. If the boat hasn't already sailed, before you buy her first smartphone, lay down ground rules: access in bedrooms won't be unlimited, and parents must be allowed to check phones on occasion." Counter the heavily sexualised and pornography-influenced culture by injecting a bit of realism into their lives. "Promote really positive, non-physical, female role models," suggests Lunnon.

9. Watch for signs of mental health problems
Look out for the warning signs of mental health problems. "Withdrawal is the big thing to be wary of, especially if a teenage girl is withdrawing from events that involve her friends," says Schuster. "It's normal for teenagers not to want to go to family events, but at that age their friends feel like the most important people in their lives, so if they're not taking up invitations to go out to meet them, it's a warning sign."

So too, she says, are repeated stomach problems, as well as changes in appetite, behaviour, energy levels, sleep and academic performance. Several of these symptoms together can signal depression. If you have worries about your child's psychological health, take them seriously.

10. Life should be fun
"We all need to remember that life is essentially fun, or should be," says Lunnon. "Girls need reminding of that. Savour opportunities to laugh with them, and don't take yourself too seriously - encouraging girls to laugh at themselves is important." Doing fun stuff together as a family is brilliant for girls; it helps nurture the idea of the family unit, our little band against the world, and that's important for their sense of identity.

The author is a  freelance writer.

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