How to tell if your teenager is uphappy – and what you can do to help

(Picture: Ella Byworth for

According to a report released today, teenagers in UK schools are much unhappier than those in other countries.

Just over half (52.5%) of 15-year-olds gave their life satisfaction score seven or higher out of 10 in the study by Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

This is compared to 67% in the other 37 member countries who were included.

And 3.6% of those polled in the UK gave a score of 0, saying they were ‘not at all satisfied’ – the lowest of any OECD country except for Turkey.

So if you are a parent of a teenager, how do you recognise if they are unhappy, especially if chatting to you seems a little ‘uncool’.

Know what’s normal – and what isn’t

Of course, being a teenager is difficult. You’re dealing with lots of emotions and hormones so your mood can change quickly, but it’s important to look out for something more than normal teenage angst.

Jack Driver, YoungMinds Parents Helpline Team Leader explains: ‘Young people are adapting to lots of changes as they grow up, so it’s normal for them to express raw emotions and change moods quickly.

‘But if your child is consistently struggling, for example, if you see a sustained change in their sleeping or eating patterns, or if they seem to be upset over a long period of time, it’s important to take it seriously. Parents often instinctively know when their child is going through something – so trust your instinct.’

Keep an eye out for difficult behaviour

If your child starts to act out in a way that isn’t normal, try to find out if something is bothering them.

Tantrums, fighting with friends or siblings or things like avoiding school can all be signs that something is up.

Psychologist Helena Lewis explains: ‘If you notice dramatic changes in your child’s mood, mental health or overall demeanour, it’s important to be supportive but not overbearing. Just by noticing and offering your support can make your child feel better, and more valid.’

Could they be being bullied?

Bullying is a problem in the UK and not wanting to go to school can be more than just laziness. The OECD data found more than one-quarter (27%) reported being bullied at least a few times a month.

This compared with the 22.7 average across the 36 OECD countries with relevant data, putting the UK seventh in the table of the highest percentage of bullied students. Latvia had the highest rate, with 35.3%.

Signs your child is being bullied include a reluctance to go to school or you might who they hang out with has changed. You might also notice that some of their possessions are missing or broken.

If you are concerned that your child is being bullied at school or outside school (on social media, for example), speak to their teachers.

Encourage them to socialise

Some parents might feel like they’re always ferrying their teenagers around somewhere but if your child starts to withdraw socially, try to talk to them about what might be wrong and if there is anything you can do.

You might be able to take them somewhere to make new friends or allow them to have a few friends over so they can spend more time together in a place they feel comfortable.

Lauren Seager-Smith, CEO of anti-bullying charity Kidscape says: ‘Signs that your child may be unhappy include social withdrawal, loss of interest in things they used to enjoy, disturbed sleep, reluctance to attend school and unexplained illness.’

Talk to them

Teens don’t always want to tell their parents about what is going on in their lives but try to approach it in a way they feel comfortable.

YoungMinds advise doing an activity together that they enjoy and trying to encourage them to chat.

Jack from the charity adds: ‘It can be really difficult to start the conversation about mental health, but it’s a crucial first step. When you do speak to them, listen to them without judgement and make sure that they know that you’re on their side and will help them get through this. And remind them that you love them and that you’re proud of them.’

Lauren from Kidscape says: ‘As parents and carers the best place we can start is connecting with our child, their wants and needs. Ask them what one thing you can do together as a family that would make them happier. It nearly always comes back to a need for social connection. Start with small changes and keep checking in.’

Work with them to get help

If your child opens up to you about their feelings, make sure you talk to them about what they want to do next. It’s important they feel involved in the decisions.

Helena Lewis adds: ‘There are several things you can do to support them. Speak to the school and teachers and find out if anything is going on that may have caused this behaviour. Or, if possible, take your child to a psychologist.

‘Gps are also good support networks and can recommend psychologists and further mental health support. Sometimes, children and teens can find it difficult to speak to parents, or siblings so can benefit from having an outside voice and perspective. Speaking to someone professional may also provide professional advice around coping skills and mechanisms.

‘If your child is becoming more and more withdrawn, it is important to seek support. Support groups for teens, and organisations such as The Samaritans and Mind are also available for additional support.’

You can also call the YoungMinds parent advice line on 0808 802 5544 for free Mon-Fri from 9.30 am to 4 pm about what else is available.

Look after yourself

When your child is struggling, it can be upsetting for you too as their parent. Children can take their emotions out on those closet to them so remember that if they behave differently towards you, try to remain calm and don’t blame yourself.

And if you need more support, talk to other family members or friends about how they can help, or if you feel it is impacting your own mental health, speak to your GP.

MORE: What being in debt can do to your mental health

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