You Asked, The Doctor Answered: ParenTalks 

St. Michael’s College School (SMCS) held its inaugural ParenTalks, a series of conversations for current and incoming SMCS parents, on May 3, 2019.

These conversations are designed to inspire learning through leading guests experts.

The featured guest for the debut of ParenTalks, was Dr. Mark Broussenko ’07, MD, a family physician and a hospitalist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH).

Below are Dr. Broussenko’s responses to questions received from our parent community.

Note: The information provided by the medical professional in this article is provided as an informational resource only.

The inaugural ParenTalks at SMCS called, 'Supporting your Son's Mental Wellness: A Conversation', was held on May 3, 2019 in the SMCS Lecture Hall (pictured above).

1. How do you recognize signs of mental health challenges in this age group (12-17 years old) of boys?

I would look for sudden changes from a child’s baseline: irritability, withdrawal from activities, overwhelming or persistent negative thoughts. Obviously, these are not always symptoms of anything serious but warrant at least a second look at how a teen is doing.

2. How do you recognize signs or triggers of substance abuse in this age group (12- 17 years old) of boys? 

Similar to Question #1, often substance use/abuse goes hand in hand with anxiety and depression. With substances, secretive behavior, absenteeism, and a heightened interest in money are also warning signs. 
3. How do you recognize signs of issues with vaping? 

See above. If your child smells like crème brûlée, mango, key lime pie, etc., and he or she is not an amateur chef, they’re vaping.

4. How do we go about navigating the healthcare system, if our son needs help? 

If you haven’t already, start with their family doctor/pediatrician. For many families who have already tried this route, it’s unfortunately the case that a lot of the resources you need may be outside of OHIP/outside the scope of practice of some primary care providers (but not all - always try!). In those cases, it might be helpful to approach things privately; this can often be very overwhelming. 

5. How does one get help for someone who is not willing to seek help? 

I would suggest framing counselling or psychotherapy as a form of skills development. “Just talk to someone” can be overwhelming for adolescents and young adults, but framing things in terms of concrete end points/objectives can generate a lot more traction.

6. It seems impossible to talk to my Grade 10. He is not engaging in conversation and seems withdrawn from family. What do you suggest? 

Refer to Question #1. Clearly define the intent and objective of your conversation. Offer in different contexts, in different ways, and at different times. Don’t tie conversations to performance in or access to academics/sports/leisure or free time. Recognize and accept that sometimes kids won’t talk to you, despite best efforts.

7. My son displays social awkwardness and avoidance of social opportunities. How do I encourage and know whether to push as a parent? 
This might be beyond my scope; there’s an important distinction between a “late bloomer” and a child with diagnosable difficulties in interpersonal interactions. Depending on the extent of difficulties, an assessment by a child and adolescent psychologist can be very helpful. 

8. How do I recognize “signs of depression in a 14-year-old even if he has friends and plays competitive sports?” 

See Question #1. Which spheres of your child’s life are you worried about? What about his/her function concerns you?

9. What is the best way to discipline teenagers? 
This is far beyond my area of expertise. Historically, “experts in child discipline” have done quite poorly, so I would suggest that any answer to this question be met with significant skepticism. 

10. What is the best way to prepare my son for his first year away at university? 
Start having conversations with your child about activities, feelings, challenges well before his/her first year away. Recognize that university is no longer quite as independent of parents as it used to be. Expect that you’ll be more involved in your child’s life than your parents were at the same stage in your life. 

11. Could you suggest strategies for those who are anxious when writing tests and exams? 

This is much better answered in an individual context. There are a number of exam writing strategies that work, and ideally they are tailored to each child and his/her context. Broadly speaking, “Mind over Mood” by Greenberger is an introductory text that would cover the common strategies for mindfulness-based approaches to stressful situations. 

12. Could you suggest general tips on how to guide children through their teen years? 

I think unfortunately this is also beyond my scope. 

13. How do I continue to support my son’s mental health while he is away at university? 

See Question #10. I would also add that as parents, you know your child better than anyone. Let him or her develop at whatever speed is appropriate, and recognize that the transition years in undergraduate education remain, for many, an extension of the process of self actualization and finding one self. Your children may become academically or intellectually mature well before they become financially or emotionally able to handle complete independence. Success in one sphere does it guarantee similar success in other spheres. Being aware and supportive of this will make it much easier for your children to open up to you.

14. What is the link between gaming and depression? What is the effect of Fortnite and gaming in general on mental health?

Difficult to answer objectively; a lot more research needs to happen on this topic. The one thing about video games is that they can be a healthy extension of normal socializing (and can teach valuable problem-solving skills, etc), but they can also be very harmful. The topic of Fortnite specifically warrants a much longer conversation in itself. Superficially, I would say that just like with anything else; moderation is key. Anything in excess can be harmful and disruptive, and video games are no exception. 

15. Why is there no wider discussion among teachers and students about the prevalence of mental health issues many of our youth are dealing with?

I think this is part of that discussion. Certainly there are different forums and different platforms that these questions are being discussed in, but this is the start of a conversation on this topic.

Learn about future ParenTalks at SMCS events here. Stay up-to-date on all ParenTalks events here.