How to help your parents better understand the mental health space

The NUS Youth Epidemiology and Resilience Study showed parents were less likely to identify mental health symptoms in their children.

Fitri Mahad

Probably the only person that likes to hear the koels go ‘uwu’.

Published: 15 June 2023, 11:59 AM

Seeing your parents hop on trends can be a hilarious, if not an endearing, sight to see. Bonus points if the trend is extremely outdated.

We might have seen our parents dabbing or saying “slay” in an attempt to understand and relate to us.

Their efforts, while sometimes poor, are also forgivable. However, there are some matters where poor understanding cannot be overlooked – especially that of mental health.

The NUS Youth Epidemiology and Resilience Study (YEAR) – involving 3,336 youths aged between 10 to 18 years old as well as their parents – found that parents were less likely to identify mental health symptoms in their children.

It also found that only about 10 per cent of parent respondents reported observing clinical-level mental health symptoms in their children, compared to adolescents’ self-reported mental health symptoms.

Another finding illustrated how “parents largely underestimate the time and extent their youths use their digital devices daily”.


The study looked at four areas: mental health, resilience, identity development and media activity use. It took place over the COVID-19 pandemic period from 2020 to 2022. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/ALICIA ANG


While the mental health gap between parent and youth is apparent, bridging it is no easy task for either party.

Well-intentioned attempts by our parents tend to fall short when they do not fully get the scope of our problems. Similarly, we can be very unforgiving towards their shortcomings and in turn lash out at them.

Here are some ways we can help our parents, and even ourselves, better navigate the mental health space:

Getting our parents to unlearn their mental health stigma

Mental health stigma, fuelled by misconceptions and myths, can discourage a parent from even wanting to bridge the mental health gap in the first place.

A 2020 study on the reasons behind mental health stigma found that some respondents did not regard mental illness to be a real medical condition. Others perceived having mental illness as burdensome, as well as dangerous.

There is no doubt that some of us have felt such sentiments about ourselves, or towards those around us. The logical first step would be to shoot down these mental health myths. One such avenue is HealthHub, where they categorically debunk the myths.


The 2020 study also found that local cultural values, such as an elitist mindset, and Chinese culture and “face” as determinants to mental health stigma.


Though the symptoms of mental illness – some invisible – manifest differently from physical conditions, it does not mean the mental illness is not real, according to HealthHub.

Those living with mental illness require a “different form of treatment instead”. Beyond just medication, they also need the understanding and support of those around them.

While those with mental illnesses “may act in ways that seem unexpected or strange”, such behaviours are caused by the mental conditions and not the person.

Having a mental illness also does not mean the person has weak character or personality flaws. Much like how someone cannot be blamed for getting a flu, a mental health diagnosis is also out of a patient’s control.

Some are “genetically predisposed to certain conditions”, while others are factored by “unfortunate life circumstances” such as financial problems and physical illness which also manifest mental health conditions.

Recognising mental health terms, symptoms and not downplay them

Parents can be quick to dismiss mental health symptoms we may exhibit, as well as misunderstand certain mental health terms that we use.

Anxiety, for example, is defined by HealthHub as the feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease over anticipation of ill-defined threats.

While these feelings might “go away” with most older children, for some, these feelings are “persistent, excessive, and overwhelming to the point of adversely affecting daily function”.

However, exhibiting such symptoms might be misunderstood as laziness or acting out.

Helping your parents understand that anxiety is not just “being scared” and is caused by a multitude of factors can allow for more understanding of the symptoms.

Point them to online resources on how to navigate and support their children in the space of mental health, such as the Ministry of Education’s (MOE) parent toolkit on Well-being and HealthHub’s MindSG page.

When it comes to improving our parents’ mental health literacy, familiarising them with terms such as “safe space” and “trigger” – and how to properly use them – can go a long way as well.

It’s safe to say that parents would not deliberately leave their child in a state of anxiety, but recognise they are doing their best with the limited knowledge they have from their generation.

Strengthen your own mental resilience

Bridging the mental health gap between ourselves and our parents can also take an indirect approach by strengthening our own resilience.

The YEAR study defines resilience as the ability and capacity of an individual to prepare for, withstand, adapt and progress in the face of adversities.


Respondents’ resilience were measured through the Singapore Youth Resilience Scale (SYRESS) and a youth self-reported survey. PHOTO CREDIT: JEREMY KWOK VIA UNSPLASH


Instead of acting out or repressing our problems – which can manifest in other ways and further strain our relationship with our parents – we can look for ways to better process our own emotions.

The Singapore Association of Mental Health’s (SAMH) Road to Resilience flipbook breaks resilience down into two categories: Determining what one can control, and turning negative experiences into learning experiences.

While we cannot control all external events or someone else’s behaviour, we can still control our own reaction.

It also helps to acknowledge our own feelings and “adopt a hopeful outlook”, like how “adversity or failure is part of growth”.

The flipbook recommends practising self-care, by reviewing your current coping mechanisms and creating a stress management plan. Some ways include having 30 minutes of physical activity daily, or finding a place to practise relaxation techniques.

MindSG also recommends four steps to managing emotions: Identifying the emotion, knowing why you feel a certain way, managing unhelpful thoughts and adopting self-care tips.

Even with the right tools at one’s disposal, navigating the mental health space can prove to be an uphill battle. It helps to manage one’s expectations to recognise such tools may not always work with everyone’s parent-youth mental health gap, and each situation is unique.

At its core, closing the mental health gap is a task that requires empathy, communication and patience which – like a bridge – can only work when both sides are present.

Helpline Services

Samaritans of Singapore (24-hour) – Tel: 1-767, WhatsApp: 9151 1767

For youth aged 16 to 30

CHAT – Tel: 6493 6500 / 6501, email:, Website

Mental Health Resources

Belle, Beyond the Label helpbot: Website

Youthopia Mental Well-being resources: Website

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