Our thought leadership talk on Tuesday 26th March 2019 tackled the important topic of teenage mental health.

NHS England online reports that one in four adults and one in ten children experience mental illness. Meanwhile, statistics from YoungMinds, a leading charity involved in young people’s mental health, tell us that roughly 3 children in every classroom have a diagnosable mental health problem. “We certainly come across mental health issues among teenagers more and more in the work that we do at Family Law in Partnership” comments director Helen Greenfield.

Our speakers were:

  1. Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore FBA, a Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London. She is also Group Leader of the Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Group at UCL which focuses on the development of social cognition and decision-making in adolescence. Sarah-Jayne’s book, “Inventing Ourselves – The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain” has just been published. Sarah-Jayne examined the development of the teenage brain from a neuroscience perspective and its impact on behaviour.
  2. Emma Gleadhill is an Educational Speaker & Trainer who specialises in child and adolescent development, wellbeing and the emotional dimensions of teaching, learning and parenting. Emma has worked with a wide range of schools throughout the UK providing training and talks for parents, students and governors. Emma spoke about the provision of care and support within schools for those adolescents struggling with mental health issues.
  3. Elaine Halligan is the London director of The Parent Practice an organisation which draws on the latest thinking in psychology, neuroscience and psychotherapy to help develop parenting skills. The Parent Practice runs courses, workshops and one to one sessions for parents to help them to enhance and develop their parenting skills. Elaine is the author of “My Child’s Different” which looks at the role that parents can play in maximising the potential of children who are seen as different or difficult. Elaine spoke about what we can do as parents to ensure that our teens develop strong mental health and great self esteem.

Our audience included a mix of counsellors, psychotherapists, family mediators and school teachers together with former and current clients of Family Law in Partnership.


Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore spoke of adolescence as a time when teenagers develop their sense of an independent and social self which prepares them for their role as independent adults in society. During adolescence they are more prone to risk taking (drink/drugs/dangerous driving), they are more impulsive and highly influenced by their peer group (this is particularly the case with drink and drugs). As a society we tend to look negatively on teens and their behaviour and this is reflected as far back as the teachings of Socrates and the writings of Shakespeare (quotes from The Winter’s Tale).

Sarah-Jayne’s work involves tracking the development of the brain. During adolescence there is heightened brain activity with an increase in white matter and a decrease in grey matter. Synapses which connect areas of the brain are pruned if they aren’t being used. The brain becomes highly plastic and is particularly susceptible to changes in the environment. These changes also make the brain vulnerable to the development of mental health issues.

Peer group influence and the threat of social exclusion are key factors affecting the behaviour of teenagers. That is why anti bullying initiatives work best if they are led by other teenagers – they really listen to, and are heavily influenced by the behaviour of, other teenagers.

Sarah-Jayne concluded by saying that teenagers aren’t dysfunctional but the changes to their brains during adolescence (their “plastic” state) make them vulnerable to outside influences and the development of mental health issues. In truth, adolescence is a period of great opportunity for teens. They are highly creative and open to new learning during this period.

Sarah-Jayne was asked why more teenagers seem to be experiencing high levels of anxiety today and whether this could be due to the growth of social media. Sarah-Jayne commented that mental health problems among teens had certainly increased over the last 10 years. This could be due to an actual rise in mental health problems among teens or it may be that the stigma surrounding mental health issues has reduced and therefore teens are more willing to admit to these problems. The evidence that social media is directly responsible for this increase is not strong, in her opinion. However, there is a strong link between sleep deprivation and mental health. Teenagers’ circadian sleep rhythms mean that they tend to wake later in the morning and sleep later in the evening. Their increasingly busy lives and the need for social interaction (the peer group influence) mean that they may be using social media later into the night. This disrupts their sleeping patterns, leading to sleep deprivation and consequently they are more susceptible to developing mental health issues. We will know more about the link between social media and mental health issues in teenagers once the results of a US study, commissioned under Obama, which is tracking 10,000 10 year olds for 10 years is published.

Sarah-Jayne also responded to a question about whether the school day should be shifted to start and finish later in the day to fit in with teenagers’ circadian rhythms. Although this would make sense – she knows of two schools (one in London) which have changed their hours – she thinks it unlikely that this will be adopted as working parents will have to trust their children to get out of bed and go to school!

Emma Gleadhill refereed to teenagers as hyper-connected (through social media) but in practice, very disconnected. More is expected of them but less is certain or promised. There is a better range of support services provided within schools for teenagers but in general, school counselling services are underfunded and overstretched. Access to CAMS (children and mental health services) is very pinched. There is, on average, a waiting list of 6-12 months for those with moderate to severe needs. The term “snowflake generation” fails to recognise the hard work these teenagers put in and the additional stress that a tough employment market and reduced opportunities place on them.

Elaine Halligan addressed the audience about how to bring out the best in our teenagers as they strive to develop their independent selves. Connection and communication are key tools to help them to develop their self esteem and develop confidence and happiness. She referred to the negative bias adopted by many (most!) parents when they speak to their children – focusing on what their children have done wrong rather than on what they have done right. It is all about taking the time to listen to them and thinking carefully about how to deliver messages to them – rather than “I’m really proud of you“, which might create a culture of dependency, you might say “You should be really proud of yourself“.

Background to our thought leadership talks

We launched our thought leadership talks in 2016 with the aim of offering our clients and contacts talks on issues of interest to families (but not family law issues). We could use our contacts across the family law community to source interesting speakers who could address topics far beyond the day to day family law issues. Previous talks have covered topics as varied as:

  • “Is work working for families?”
  • “The impact of divorce on the wider family”
  • “How do our decisions affect others?”

For more information on Family Law in Partnership’s thought leadership talks, please contact Sarah Cloke of Family Law in Partnership on E: hello@flip.co.uk.