Helping parents support youth mental health

  • 23 January 2023
  • Professor Eilis Hennessy, Aine French, Dr Daráine Murphy
  • Academic, Health, Social


Research by Professor Eilis Hennessy and colleagues has given practical information and advice to parents (and carers) about the mental health needs of adolescents, and how they can respond positively to an adolescent who is distressed.

Having studied parents’ experiences of supporting youth with mental health difficulties, and the information they require, the team ran a series of evidence-based webinars. Based on the success of the webinars, RTÉ worked with Professor Hennessy’s team on new web material and a social media campaign to increase the reach and impact of the research. Their blueprint detailing parents’ information needs regarding adolescent self-harm is paving the way for other free online resources for parents. Collectively, these initiatives are increasing the mental health literacy of thousands of parents and carers across the country, meaning that vulnerable adolescents are more likely to get the right help at the right time.

Research description

Parents are central to the lives of most young people, and they have critical supporting roles to play when young people experience mental health difficulties. However, within the literature of psychology and psychiatry, parents have frequently been seen as lacking understanding of youth mental health and potentially sustaining problems or triggering relapses.

This perspective has fostered stigma and shame for some young people and their families, and may delay seeking help in a timely way. An alternative perspective considers family support as paramount in improving outcomes for the young person and their family.

Two research projects led by Professor Hennessy and carried out with her colleagues have now enriched our understanding of how families can better support youth mental health. All aspects of the research involved engaging with parents who have experience of supporting an adolescent with a mental health difficulty, and with professionals who work with adolescents and their families.

In the first project, Dr Daráine Murphy conducted interviews with 30 parents, exploring the challenges they faced when seeking help for an adolescent experiencing mental distress. This revealed that for many parents there was a key moment when they realised their child’s distress was not normal for an adolescent and persuaded them to seek professional help. A follow-up experiment with almost 1,200 parents confirmed that the key factors in parents’ decisions to seek help are related to beliefs that the problem is serious, that it is outside the adolescent’s control, and that professional treatment would help. This information could be used to develop a targetted information resource for parents.

The second project was run in collaboration with Pieta, a crisis intervention service for people affected by suicide and self-harm). A survey of over 100 parents/carers of adolescents who self-harm highlighted gaps in the information they were able to access. Parents wanted information on how to talk to an adolescent about self-harm, the nature of self-harm and why it happens, how to manage their emotional responses, parenting strategies, and different forms of therapy.  A parallel study with professionals emphasised the need for parents to practice self-care, and the value of teaching alternative coping strategies to adolescents. Based on these findings, the team created a blueprint to help service providers develop web-based information for parents. 

Research team

  • Professor Eilis Hennessy, Professor of Developmental Psychology, UCD. She is PI on one of the grants supporting this research and Co-I on the other. She was involved in all aspects of the research activities, including conceptualisation, design, recruitment, data collection, and dissemination.
  • Aine French, PhD student, UCD School of Psychology. Employed as Research Assistant on the National Office for Suicide Prevention funded research project. She was involved in all aspects of the research activities, including design, recruitment, data collection, and dissemination.
  • Dr Daráine Murphy, UCD School of Psychology. Daráine completed this research for her PhD and was involved in all aspects of the research activities in the first study, including design, participant recruitment, data collection, and dissemination.


  • Study 1 was funded by the HRB (October 2018 – August 2022).
  • Study 2 was funded by the National Office for Suicide Prevention (NOSP) via the IRC New Foundations scheme in a grant to UCD and Pieta (May 2021 – May 2022).

Research impact

To get their findings into the hands of people who could benefit from them, the team organised and ran a series of eight webinars, sharing practical, evidence-based ways that parents and carers can support youth mental health.

These webinars all took place during varying levels of Covid-related lockdown and restrictions on young people’s access to school and to their peers, a time of increased mental distress. The focus of each webinar was practical, such as helping adolescents to distinguish between helpful and unhelpful thoughts as a way to manage stress; and encouraging parents to acknowledge and validate the distress that a young person may be feeling, rather than dismissing it as “over reaction”. Feedback from parents (see Testimonials below) has clearly confirmed that the messages were on target and helpful to them.

Information on each series of webinars was sent to every post-primary school in Ireland (more than 700). In total, the webinars were attended by over 2,000 participants, and recordings of the webinars have subsequently been watched more than 3,500 times.

[Without] initiatives like your seminar series offered to parents, I do not know where I would be at this stage, so thank you so much for your work on this.

—Webinar attendee

The popular success of the original webinars and their clear relevance for parents led to the research findings being picked up by RTÉ, who approached Professor Hennessy and her team for written material for their website and, in turn, the development of a social media campaign across several platforms at the start of the state examinations in 2022 (see Links and References below).

The reach of the campaign included more than 4,500 views on Facebook, 10,000 impressions on Twitter and 27,000 views on Instagram. The combined effect of the brief social media messages and the longer webinars and videos is to increase parents’ mental health literacy and ultimately increase the chances that adolescents will receive timely interventions when necessary. In addition to the direct impact on parents’ understanding of adolescent mental health, the research generated potential for future impact through continued collaboration with Pieta.

An output of one of the team’s studies was a blueprint document for providing resources to parents of adolescents who self-harm. This has now directly resulted in the HSE issuing a call for proposals to develop a resource for parents/carers of adolescents who self-harm. The evidence base for such a free service would not have existed without the team’s research, and the website will be the first that is directly informed by the information that parents with experience of adolescent self-harm have identified as necessary and useful.

Sample of testimonials from Zoom chat and emails

  • “If there was not so much information out there for us parents, thanks to … initiatives like your seminar series offered to parents, I do not know where I would be at this stage, so thank you so much for your work on this.”
  • “Helpful tips which I hope to put in place.”
  • “Very well explained examples.”
  • “Very informative and practical.”
  • “The big lesson about delaying the response rather than reacting is really good, thank you so much”

Selected media

Academic publications

  • Hennessy, E., Gaynor, K., Nearchou, F., French, A., Raftery, S., Dolan, E., & O'Dwyer, B. (2022). A blueprint for providing resources to parents of adolescents who self-harm (pp. 1-28). University College Dublin.
  • Murphy, D., Heary, C., Hennessy, M., Dwan O'Reilly, M., & Hennessy, E. (2022). A Systematic Review of Help-Seeking Interventions for Parents of Adolescents. Journal of Adolescent Health. 70, 16-27. 
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