Suzanne Alderson was immaculately dressed and well briefed as she entered the meeting room.

Three months earlier, Suzanne’s world had fallen apart when her 14-year-old daughter Issy went alone to see their GP to say she was planning to take her own life because she was being bullied at her private school.

The teenager was barely eating or sleeping and the doctor had rung Suzanne to tell her she couldn’t be left on her own at home for a moment, in case she carried out the threat.

Suzanne, 49, who owned a Leamington Spa marketing company and lived near Coventry, felt she had no choice but to work despite the emotional turmoil.

FEMAIL investigated the need for 'teen-ternity leave' for parents who need time out to look after teens, as the number of teenager off school with anxiety and depression in the UK increases. Pictured: Suzanne Alderson with daughter Issy

FEMAIL examined the need for a ‘teen-ternity holiday’ for parents who want to spend time with their teens as more teenagers are suffering from anxiety and depression. Pictured: Suzanne Alderson with daughter Issy

‘It was a meeting with the managing director of a multi-million-pound client,’ she says. ‘We had a strong rapport and I wanted to support our team, talk about our wins.’

Suzanne believed that she had managed to get rid of her concerns about her daughter over the next hour and was now able present her professional self.

‘But then, as the meeting wound up, the client said: “Are you OK?” He noticed I wasn’t myself, not in a business capacity, but personally.

‘I was blindsided and had to compose myself as I tried to work out whether, despite my best efforts, my worries had become apparent. I stated that my child was very ill and then left it at that. It wasn’t until a year later that I could tell him the full extent.’

Suzanne realized at that moment that she couldn’t do two jobs and be a successful businesswoman as well as a caregiver for a teenager who needed it all day.

‘After that, I took eight months off. I couldn’t pretend everything was fine and that I could work at the intensity I had before Issy became suicidal. I sat down with my husband Ross, with whom I ran the company, and he said he’d take over my clients and shield me as much as possible.

‘I had to recognise that what had been important in the boardroom now felt meaningless. My home was where the important work was: taking care of my daughter and keeping my daughter alive.

‘I could have applied for a carer’s allowance of £67.60 a week and Issy could have claimed Disability Living Allowance to pay for her care needs — but these benefits are hard to secure so it wasn’t worth it.’

Suzanne (pictured) took eight months off from running a Leamington Spa-based marketing business to help her daughter recover

Suzanne (pictured), took eight months off running a Leamington Spa marketing business to help her daughter. 

Suzanne was fortunate to be able take a break that helped her daughter, now 20, to recover, go to college, and take up a university place.

But as the number of teens off school with anxiety and depression rises, her dilemma is becoming more common — how do you balance earning a living and caring for a mentally-ill child, especially now the pressure is on for employees to return to the workplace?

Post-pandemic mental health services are struggling to cope with the increasing number of adolescent cases. The waiting lists for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, the NHS service that treats young adults with mental health problems, have increased by more then a third in some areas since the outbreak of the pandemic.

The number of children admitted into acute wards with eating disorder in the three-month period from June 2021 more than doubled when compared to the same period in 2019. An army of parents is required to support these teens while they wait for professional treatment. All of which begs the question: as well as maternity leave, do we need ‘teen-ternity leave’ for parents who need time out to look after teens?

Femail reached out to a Parenting Mental Health Facebook group, which has over 20,000 members, to find out. About a fifth of respondents said their employers were supportive. However, many others felt they had no choice but take unpaid sabbaticals or leave their jobs.

Others spoke of guilt over leaving colleagues in the lurch as they devoted time to teens who couldn’t cope at school, were having panic attacks or threatening suicide. Still more reported their work performance had suffered because they couldn’t concentrate — or that they have been eased out of their jobs for missing shifts or being ‘unreliable’.

Heather Westland, 54, (pictured) from Shropshire, chose not to return to work when her son Ollie had a breakdown in Year 11

Heather Westland, 54 (pictured), from Shropshire decided not to go back to work after Ollie, her son, suffered a heart attack in Year 11. 

All of them spoke about the dilemma of having to decide between helping their teenager in crisis or earning the money to pay the bills.

This was the conflict faced by Jane Peters*, who took two months ‘teen-ternity’ when she felt it had become untenable to keep up her job as a book-keeper while her daughter Maya*, then 15, struggled at school.

Jane, 52, says: ‘There were days when as soon as I got to work, I’d get a call to tell me Maya wasn’t coping at school and asking me to collect her. Then one day, they rang to say she’d taken an overdose on the train in. They’d called an ambulance but I needed to go to the hospital.

‘At times such as this, she wanted me, not her dad, and I was the only person who could calm her. It was like being a toddler.

‘I felt I had to be open with my work. My employer was amazing — if I had to leave, it was accepted, but I felt guilty as other colleagues had to pick up the pieces.’

Jane asked her GP if he could sign Jane off work when she was stressed out. He agreed to sign off her work because he saw the damage it was causing to her health.

‘For two months, I focused 100 per cent on my daughter, and that was when we got the connection back.

‘At first, Maya wanted to be in her room. Slowly she started to come out of her room and start talking more, and watching TV with me. She calmed down because she was calmer. When I wasn’t working I felt more in tune with her.

‘She became less resistant to communicating and started missing fewer days of school. Gradually, the calls dropped. Now she’s doing well at school and has a part-time job.’

Jane sought assistance from CAMHS, and Maya was quickly assessed by a nurse. She was then placed on a nine-month waitinglist for therapy.

Jane’s husband runs his own HR company, and she stresses how lucky she was to be able to afford to take time off, but adds: ‘If parents can, I think taking a work break like this can really help. I think parental stress plays a huge role in all this.’

A teacher for 22 years, Claire Whitehead* also took a break from work when her daughter Amelia* stopped going to school in Year 7, after a breakdown.

Amelia is now 16 years old and has been diagnosed as having autism, anxiety, and depression.

Looking back, Heather (pictured) believes that the pressures on Ollie to succeed in his GCSEs worsened his mental health

Heather (pictured) believes that Ollie’s GCSE success pressures have negatively impacted his mental health.

Claire, 46, who lives near Bristol, says: ‘It was a huge secondary and by April, the size of the school and pressure socially and academically meant she collapsed. She refused to come out of her room and said she was going to kill herself.’

Claire had originally intended to apply for higher education positions. ‘But all this made it impossible. It impacted my career far more than my husband James’s, who works in engineering — as he is a higher earner, it was obvious for me to cut back.

‘My headteacher has been supportive, but cutting down work to just one day means my salary is a fraction of what it was. Instead, as a family, we get £300 a month disability living allowance for Amelia’s needs.’

Yet Claire regrets she didn’t take more time off earlier, ‘When Amelia first became ill, I cut back my days gradually, but I wish I’d taken a year off at the start, rather than trying to juggle everything. Maybe she wouldn’t have got worse.

‘I think giving families the option of a “teen-ternity” break — like maternity leave where you get 90 per cent of your average weekly pre-tax earnings for the first 6 weeks, and then a minimum of £151.97 or your average weekly earnings for the next 33 weeks — is a good idea.’

She adds: ‘Your GP or a social worker would secure eligibility based on the individual case, and then each teen may be reassessed weeks later to see if further parental leave was needed.

‘While it’s not yet being officially talked about, it could be cheaper for the Government than the millions they spend on mental health services for young people.’

For some mothers, their children’s mental health problems have stopped them returning to the workplace altogether.

Heather Westland (54), a Shropshire divorced mother-of-2 who has a postgraduate in social policy management and housing management. She hoped that she would return to work once her two children were grown.

Ollie suffered a severe mental breakdown in Year 11. He is now 18, and has been diagnosed with ADHD. He also has anxiety, depression, and Avoidant/Restrictive FOOD Intake Disorder. This means he can only eat bland foods.

Heather believes that Ollie’s GCSE success pressures have negatively impacted his mental health.

‘He started having panic attacks at school. One morning, he fell apart and came downstairs. After that, even if he made it into school, he got little support so felt too anxious to go to lessons.’

Belinda Lester, 52, (pictured), from North London, an employment law expert, thinks we need a societal shift so parents can take that time to support their teens if they are struggling

Belinda Lester, 52, (pictured), from North London, an employment law expert, thinks we need a societal shift so parents can take that time to support their teens if they are struggling

Heather feels she still has to devote much of her time to her son — so hasn’t returned to work.

‘I have to be his reminder to eat and it’s a full-time job to get him the professional support, therapy and medication he needs. ‘As his mother, I’m his safe place; basically anything that impacts on him, impacts on me.

‘Sometimes, I imagine what life would have been like had I said: “Right, that’s it! I’m going back into the workplace.” But the good thing is Ollie is back on track. He’s at college doing a diploma in Sporting Excellence and I don’t think he would have succeeded if I hadn’t had the time to help him.’

Belinda Lester, 52, is an employment law expert who knows what it’s like to be in this position. Her son’s panic attacks reached a crisis point at secondary school.

He refused to attend his 1,500-pupil comprehensive and joined the 700,000.

After he was diagnosed as autistic, the problem was eased and she moved him to a small school for autism specialists.

Belinda, who hails from North London, could work remotely as she was already running her practice, Lionshead law. However, Belinda says that many women suffer in their careers.

She adds that parents have the right to take up to 18 weeks’ parental leave over the course of their child’s life up to the age of 18, but it is unpaid and must be taken at a rate of four weeks a year in blocks of one or two weeks.

They can also apply for flexible work, but must have worked for the same employer for 26 consecutive weeks. She adds: ‘The employer needs a good reason to turn down flexible working requests.’

Belinda believes we need to make a shift in society, so parents can be there for their teenagers if they are in trouble.

‘One of the biggest problems about all of this is that it’s seen as a woman’s problem. Nothing will significantly change until it becomes a people problem to be shared between both parents.’

Suzanne (pictured) advises parents not to see their child's difficulties as a judgement on their parenting or their worth as an employee

Suzanne (pictured), advises parents not take their child’s difficulties and use them as a way to judge their parenting or value as employees.

Even though the provision to take time off for children is there, Belinda believes many parents still don’t take it, fearing it will damage their careers.

‘Under the law, employers can’t treat you less favourably.’

Of course, whether the families, employers or the state bear the burden, the money isn’t limitless.

In a country where more than one-tenth of children are suffering from mental health difficulties, we must also address the root causes that make it so difficult for our young people to succeed.

There are many factors that contribute to mental illness. However, the fact that so many young people fall apart when they enter secondary school shows how important it is for our education system to change. Suzanne Alderson founded the Parenting Mental Health charity in response to what her daughter experienced.

‘Education has become depersonalised, focused on attainment, meaning children don’t feel seen or heard as individuals. They are put under extraordinary pressure and when they have a difficulty, whether it’s anxiety or bullying, they are getting lost in the system.

‘I’d like to see caring for a child with a mental health issue to be automatically covered by statutory sick pay. While for many, it won’t take away all the financial pressures, it would give some security in a very uncertain and highly stressful time.’

She adds: ‘The Government also needs to recognise the impact this kind of caring has on the family, employers and wider society, support parents to do the important work of caring with flexibility, and ensure parents aren’t discriminated second-hand for their child’s mental health issues.’

Suzanne also believes it’s essential for parents to look after themselves, too.

‘Once you’ve seen your child try to end their life, it changes your perspective on what is important.

‘When I tried to work when Issy became ill, tasks that used to take me ten minutes took more like ten hours. I found that it gave me the emotional space to focus on her 100 percent when I got away from work. Given time in a less stressed environment, Issy made her own way back.’

Whatever a mother’s circumstances, Suzanne, who has since written a book Never Let Go: How To Parent Your Child Through Mental Illness, also believes being transparent with your employer and colleagues is key.

‘Don’t see your child’s difficulties as a judgment on your parenting or your worth as an employee. Acknowledge what’s going on, and don’t be ashamed or gloss over it. After all, if your child had a physical illness, you wouldn’t hide it.’

  • If you are a parent with a mentally ill child, you can find support at Samaritans can be reached at 116 123 for free or visit to provide assistance.
  • Tanith Carey is author of What’s My Teenager Thinking? Practical Child Psychology for Modern Parents.

* These names have been changed.