"I didn't feel I had a choice" Why 'teen-ternity leave' is an increasingly popular option for parents of older kids - but would you do it?

Some parents are choosing to take a career break for their teens. We spoke to one mum who did just that, to find out why...

A mother hugging her son on a sofa
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Please Note: This article discusses issues around teenage mental health and suicide, which some readers may find upsetting. 

What is 'teen-ternity' leave and why are some parents choosing to take a career break for their older kids? We've delved into the parenting phenomenon.

Recent years have seen gains made when it comes to parents' employment rights. In 2023, maternity pay went up to help deal with rising costs, and many companies now take a forward-thinking approach when it comes to paternity pay and leave too. And, last year, Evri couriers finally gained the long-awaited right to maternity leave. But it's not just babies that need full-time care, as Suzanne Alderson, founder of Parenting Mental Health, knows all too well. "I really didn’t feel I had a choice to stop working at first, because my daughter was actively suicidal, so leaving her alone wasn’t an option," she tells Goodto. "Even as her mental health stabilised over several months, it became clear that the uncertainty of mental illness demanded I was at home to care for her."

Increasingly, parents are choosing to take a career break as their kids reach their teenage years, for reasons including their children's mental health, exam stress or other pressures that are part of teenage life. Known as 'teen-ternity' leave, the phenomenon has seen women with high-profile careers leave their jobs in order to devote more time to their children. Of course, leaving work isn't an option for everyone, which is why we've gathered some expert advice on juggling work while supporting teenagers too. 

Suzanne, who is committed to helping parents support their children through mental illness, explains, "We can be led to believe that parenting should be 'sorted' by the teenage years, but each stage of development requires new skills and new reserves of energy. 'Teen-ternity' is a recognition of the overwhelming need for more support and understanding we often have as our children transition into young adulthood."

What is 'teen-ternity' leave?

Teen-ternity leave is where parents - in most cases mothers - take a career break in order to be more present in looking after their children. This can be in order to provide support through exam stress, peer group issues, mental health struggles and more. 

The parenting phenomenon has seen a number of women in high-profile jobs step back in recent months. Claudia Winkleman recently announced her plans to leave her BBC Radio 2 show, saying she wants to spend more time with her daughter, who is getting ready to leave home. 

In addition, former chief executive of Co-op Food, Jo Whitfield, announced she was stepping down to help her teenage sons study for their exams in February 2022, while BBC Countryfile presenter Ellie Harrison left the show after 13 years in October 2023.

Ellie Harrison from Countryfile leaning against a shed

Ellie Harrison left Countryfile to focus on her children, aged 13, 11 and seven.

(Image credit: BBC Studios)

Ellie said at the time, "I've come to realise that I don't need to navigate to a whole new ocean or even a new sea, but to chart a new course somewhere in these waters, raising my three wonderful children," who are aged 13, 11 and seven. 

Elsewhere, Suzanne Alderson left her job as the head of a marketing business after finding out her daughter had thoughts of taking her own life. 

Speaking about her experience as a working mother with a daughter who was struggling with her mental health, Suzanne says, "My concentration reduced, I struggled to be present, and to be honest, [work] felt pretty hollow and meaningless in the face of what we were going through."

She added, "My daughter’s illness and the time we spent together, battling the darkness together, showed me what is really important, what I needed to heal, and that we can’t take life for granted. I had to adapt to support her and scale back on the life we were living on many levels, but the benefits of our connection outweighed the harsh changes her illness brought."

Why are some parents taking 'teen-ternity' leave?

There are a number of reasons why parents might decide to take a career break to look after their teenagers. It could be because their child is going through a difficult time in their peer group, is struggling with exam stress or it may be due to more severe mental health issues. 

In the UK, a 2018 NHS study found "a slight increase over time in the prevalence of mental disorder in 5 to 15 year olds", rising from 9.7% in 1999 and 10.1% in 2004, to 11.2% in 2017.

Meanwhile, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found in a 2021 survey that the number of adolescents reporting poor mental health is increasing. They found that 42% of US high school students surveyed experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, up from 37% in 2019 and 28% in 2011. 

In addition, 22% had seriously considered an attempt on their own life, which was up from 19% in 2019 and 16% in 2011. 

Why reports of poor mental health in children seem to be increasing is unknown, but technology, the lasting effects of the Covid pandemic and increased pressures at school are just some of the theories put forward. 

Suzanne tells us, "The demands to achieve academically are greater than ever, and the always-on nature of technology is something many parents didn’t grow up with and can’t often understand. Add in the brain changes in growing children, hopes and expectations of them becoming a young adult, and the natural detachment that happens as they grow up, this time can bring challenge and change we’re not used to or equipped for."

But the CDC also found that parental monitoring (defined as parents or other adult family members knowing where the teenager was going or who they would be with most or all of the time) is associated with decreased suicidal thoughts and behaviours.

With this in mind, it's no wonder that parents want to take time off work when their children are struggling with stress and mental health issues.

When taking 'teen-ternity' isn't an option...

As much as parents might want to take time off work to support their teens, it's not always feasible and for some it's a big sacrifice. It means a career break and a cut in income, and for many parents that's just not an option. 

In addition, for those parents who can't take time off, seeing others do what they wish they could for their kids can bring on the dreaded mum guilt.

As Suzanne explains, "Many parents we support at Parenting Mental Health work doubly hard at work and at home to remain in their job, despite their child’s mental health crisis. But at what cost to their wellbeing?" 

She adds, "Organisations that recognise the changing needs of parents and offer flexibility and empathy benefit hugely from the loyalty and commitment of parents, as well as the skills parents of young people with poor mental health have to develop."

A woman hugging her teenage daughter

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Speaking about what can be done to make 'teen-ternity' a realistic option for more parents, Suzanne tells us, "We need to recognise the important influence parents have and help them to do the hard, necessary work of supporting the next generation to adulthood." 

Expanding our views of the role parents play in society and recognising the transitions they face are essential, Suzanne adds, saying, "There can be a loss of the sense of self with all change, so flexibility over career breaks, working patterns and how time off or adjustments are perceived are key to protecting people, as parents and as employees."

Supporting your teen as a working parent

Founder of Parenting Mental Health, Suzanne Alderson, has offered her advice for parents who are working while supporting a child with poor mental health:

  • Communicate as much as you can with your employer. Tell a trusted colleague what is going on and ask for what you need.
  • Exercise your parental leave entitlement. You’re entitled to 18 weeks’ leave for each child under 18, in maximum blocks of four weeks per child per year. Find out more at gov.uk.
  • Take all the unnecessary froth off your to-do list - not everything needs to be made from scratch or ironed.
  • Connect with others who understand what you're going through. Parenting Mental Health’s community is a safe place where parents understand the impacts of a child’s poor mental health on the family and lift each other up.
  • Recognise that things won't stay this way forever, even if you can’t see a way through. There might be a shift from parenting to caring, give yourself permission to change your approach.
  • Take care of yourself! Everything feels a little more manageable when we are emotionally resourced and rested.
  • Remember you’re doing the best you can - some days that feels like enough and other days it might not. On the good days, don’t add more to your pile and on the down days, be gentle with yourself as you adjust to this new normal.
A photo of Suzanne Alderson
Suzanne Alderson

Suzanne Alderson is the founder of Parenting Mental Health, a UK registered charity that supports, skills and informs over 40,000 parents of young people with poor mental health as they navigate the practical and emotional impacts on themselves, their families and their lives. Suzanne started the community in 2016 after her 14 year old daughter attempted to take her own life and she found herself in a desperate place, facing an uncertain future with little support and even less understanding. 

Suzanne’s bestselling book 'Never Let Go - How to Parent Your Child Through Mental Illness' shares her experience and the approach she devised - ‘Partnering not Parenting’ - to support her daughter’s recovery. Suzanne runs courses for parents and practitioners on ‘Partnering not Parenting’ and is a regular speaker on how to parent through poor mental health. 

In related news, we've revealed how much sleep teenagers need and better mental health support will be given to all mums who miscarry as part of a new trial. Elsewhere, we share 12 expert tips on managing stress, and 30 free self-care ideas.  

Ellie Hutchings
Family News Editor

Ellie is GoodtoKnow’s Family News Editor and covers all the latest trends in the parenting world - from relationship advice and baby names to wellbeing and self-care ideas for busy mums. Ellie is also an NCTJ-qualified journalist and has a distinction in MA Magazine Journalism from Nottingham Trent University and a first-class degree in Journalism from Cardiff University. Previously, Ellie has worked with BBC Good Food, The Big Issue, and the Nottingham Post, as well as freelancing as an arts and entertainment writer alongside her studies. When she’s not got her nose in a book, you’ll probably find Ellie jogging around her local park, indulging in an insta-worthy restaurant, or watching Netflix’s newest true crime documentary.