March 2 is World Teen Mental Wellness Day. Gain more insight on adolescent mental health.
By Dr. Brad Schwall
President & CEO of The Center for Integrative Counseling and Psychology
Adolescence is a time of extremes. Kids may think their parents are too strict. Parents are worried about their kids safety and their futures. Teens may say nothing to us, shielding their lives from us, and the next minute they might be yelling out of frustration or even very excited to tell us about some good news in their lives. If we step back and think developmentally, were cognize that their brains are still developing. The prefrontal cortex is still developing. That is where our executive functioning skills are housed –our ability to think ahead and to think about consequences. We need to understand our kids are growing and developing. The changes and mood swings are growing pains.
Rebellion is a growing pain of the search for independence that our teens are having. Peers are influencing them in addition to the changing brain, and they are navigating their identity. And, we do have another consideration – their mental health. Most people do not know that about one in five youth deal with a diagnosable mental illness. It can be difficult to spot depression in adolescents as their mood changes may be seen as just symptoms of the many changes happening hormonally, physically, and emotionally during the teenage years.
The symptoms of depression include:
• Irritable mood
• Lack of interest in activities that normally bring enjoyment
• Changes in appetite and sleep patterns
• Thoughts of suicide
• Helplessness and hopelessness
Depression in adolescents can be expressed through irritability more so than only sadness. Symptoms of depression cause impairment in normal functioning. While adolescents do experience normal mood swings, depression involves symptoms that persist.
Checking for depression through observation and as a part of physical exams at the doctor can help parents stay in tune with the emotional state of their teens so that they can detect depression early and seek help. If your family has a history of depression, it is especially important to be vigilant about watching for and screening for depression. If you suspect your teen may be dealing with depression, talk to your school counselor, pediatrician, or mental health professional.
We want to encourage the well-being of our teens. Our daily interactions are key to this. We can create a healthy environment that encourages resilience and a balanced perspective.
If we attribute positive qualities to them, they are more likely to want to live up to those positive expectations. If we are treating them as if we believe they cannot be successfully independent, they will live up to that. It is defeating and discouraging. We need to treat our kids with respect and bring out in them that wisdom that is already there. If we sit down with teens and take time to listen to them, we realize they have some good thoughts and insights. Affirming them encourages them to show their mature and thoughtful selves.
The more we get into arguments, the more we escalate, and the more the whole situation escalates. When you have a conflict, vent with your spouse, vent with a friend, find someone else with whom you can share frustrations. Listen to understand where your teen is coming from. Do not react.
Teens have a keen sense of what is fair and what is not. So, the more that we can name the expectation before a problem happens, the easier it is to redirect when we have to. We can go back and say, "well, we had talked about this being your curfew". The more they know what to expect, the better.
Giving teens a chance for successful independence helps them learn to do things on their own, and more importantly, develop the confidence for being able to direct their own behavior. We can set parameters and then allow them to act. Allow them to make the choice, knowing that they may not always make the choice that we would make.
A common way to say this is, "don't freak out", just listen. Do not jump to try to solve the problem for them. Validate their feeling. If they are saying, "you're the worst parent in the world”, certainly we say, “I'm not ok with you talking that way”, but we also say, “I know you are frustrated because I have some rules that you don’t like”. By focusing on what their anger is about, it helps them to better articulate that feeling. The more that we jump in to give advice, the more they tune out and we lose their attention.
Now, we assume the teen years are when kids are in their room, door closed, on their screen. We do not have to encourage that isolation. We have to be intentional about connection. Make time at dinner with no screens. Make eye contact when you talk. Plan activities together. Be available even if your teen seems to be withdrawn.
We need to be aware that when our child has a period of either low mood, negative self-thoughts and self-talk, or they are anxious over time, we must pay attention. Do not ignore your gut instinct that something may be wrong. If our kids are not thriving in areas of their lives where they previously excelled, if they are struggling in areas across the board, we need to pay attention to that. Counseling can be helpful. It is a safe place to share, learn and get encouragement. Sometimes we need that counseling too.
Be patient. Have hope. Be grateful for the positive. Pursue well-being. This attitude can help navigate the tumultuous, but exciting and pivotal, stage of adolescence.
The Center for Integrative Counseling and Psychology partners with Beacon of Light to provide licensed professional therapists on site at the Beacon of Light offices. For more information, or to make an appointment directly with The Center, visit https://thecentercounseling.org/