How parents can help struggling teens

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For more than 25 years, psychologist Lisa Damore has helped adolescents and their families in her clinical practice, in her research, and in best-selling books such as “Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood.” Is doing.

She says this time is like no other.

According to a report released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 42 percent of American high schoolers will experience persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in 2021, while 22 percent have seriously considered attempting suicide. Teen girls, as well as lesbian, gay and bisexual youth, are struggling the most, but boys and teens in every racial and ethnic group also reported worsening symptoms.

“I am deeply concerned about the suffering teens experienced during the pandemic and the current crisis in teen mental health,” Damore said.

In his new book, “The Emotional Lives of Teenagers,” Dr. Damore aims to demystify adolescence and re-establish the definition of mental health: “Too often, ‘mental health’ is defined as feeling good, happy, calm, or relaxed. is combined with.” he said. But it’s about “holding the feelings that fit the moment — even if those feelings are unwanted or painful — and managing them effectively.” She thinks this characterization is “far more accurate”, and, she hopes, convincing.

Here’s what Dr. Damore had to say about communicating with teens, differentiating healthy feelings from mental illness, and when to step in to help.

The questions and answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.

It’s normal for teenagers to have big, turbulent emotions. But given that we are in the midst of a teen mental health crisis, how can parents tell the difference between healthy teen anger and signs of anxiety or depression?

Adolescents feel their emotions more intensely than children and more intensely than adults. So there will be many days when they will experience distress, perhaps several times a day.

Most of that distress would probably be appropriate for their circumstances. If a teenager fails an exam, we expect them to be upset about it. If someone breaks up with them, we expect they’ll be very, very sad. We are interested in how teens manage their emotions. What we want to see is that they use strategies that bring relief and do no harm, such as talking to people who care about them, brief distraction, or problem solving.

What we don’t want to see – and where we become alert to the potential for a mental health concern – is one of two things. One, teens are using strategies to find relief that actually come at a cost: So a teen who is very distressed and then smokes a lot of marijuana, or a teen who is having a hard time with a friend And then goes after that coworker on social media.

The other thing we don’t want to see is “showing off” – when they get in the way of a young person’s ability to do the things they need to do, like go to school or spend time with peers To spend

If a teen comes home from school and seems sad or angry, what is the best way for an adult to respond?

Usually, they only require two things from us. Have a curiosity – taking an interest in what they’re sharing, asking questions. The second is empathy – tell them we’re sorry they feel that way.

We have excellent scientific evidence that the mere act of putting words to an unwanted emotion reduces the bite of that emotion. So when it’s 9 p.m. and your teen is standing in front of you all of a sudden telling you that they’re feeling very anxious, or sad, or hopeless, the most important thing to remember is that they’re already feeling better. Put those feelings into words because they are on the way to feel.

An exercise I use in my home is that I imagine my teen is a reporter, and I am an editor. My teenager is reading my latest article to me. My job is to listen so attentively that when she comes to the end of a draft, I can create a title – the title is a distilled, precise summary of what she said that doesn’t introduce any new ideas. It shows them that you are listening, and validates their feelings.

What if your teen says something cruel to you?

It is perfectly okay for kids to get angry. We should expect it and plan for it. The criteria we hold are expressions of that anger.

When teens use hurtful language, it can be helpful to respond in a way that separates the way the feelings are expressed. We might say things like, “You must be very angry with me. And you probably have a point. But we don’t talk to each other like that, so take a minute and bring it back to me in a more civilized way. Even if a teen rolls her eyes, she’ll get the message and hopefully try again when she cools down.,

Let’s say a teen gets really upset and doesn’t want to talk about it—and then 20 minutes later seems perfectly fine. Should You Try to Lead the Conversation?

If a child is in a bad mood, and he finds a way to a good mood, I will leave him.

Time works differently for teenagers than it does for adults. It is very common that a teenager who was very upset about something at 4 pm may be happy by 6 pm.

In your book, you discuss the value of letting children talk to parents on their own terms. What does it mean?

Many parents find that they ask great questions at dinner and come away empty-handed—if they’re lucky they get a one-word answer. Later in the evening, their teens gossip as much as they can.

Adolescents are organized around the drive toward autonomy. Rather, they will not be subject to the agenda of an adult. When we ask them questions from time to time that work well for us, we are asking them to cooperate with our agenda. We need to be open to the possibility that a teen may be more forthcoming when they are the ones to initiate the conversation.

It could mean that they want to talk to us at a time we are not expecting or even find it inconvenient. And they want to talk about things that might not be in the center of our attention. But if we want to develop and protect our relationship with our teen, an important element of it is being willing to work with the terms of their engagement.

Should parents try to shield teens from difficult situations or feelings?

We don’t want our children to experience emotional pain, but we need to appreciate that it is not only inevitable, but often valuable. Psychological discomfort provides important feedback about how things are going. If a teen cheats on a test and gets caught and has to deal with the real hassle of working through the problem at school and at home, it will deter that teen from making a similar decision again.

The question we want to ask is this: Are they struggling with the uncomfortable, or the intolerable? We can’t always know. But in general, if they’re dealing with some discomfort, we want to treat that as an opportunity to develop healthy skills—to process painful or uncomfortable feelings.

If we have any reason to think that they are facing or may be facing a situation that would be intolerable or overwhelming, then perhaps it is a good time to step in. Your own You deserve extra help. Let’s figure out what that help should look like.

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