By Regina Alexander, MSW, LCSW
Someone recently said to me, “It’s scary to be the parent of a teenager these days.” I agreed – there are so many problems that teens face and so much pressure to fit in that sometimes it seems we don’t even know our own children anymore. I think there is more to that statement, though. Adolescence has always been an intimidating stage of life, and with the advent of social media the gulf that opens up between child and parent at this point seems to be getting wider and wider. Parents see their little darlings suddenly slam doors in their faces and proclaim the activities they have always enjoyed “lame” or “stupid.” Many parents of teens hold their breath each morning to see what mood their kid is in that day, and again when school ends.
But what about the teenagers themselves? Is this stage as scary for them? Certainly, but in a different way. In addition to the infamous hormones, adolescents also experience significant brain changes, which temporarily impact their emotions and decision making capabilities. This means that small slights (think, friends not sitting with him/her at lunch, for example) seem overwhelming and the simple choice to do homework before playing video games honestly may not cross their minds. Consider this scenario: a teenager feels rejected by friends and isolates himself in his room until mom comes home. She asks if he has finished his project, which he completely forgot about, causing him to feel upset at himself and results in him picking a fight (directing the anger toward mom), then getting grounded and feeling angry again.
Many teens deal with this cycle of feelings and behaviors through shouting, slamming doors, or refusing to engage. Others, however, respond differently. As a therapist who works with adolescents quite a bit, I have seen a recent increase in unhealthy behaviors such as cutting or substance abuse. More and more teens also come in with panic attacks and low self-worth. These behaviors are concerning, as they lay the groundwork for the teen’s coping style throughout life.
Why do they react so strongly to passing situations? Besides the change in brain chemistry, it is a matter of perspective. What can seem like drama to parents often feels like trauma to a teen. To an adolescent the adult world still seems foreign; what they value is what they know – friendships, dating relationships, and school. Anything that threatens their standing with these values seems tremendous in their eyes. The breakup of a 2 month relationship may lead a teen to believe they will never find anyone else, which is scary in the high school world where who is dating whom is practically currency. Not understanding a subject at school may lead a teen down a spiral of self-doubt and result in him deciding that there is no point in trying to succeed anymore. As parents these reactions are baffling, but to the adolescent they seem the only possible response.
Going through this stress all at once can lead to problems with mood regulation in teens. Adolescents may become sullen and depressed, believing that they are not worth others’ time. Others may be extremely focused on being perfect, which leads to anxiety that can often overwhelm the teen and result in decrease in performance in school, family, and relationships. Parents often become confused when their teen’s behavior changes. They wonder if the dark moods, time spent alone, and irritability may just be adolescent angst, or if it could be something more. If your teen seems to be continually melancholy or makes statements about hopelessness or worthlessness, if he/she loses interest in activities and withdraws from friends, if he/she seems to never be motivated or enthusiastic about anything, and if there are continued emotional outbursts of crying or anger they may be experiencing some depression. If your child ever makes statements regarding wanting to be dead or others being better off without him, consult with the family care doctor or a mental health professional. While many people fear that talking to your child about suicidal thoughts gives the child ideas, it actually opens lets the child know they can trust you with this information and decreases the fear and guilt. Anxiety in teens often presents as physical concerns such as stomach aches, headaches and shortness of breath for which no cause can be found. Teens may also seem to develop new fears, withdraw from friends and not want to leave the home, or become very fixated on doing everything “just right”.
Adolescence is a baffling stage, whether you are experiencing it as a teen or a parent. Remember that most of the drama will pass, but parents must be vigilant to ensure their children come through it unscarred, both literally and figuratively.