Tweens, Teens and Mental Health
Combining her accomplishments as a teacher, coach, therapist, mentor, sacred space holder and her admiration for women everywhere, Niki Moss Simpson launched SHINE. SPARKLE. RADIATE in 2017. On 8th March this year Niki launched her first book as co-author of the best selling Pay It Forward series: Notes to My Younger Self. In an exclusive article for MumAbroad Life, Niki talks about what adolescents and mental health.
In my last blog, I identified anxiety and depression as the thing most t(w)eens were worried about more than friendships, sex, relationships and school, so I am shining a light on the often neglected skeleton in the closet that is mental health. I have also enlisted my daughter, Eliza’s help as a survivor of teenage anxiety and depression and now a UNI student studying psychosocial studies with a strong desire to help young people thrive.
“I wish I had known more about mental health, particularly the disorders that are frequently seen among tweens and teens. I believe it’s important for children/adolescents to be made aware of how important taking care of our mental health is (it’s just as important as physical health). If teens are told about our thoughts, feelings and behaviours, what influences them and how they affect us, it will help them better understand themselves and others (to feel comfortable in their mind and body) and be able to express themselves and feel supported. If we understand how we feel and know how to express it, we will feel more secure within ourselves.” Eliza
I’m cutting straight to the chase on this one…
Anxiety happens because a part of the brain (the amygdala) thinks there might be something it needs to protect itself from. As a result, it surges the body with a mix of neurochemicals (including oxygen, hormones and adrenaline), designed to make itself stronger, faster, more alert and more powerful so it can fight for its life or run for it. This is the fight or flight response. It’s normal and healthy and it’s in everyone. In people with anxiety, it’s just a little quicker to activate.
The amygdala acts on impulse; it’s a do-er, not a thinker – like a cute boisterous puppy – all action and not a lot of thought. It just wants to keep safe, because safe is a lovely thing to be and because that’s been its job since the beginning of humankind. The amygdala can’t always tell the difference between something that might hurt (like a baseball coming at your head) and something that won’t (like walking into a party) – and it doesn’t care. Remember it’s not a big thinker and all it wants to do is keep safe.
Anxiety in t(w)eens can look like this:
- Negative thoughts – those loathsome what-ifs; thoughts about being judged or embarrassed, diddy thoughts that grow into marauding huge worries.
- Excessive worry about physical symptoms (that a cut might be infected, or that a headache might mean a brain tumour).
- Fearful, overwhelmed, out of control.
- Dread, as though something bad is going to happen.
- Panic that seems to come from nowhere.
- Feeling separate to your physical self or your surroundings.
- Physical symptoms;: racing heart, tightening in the chest, butterflies, tense muscles, shaking hands, feeling as if you may vomit, dizzy headed, weepiness, anger, tummy troubles like constipation or diarrhoea, difficulty sleeping – either trouble falling asleep, or waking up and not being able to go back to sleep.
- Behaviours: skin picking, pulling out hair, nail biting, avoiding people or situations, OCDs; compulsive and obsessive behaviours like hand washing or checking doors.
Eliza remembers anxiety as being a huge part of her life and she can trace its emergence back to the age of 6 or 7 when she started school in a French city after living in a tiny rural village all her life. Her “tummy aches” started the very first day of her new school and she still gets them nowadays. School was definitely the biggest trigger to her anxiety as she dreaded spending hours in the same room with people she wasn’t comfortable with and learning things she didn’t think were useful to her. Anxiety manifested from pressure from homework, exams and especially presentations in front of others. She went inward and felt trapped by her thoughts and pushed out of her comfort zone to speak in front of others. To compensate, she became super, hyper organized to gain control of her life. She says, she wrote lists and plans incessantly and found it increasingly impossible to just be in the present. Her physical symptoms included poor sleep, nightmares, shallow breathing, panic and overwhelm, a rapid heartbeat and physical and mental exhaustion.
I asked her about the strategies she has found to help her over the years and she says breathing and grounding exercises and distraction techniques help her when she starts to feel anxious. She will draw, cook, clean, watch Friends or listen to music. She says she is becoming more comfortable with yoga and mindfulness but found these “tricky” at a younger age.
T(w)een depression is much more than feeling down in the dumps. It’s a serious and debilitating mood disorder that can change the way t(w)eens think, feel, and function in daily life, causing problems at home, school, and in their social lives. Depression can lead to feelings of hopelessness and isolation.
Depression is far more common in t(w)eens than we parents may think…
The increased academic pressures, social challenges, and hormonal changes of adolescence mean that about one in five t(w)eens suffer with depression. This depression in t(w)eens can look very different from depression in adults and the following symptoms are more common:
- Irritable or angry mood Irritability, rather than sadness, is often the predominant mood in depressed teens. A depressed teenager may be grumpy, hostile, easily frustrated, or prone to angry outbursts. Yeahhh, I hear you, isn’t that just normal t(w)een behaviour? Well, yes and no. It very much depends on the duration of the symptoms, the intensity and the changes you notice from their normal behaviour.
- Unexplained aches and pains Depressed teens often complain about physical ailments such as headaches or stomach aches. If a thorough physical exam does not reveal a medical cause, these aches and pains can indicate depression.
- Extreeeeeme sensitivity to criticism Depressed teens are plagued by feelings of worthlessness, making them extremely vulnerable to criticism, rejection, and failure. This is a particular problem for “over-achievers and pleasers.”
- Withdrawing from some, BUT not all people While adults tend to isolate themselves when depressed, teenagers usually keep up at least some friendships. However, teens with depression may socialize less than before, pull away from their parents, or start hanging out with a different crowd.
Eliza’s personal journey with depression started at the age of 14 after her father and I separated and divorced. She remembers very little of the first months as she was in total overwhelm with the changes to her life and felt “not in her own body”. The real low came when she was sharing a room in the boarding school I was working in and separated from her brother and I. She stayed awake at nights obsessing about the events of the day and worrying about the events in the future. She couldn’t eat because she felt constantly exhausted and nauseous. She lost all interest in friends and sports which she had previously loved, and turned to self harm as a way of releasing the pain trapped in her body. Interestingly what helped her overcome her self harm coping technique was a snowboard accident in which she broke her ankle and her attention shifted from her internal trapped pain to the physical pain of her broken ankle and finding ways of looking after herself on crutches. She began to notice the kindness of others, the small things they did to help her like carrying her backpack at school, getting her a glass of water or waiting for her to hobble along slowly on her crutches.
“I can now identify when I am falling back down that rabbit hole, and my signs include sleeping too much and waking feeling more tired than before, nightmares caused by feeling anxious about the real world, not eating as much or as healthily and not feeling motivated to spend time with others and getting defensive when I have to explain why I don’t want to.” Eliza
The strategies she found useful include getting fresh air everyday by going for a walk for at least 15 minutes, exercise, snacking on fruit, watching light and funny TV series, drawing, and unplanned times with friends (planned times and activities proved stressful as she built expectations).
What Eliza thinks trigger anxiety and depression for t(w)eens…
“I think schools are huge factors affecting tweens and teens mental health. After all we spend 8 hours a day 5 days a week “trapped” there. The education system focuses on what society perceives as useful in terms of careers. However, we are never taught anything about real life such as skills for communicating with others, emotional awareness, how to help others and ourselves or how to deal with life events such as paying bills or relationships.
Another factor affecting tween and teens mental health is social media, and I cannot stress this enough but young people should not base their life or perception of themselves on pictures of other people. A picture is not a reality. Comparison is not healthy. It is easy to compare your looks, your clothes, or your home with someone else’s, but you will not gain anything from it. I use social media to learn, I follow informational accounts about the environment, health, veganism and spirituality. I try to spend as little time as possible on social media; I aim for about one hour a day spread out across the day. A tool that helps is to try to catch yourself when you are judging others or yourself by comparing your lives or looks, instead tell yourself that you are not the same and you cannot be compared. If you feel yourself judging others just remember that we are all free to make our own choices and that is what makes us unique and beautiful in our own way. When you feel a negative thought come up, change it into “a work in progress” thought.” Eliza
EVERYONE is unique, and like ourselves, t(w)eens all cope with things differently and one person’s way of dealing with something is not wrong just because it’s different.
Self-acceptance, self-love and self-compassion are all so important in feeling comfortable and confident, but these do not appear overnight. They need constant work and this is helpful to emphasize with t(w)eens who are so used to instant results in this online world.
As a parent or a t(w)een, it’s okay to have bad days, to cry, to ask for help, and it’s definitely okay to have moments where you think you hate yourself (or your child) or others, or the world or life! But the trick is to catch yourself in those moments and change your perceptions into something positive. Just tell yourself you’re learning and growing.
“I know that being a tween and teen is a long process of growth, and it can feel very challenging for parents to live their own life while helping their children. But communication and listening with an open mind are key. Parents do not always need to feel like they know, and most of the time adolescents just want someone to listen to them and tell them it is okay.” Eliza
If you are facing challenging times as a parent of t(w)eens I would love to support you.
Through coaching or attending workshops and retreats, together we can help you develop strategies to support your kids whilst learning tools to help yourself thrive through the growth journey of adolescence. Yes, the challenges are real and yes, you will survive but working with a Coach can give you the confidence and support you need to enjoy the relationship and get the most out of it!