An alarming number of adolescents are experiencing significant emotional distress.
Statistics recently released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that 42% of American high school students experienced lingering feelings of sadness or hopelessness in 2021, while 22% seriously considered attempting suicide. It was during the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the emotional health crisis for adolescents began before the coronavirus.
There has been a continued increase in suicides among teens aged 15-19 over the past decade, a 29% jump. This has implications for mental health support systems and also has major implications for parents and teachers.
With these statistics in mind, I recently read a New York Times Q&A (“Teenagers Are Struggling Right Now. What Can Parents Do?” Feb. 28) sharing the psychologist’s perspective for teens Lisa Damour and her new book, Teenage Life.
The article and the book helped me better understand the problem and the different ways parents can help. I highly recommend all parents of teenage and/or tween children read both. In the meantime, I want to share some insights that I have drawn from these sources and from my own experience with teenagers.
Damour begins by dispelling three myths about teenage emotions:
Myth #1 – Emotion is the enemy of reason. Wrong, we have to see them as common aspects of a teenager. Myth #2 – Difficult emotions are bad for teens. No, they are normal for teenagers. Myth #3 – With their heightened emotions, teenagers are psychologically fragile. It is simply not true.
The thrust of Damour’s book is about parental empathy and clarity. She emphasizes that parents need to respect teens’ emotions and see them as normal and not threatening. We need to help adolescents express their feelings and better manage their emotions.
One chapter aims to help them look at the things they struggle with from a different perspective, to be able to help them think about their issues with more awareness and less emotion.
Importantly, she also notes, “Too often, ‘mental health’ is equated with feeling good, happy, calm, or relaxed. … It’s misguided, … “it’s about having feelings that fit the moment – even if those feelings are unwanted or painful – and dealing with them effectively.”
If, for example, a couple separates, it is to be expected that they will be very sad. It’s normal. What is important is how the adolescent then processes his feelings.
“What we want to see is that they use strategies that relieve and do no harm, such as talking to people who care about them, finding brief distractions, or solving the problem,” Damour wrote.
She also points out that we need to be careful about managing our emotions as parents. To be a great parent, or teacher, you need to have a strong ego, in the best sense of the word.
You need to understand and care about your teen without trying to control them in order to correct how you are feeling right now. You have to be strong enough not to take it personally when your teen is angry with you or doesn’t want to spend time with you. It’s essential.
If a parent or teacher takes anger or other forms of rejection personally, it is their feelings and not those of their teen.
None of this negates the need for discipline. There may be consequences for destructive behavior on the part of a teen, but boundaries placed in the context of an open, caring relationship will be much more effective and will not be seen by the teen as rejection.
No book can target every eventuality, and Damour does not explore how to deal with teenagers who feel entitled and, especially, those who seem to show no remorse for destructive acts. But the book strongly implies that if the relationship with the parent is close and healthy, it will be easier to address the issue of entitlement and lessen the likelihood that your teen will lack empathy.
The article and the book are well worth the time for parents. They should also be very helpful for teachers to engage their teenage students.