It’s no mystery that teenagers often struggle through their adolescent years. As you are reading this you may recall what it was like for you as a teenager, pushing through school, social constraints, family dynamics, and just your own body may have felt like an overwhelming load.
For your teen, all the same things you dealt with in your teenager years still exist, but now may be exacerbated by the pressures of an ever more connected society.
Three Reasons for Teen Therapy
In this article, I hope to show you three reasons why teen therapy may be right for your teen today.
1. Mental health problems
Around one in five teenagers will deal with a mental health problem at some point during adolescence. While incredibly common, and while the conversation about mental health is becoming more and more productive, mental health issues still can carry a stigma and many don’t receive the treatment they need to be able to thrive. When I work with teenagers, usually I have my ears ready to hear one of three common issues: depression, anxiety, or trauma. Here are a few things to look for.
Depression in teenagers is more than just the moodiness that we all go through, although irritability can be a common symptom of depression as well. Colloquially, we understand depression to consist of sadness, but it is so much more. Clinical depression usually entails at least some lack of pleasure in activities that used to bring joy. We call this symptom anhedonia.
This might look like staying in their room and rarely coming out, even to eat, as well as a lack of engagement in social relationships. With depression, there are often sleep disturbances and this can be any variation on “normal” sleep. Sleeping too much, not enough, or waking up through the night all can be attributed to depression.
One of the most common issues I see is that of anxiety. Anxiety can be generalized, meaning a teen or person is struggling with worry about anything and everything, or it can be specific, like that of a phobia. Another common form of anxiety is that of social anxiety, which can be a diagnosable mental illness.
Avoidance of social situations and extreme distress when forced to be in them, are both symptoms of what we call Social Phobia. Sometimes, anxiety is accompanied by panic attacks, which for the person experiencing them can feel like the world is ending. Further, just general stress, while not necessarily a mental health issue, is can feel overwhelming and benefit from therapy as well.
The final symptom I look for when I meet with new clients is trauma. Trauma can manifest in many different ways, and quite often as a form of instability. While we often think of PTSD as a diagnosis for veterans and victims of severe violence, it can even come from a history of abusive relationships.
Traumas can come from a major event, or thousands of smaller events that add up over time. My “working definition” of what counts as trauma is any sort of bad memory that when you think of you feel like you are reliving it rather than just remembering it. However, people can also experience symptoms of trauma that they actively try to not think about as well. Things to look for are irritability, avoidance of triggers, nightmares, flashbacks, and general mood instability.
2. Family problems
Another area where teens might benefit from therapy is in navigating the struggles of family problems. Maybe it is their own issues with other members or their experience of other members’ conflict. When this occurs, home may no longer feel like such a safe space. Teens often benefit from talking to someone, and when family issues become complex turning to friends may no longer be enough.
More than just coming to individual counseling, family counseling may be most beneficial for family conflict. Family communication often breaks down, causing everyone to struggle to express their needs and emotions. This can result in either a lack of communication or fighting (which we could think of as over-communication).
Family counseling gives everyone a space to be heard and the therapist can help family members to both listen and express themselves more effectively. When I work with families, I work to help uncover unhelpful patterns that are impacting the family dynamic and then work through uncovering emotions that need to be heard and expressed.
For teens, family problems sometimes are outside of them but they might feel a responsibility to help solve them. In this case, I work to help the teenager to help set boundaries for both themselves and others and learn to control what they can and to let go of that which they cannot. Many learn the value of empathy in adolescence, but this can become crippling when they do not feel like they have the power to actually impact anything.
3. Peer problems
The final major area where you may want to bring your teen into counseling is that of peer problems. In adolescence, the world of peers is the only world that seems to matter for so many. Problems for teens with their peers pop up, but it can feel like a betrayal to many to talk to their family about them. As such, talking with a counselor or therapist provides a level of confidentiality that can feel safer than talking with family.
Teens will often experience issues and conflicts with friends that cause significant distress. The sense of separation of themselves from their friends can be quite transparent, leading teenagers to feel like their friends’ problems are their own. Further, if they have a problem with a friend if feels like they themselves are the problem.
Working through this involves understanding who they are and what their goals for life are. The sense of self is something that develops during this time and is often unstable because it can be largely defined by their friend group.
However, many issues teens deal with that lead to therapy revolve around bullies and negativity from their peers. Bullying is no new phenomenon, but with the advent of social media, it has become a much more invasive issue. Previously, you may have dealt with bullies at school, but you could go home to a place of refuge (assuming that home is a safe place).
Now, however, your bully can follow you home in your pocket. Alone time rarely is fully shut off from the outside world as Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter give teenagers a place to vent their thoughts to the world. However, it also lets the world into their safe spaces and allows negativity to be brought in.
This leads me to a final note that I would like to address, which is that the problems that teenagers face today are both familiar and different. They go through the same physiological development that we all did and with this comes a wave of emotions and hormones that make adjusting to life difficult.
However, we now live in a world where societal pressures are amplified and ever present in social media. Even in seemingly positive ways, there is pressure to succeed and do well in school. Most kids can check their grades constantly rather than just every couple of months as progress reports come out, which can lead to stress which feels crippling rather than motivating.
Now that we have so much knowledge and connection available to us, parents often want to know the whereabouts of their children at all times. While not necessarily a bad thing, this is a new stress when for so much of history the rule would be just, “be home by dark.” It’s a new world for many of the issues that teenagers face, so I urge you to bring them into therapy if it feels that things have gotten out of control. Help can be just a phone call away.
“The Gang”, Courtesy of Guduru, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Isolating”, Courtesy of Pixabay, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Sisters”, Courtesy of Elijah O’Donnell, Pexels.com, CC0 License; “Texting”, Courtesy of Tofros.com, Pexels.com, CC0 License