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4 Mental Health Challenges Teenagers Face and How a Therapist Can Help

Being a teenager these days is extremely challenging. As a therapist working with teenagers and a mom of two teenagers, I am aware of the many psychological issues that they face and the stress that this causes many parents. According to Mental Health America, the rates of depression among teens is increasing at an alarming rate. Each year, almost 5,000 young people between the ages of 15-24 take their own lives. In 2015, about 3 million teens ages 12 to 17 had at least one major depressive episode in the past year. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, more than 2 million reported experiencing depression that impairs their daily function. About 30% of girls and 20% of boys totaling 6.6 million teens have had an anxiety disorder according to data from the National Institute of Health. In the past 15 years of working with teenagers, I’ve noticed an increase in rates of depression and anxiety and requests from parents seeking mental health therapists for their teenagers. In the following article, I will discuss the four main mental health challenges that teenagers face with the hope that it will increase awareness of these issues that cause many of our teens to experience mental health illnesses. It’s also my hope that awareness will lead to action. In many cases, a mental health therapist can provide a teenager with the support they need to work through their struggles, but it’s difficult for a young person to recognize when they need help and even more difficult for them to ask for it.

Challenge # 1 Peer pressure

Primarily during middle school and high school, many teens feel very stressed because they are trying to be like their peers and fit in. This is nothing new, and I’m sure you can remember it from your own high school days. These pressures lead to teenagers dressing and behaving in ways that may surprise you as a parent or caregiver. Middle and high school teens are well known for forming cliques and groups that have their own norms and rules that people have to follow to fit in. Those who are not included feel a lot of pressure to be in certain groups so they may do things out of their comfort zone to fit in. Since the adolescent years are filled with teens struggling to define and discover who they are as a person, this pressure leads to feeling confused, stressed, and overwhelmed. Just because peer pressure is “normal,” it doesn’t meant that every teenager is going to be able to cope with it in healthy ways. For some, the pressure is too much and can lead to destructive behaviors.

One of the most prominent figures in psychology, Erik Erikson, proposed a psychosocial theory comprising of eight stages of development. I am not going to bore you with all the stages — although I think they are very interesting and can add great value to your knowledge as a parent, educator, or anyone who is interested in human development — but I want to give a basic overview as it relates to teenagers. Basically, during each stage, a person experiences a psychological crises, which could have a positive or a negative outcome for personality development. For the purposes of this article, I will jump right into the fifth stage that is relevant to adolescence.

During the fifth stage (ages 12-18), the adolescent searches for a sense of self and personal identity, through an intense exploration of personal value, beliefs, and goals. This is an important stage where teens are becoming more independent and begin to look at the future in terms of career, relationships, and families. They also have the desire to belong to a society and fit in. Erikson suggests that two identities are involved during this stage: The Sexual and the Occupational. (Yes, he is influenced by Freud for those of you who are familiar with Freud’s work). Erikson also claims that if adolescents are successful in this stage, it will lead to the virtue of fidelity, which involves being able to commit oneself to others on the basis of accepting others, even when there may be ideological differences. If adolescents fail to establish a sense of identity within society, this can lead to role confusion, which can result in identity crisis and most likely feelings of unhappiness. The good news for you as a parent or a caregiver is that while your child is going through whatever it is with relations to their peers, including negative feelings, stress, or anxiety, it all should somehow help him or her learn how to function in our society and grow into the person that they are meant to be. This might not make sense if you are currently a parent of an adolescent child, however.

During such an important stage, a mental health therapist can provide an outlet to process emotions. In addition, a mental health therapist has coping mechanisms and strategies that will help an adolescent deal with societal peer pressures.

Challenge # 2 Grades and school performance

Teens are under constant pressure to perform well academically while trying to become their own person and be independent of their parents. This pressure to succeed and the comparison to other students who might be doing better can lead to depression and other mental health issues. A study by NYU examined the top high school stresses of 128 private school students in 2015. The results showed that nearly half (49%) of all students reported feeling a great deal of stress on a daily basis and 31% reported feeling somewhat stressed. Females reported significantly higher levels of stress than males related to grades, homework, and preparing for college. And 26% of participants reported symptoms of depression that were clinically significant.

Sometimes as parents, we don’t realize when we are part of the problem. Wanting your child to succeed academically is normal, but how do you know when you are adding too much pressure? It can be easy as an adult to be consumed with your own stress at work or with taking care of your family, and oftentimes we dismiss how much pressure our kids are under at school. A mental health therapist can help a teenager when the pressure gets to be too much.

Challenge #3 Physical and hormonal changes

The adolescent years are characterized by rapid physical and emotional changes that affect teens in different ways. This period is marked by increased attention to body image, sexuality, and acceptance that often leaves the teen feeling confused, stressed, and depressed. Teenagers are known for their “raging” hormones and drastic mood swings. If you are a parent of a teenager or if you are around teenagers in any capacity, then you must have noticed the mood fluctuations between excitement, anger, anxiety, and depression. Teenagers’ self-esteem is often affected by their appearance or how they might see themselves. The combination of your body changing so rapidly with peer pressure and the desire to fit in is a lot for someone to deal with.

Challenge #4 Family issues

All families experience varying degrees of stress at different times and for different reasons. Being a teenager is hard enough as it is, and when you add familial stresses such as divorce, illness, abuse, separation, merging of families, and financial struggles, it only makes the stresses greater. All these stresses can cause many mental and physical illnesses. Some examples of common triggers and types of stress include career stress, financial stress, personal health concerns, managing parenting responsibilities, and marital and relational stress, among others.

How Can a Mental Health Therapist Help Teens with these Issues?

Now that you are aware of some the biggest challenges that teens struggle with, you might wonder how mental health therapists can help them. A mental health therapist can help your teen learn how to better manage their stress, get more sleep, and make healthier choices. One of the best gifts that you can give your teen is to provide them with a safe space that they can share their thoughts and feelings so that they can reduce their stress and  anxiety and focus better on school and other important areas in their life. In this era of social media where both teens and parents spend so much of their time staring at screens, providing your teen with 45 minutes of quality talk time with a professional can help tremendously.

Many teens are struggling with issues related to control. A therapist can help them understand that their thoughts affect their feelings and behaviors. By explaining that concept and practicing this with teens using examples from their lives, the therapist can help redirect their thoughts to a healthier more productive place. Mental health therapists can work with teens individually, in groups, and with their families. While some teens benefit from individual attention, others might benefit from taking part in group therapy or getting support with the whole family. In some cases, teens might need to work with a therapists individually, in group, and with the family. For example, I am working with a 14-year-old who is struggling with bulimia, and at the same time, one of our family therapists is working with the whole family as well as the teen participating in group therapy with other teens who struggle with bulimia and binge eating.

If you are wondering about the length of treatment the answer is not always easy. Some teens might need to be in therapy on a regular basis as they benefit from speaking to a professional and need the guidance and support. Others can benefit from a shorter term therapy, like cognitive behavioral therapy or dialectical behavioral therapy. Regardless of what you might think your teen needs in terms of the length of the time, it is paramount that you know that it takes anywhere from 12-30 weeks to change a behaviors So if you start working with a mental health therapist, you have to make a commitment to yourself and to your therapist in order to see a change in your behavior. If you are not sure, you can always get another professional opinion, but whatever you decide, you must know that it takes times and commitment for your teen to see a change in behaviors.

It is also important to know that while your teen is the one who will be going to therapy, parents play a very big role in the psychological treatment. When your teen is displaying a challenging behavior, parents often need to take an active role and be just as committed in working in collaboration with the therapist and the teen for best results. Furthermore, the therapist can provide parents with techniques and ongoing support to help them with their teen. For example, if the teen is working on anxiety related to his/her parents constantly fighting and screaming, then the therapist might provide the parents with some skills and tools that might help them change the behavior that causes the teen anxiety.

Some therapists will include some less orthodox ways of working with teens, like getting out of the office and doing some activities that can encourage the teen to open up and feel more connected to the therapist. I once worked with a teen who always worried about not looking proper and if she didn’t have time to fix her hair or put makeup on, she would get stressed and depressed. After spending a month with her in my Fifth Avenue office, I realized that she needed something different. So I decided for our next session we would meet at Central Park and spend the time walking around in super casual clothes. I wasn’t sure if my client was going to actually listen and show up casual, but I promised her that I would also be super casual and wear my sweatpants and hair back without makeup. Of course my client stared at me in disbelief, but our next session in the park was spent practicing mindfulness. It was one of her best sessions yet. After that, she said that she felt the most connected to me and that she was able to see me in a different light and be more open and honest. My point is, with teens and adults too sometimes, we have to think outside the box and come up with creative ideas to help and support them. If you or anyone you know has a teenager who is in need of guidance or support, don’t hesitate to ask for help.

If you would like me to connect you with one of our expert therapists or dietitians, please contact me. I look forward to hearing from you!

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