In the research I did on adolescence for my Tweens & Teens e-course, I learned that it is normal for mental health and self-esteem to plummet at the onset of adolescence and puberty. Adolescence is a huge developmental period where children’s brains are being reconstructed, their emotions are supercharged, their bodies are changing and they are charting a path away from their parents, leaving behind the comforts and familiarity of childhood. If you think about it, it would be strange if our tweens and teens didn’t feel confused, anxious and self-critical at some stage in this developmental period. These emotional ups and downs are completely normal.
Despite knowing this, it can still be incredibly difficult to see our children sad, anxious or angry. Sometimes their big emotions can make us uncomfortable or want to retreat. So what exactly should we do when we see our children struggling? Here are some recommendations I’ve gathered from the research I’ve done:
- Just be near them. Though it may feel like you are doing nothing, just being with your teen, even without speaking, will help them cope with stressful experiences. While we can ask questions and check in with them, it’s also okay if they don’t want to talk. When they are ready, just be available to listen.
- Let it be on their terms. Let them know you are there for them and open to anything they want to say, even if it’s messy or if the feelings are big. Let them know they can start the conversation and stop the conversation. Let them know you won’t intrude or ask too many questions if they get uncomfortable or upset. Let them know it’s okay if they just want to be silent next to you. The goal is for our kids to feel comfortable to share anything with us.
- Help them to read and name their emotions. Maybe your child is feeling scared, sad, frustrated or worried. Talking about their feelings means it’s no longer trapped in their heads or felt in their bodies, and helps them learn how to act accordingly and express themselves appropriately. We can model this behaviour ourselves at home — vocalising our own ups and downs. We can talk about our worries and show our children how we deal with those fears. If your child doesn’t want to speak their feelings out loud, you can encourage them to write them down on a piece of paper or in a journal. Be careful with labels however. When a child is feeling anxious it doesn’t necessarily mean they have anxiety; when they are sad, it doesn’t mean they are suffering from depression. (Psychologist Lisa Damour explains a bit more about the difference between sadness and depression and when anxiety becomes problematic in this great ‘Ask Lisa’ podcast episode.)
- Don’t try to fix it. Dr. Dan Siegel uses the phrase ‘connect rather than correct’, and I keep thinking about that phrase as I write this. The reality is that most teenagers feel anxious and overwhelmed at some point. Not only do they have a lot going on physically, but they are also trying to figure out where they fit in their network of peers and how to manage new relationships. It’s normal, for example, for them to be upset about their social lives, to feel left out or to worry about changing friendships. My friend, Melanie Deefholts, a child development specialist who often speaks at my children’s school, has explained to me that it’s okay for our children to feel sad or anxious from time to time, and we shouldn’t feel the pressure to fix it. Kids should know that it’s normal to have ups and downs. This is real life. It’s good to acknowledge how our children are feeling, to listen to them as they explain what’s going on, but it’s also a good opportunity to point out that these are normal life emotions that can’t necessarily be fixed. Usually, when a child works through their sad or anxious feelings, they feel stronger and more able to deal with difficult emotions. This builds emotional resilience. So instead of trying to correct something, simply connecting to our child will make them feel seen, safe and secure.
- Keep up communication. Continue to check in and ask questions. Be genuinely interested about their day, about how they’re feeling, about what’s going on in their world. Explain that you want to help if they’d like it. Actively listen when they do talk, and don’t dismiss their thoughts or emotions. Philippa Perry, author of ‘The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read’ says, “If you don’t dismiss you child’s feelings as silly, if you can listen without judging, if you validate their experience of themselves, you are more likely to keep the lines of communication open and they are more likely to continue to confide in you as you both get older.”
- Consider all surrounding factors. If your child is feeling left out at school, you can’t necessarily fix this. But there are other factors you can change. Is your child getting enough sleep? Eating well? Getting enough fresh air? Do they have enough unscheduled down time? Are they balancing screen time with real-life interactions and activities? If adjustments need to be made, help your child understand the importance of these decisions and how to recognise when something is out of balance.
- Encourage kids to try new things. This podcast episode with Dr. Lisa Damour is so, so great. She argues that confidence is built when we do something we can be proud of. She explains that we feel good about ourselves for the things we do well, so we have to have these things we do well to ‘hang our self esteem on’. She argues that ‘self-esteem is like a lake that needs a lot of tributaries’ — because sometimes tributaries dry up, we need other tributaries there to keep us feeling proud of ourselves. In other words, we should encourage our kids to try new things, take on a new hobby, try a new sport, volunteer their time, join a club, get a job, etc. Even small things like having responsibilities around the house can help kids have a sturdier sense of self confidence. When kids do more things they can be proud of, they will hopefully be less concerned and self-critical about other things like appearance or social status.
- Be a good role model. Our kids are watching us, and our actions can speak louder than our words. If we model good habits like eating well, sleeping well, moving our bodies, trying new things, getting fresh air, being mindful, expressing gratitude, honouring our own emotions and expressing our feelings, the hope is that our children will learn how to do the same.
I also wanted to mention that it’s important to pay close attention if we suspect a problem. While it’s very normal for tweens & teens to feel anxious and for their moods to go up and down, we should be observing their patterns of behaviour and looking for any changes. Sudden shifts in demeanour or behaviour may be a sign a teen is struggling. If something feels different to their usual ups and downs, it’s best to seek the help of an expert.
For more tips and to learn more about teens, check out my Tweens & Teens course here.