Thursday 20 June 2019

How to help anxious teens going through 'the horror of puberty' - leading psychologist Stella O'Malley

The teenage years can be difficult to negotiate for parents, who often underestimate puberty, and there's also the added worry of mental health issues arising. Denise Smith gets expert advice from leading psychologist Stella O'Malley

More teenagers than ever are struggling with mental health problems, says psychologist Stella O'Malley
More teenagers than ever are struggling with mental health problems, says psychologist Stella O'Malley
Stella O'Malley

If you recall your formative years, you may acknowledge that as a teenager, you were moody, impulsive and self-centred.

Today's teenagers are no different. Grappling with the seismic and startling changes to their body, while also adapting to a performance-driven school culture and peer pressure, it can be a period of extreme angst for many young people.

For parents, adolescence is a time of emotional upheaval, and beyond discussions of curfews, consent and internet usage, the biggest challenge facing caregivers is how exactly they can support their teenager's mental health.

Child psychologist Stella O'Malley whose new book, Fragile: Why we feel more anxious, stressed and overwhelmed than ever (and what we can do about it) explains how promoting mental, emotional and social wellbeing can enable young people to fulfil their potential and cope with the challenges they face during this key developmental period.

"We forget and underestimate the horror of puberty; it is a really difficult thing to go through. Your brain is all over the place and some teenagers are incredibly anxious about their body and incredibly anxious about how they're coming across with their friends, while also grappling with a transition in school life.

"Their body will never change so quickly again, and between the ages of 12 and 20, it is developmentally appropriate for teenagers to literally turn the radio off on their parents and listen to their peers instead. It's not until about the age of 20 that they emerge as their own person," explains the leading psychotherapist.

"Teenagers experience much more powerful emotions than the rest of us and they really are at the mercy of their emotional brain for these tumultuous years. As Lisa Damour [therapist and author] says, 'Emotional input rings like a gong for teenagers and a chime for everyone else.' She advises parents to interpret their child's broadcast as reflective of how they are experiencing life at that moment; they really are that intense, so parents need to take their emotions seriously. This doesn't mean that we go down the rabbit hole with them, but it does mean that we register just how difficult they are finding life."

Reiterating the fact that adolescence is a time of keen vulnerability, the best-selling author states that more teenagers than ever are struggling with mental health problems.

"There has been a 70pc increase in depression and anxiety among teenagers over the past 25 years in the UK. Record numbers of third-level students are seeking help for challenges to their mental health and, with 40pc of Irish students seeking counselling for anxiety; it is the single biggest issue of concern among the demographic. Over the last decade, there has been a 68pc rise in the number of girls hospitalised owing to anxiety and depression-related self-harm."

Before you can give your teenager adequate support, you must first recognise what causes anxiety.

Causes

"Many, many factors play a part in the rising tide of people seeking support to help them deal with their anxiety - lack of resilience, problem-solving skills and coping mechanisms to handle normal life challenges are most often highlighted by mental health professionals today," says O'Malley.

"However, the most common reason offered is usually stress; our busy, perfectionist and materialistic lifestyles are the key factor in all this emotional distress."

Citing social media as a leading cause of anxiety, the author -who has previously written Cotton Wool Kids: What's Making Irish Parents Paranoid? and Bully-Proof Kids: Practical Tools to Help Your Child to Grow Up Confident, Assertive and Strong - adds: "Relentless discussion and analysis of everyone's actions contributes to our wildly rising levels of stress and anxiety - all the heightened emotion, constant judgment and continuous gauging of approval and disapproval from the likes and shares on our social media is causing higher levels of anxiety and stress.

"We are digesting overwhelming amounts of information and, thanks to Wi-Fi, we are always 'on', continuously interrupted by random pings from our tech to tell us that yet another message has come through.

"So many teenagers are also going online to find their personality and that is a source of massive tension, one huge thing that is being missed is the vanity of teenagers.

"The vanity of teenagers is creating an awful lot of anxiety and the reason why there are so vain is because A) we have been taking photos of them for the last 15 years and B) they've been encourage to be vain by our society. Instagram is like a church for public approval.

"The impact of being told they are gorgeous all the time is that they worry if they really are gorgeous and this has a huge impact on their self-confidence. The emphasis has been on 'gorgeous' for the last 10 years and now their bodies are going through so many changes. Now, more than ever, the adult population should be wary of allowing teenagers unfettered access to the internet."

Urging parents to be aware of how they enter the conversation with their teenagers, she adds: "I think parents already are very vigilant of their teenager's mental health, but if you see a change in your child's behaviour, if they have always been X and then they suddenly become Y, that is a real warning sign that something is not right.

"Everyone asks me, 'When do you know that you should bring your child to see someone?' When you have asked yourself that question, now is the time.

"A therapist is like a teacher, one will suit some people, but they really won't suit others. If the first therapist doesn't gel with your teenager, then look for someone else."

Coming together as a family and identifying coping mechanisms for your child is also key.

"Try and find your child's relaxation method. Most teenagers might have relaxed with water or went out with their friends when they were younger.

"Try and step back and understand what relaxed them when they were five, when they were 10. Know your child, go back to their childhood and bring those activities in.

"Also remember that two anxious people can work off each other, so if you are anxious and your child is anxious, the most loving and the most appropriate thing to do is to take a step back and not meet emotion with emotion."

Listen

Addressing the startling statistics that three-quarters of mental health problems emerge between the ages of 12 and 25, Sheila O'Malley of Practical Parenting adds: "Parenting teenagers is the hardest role you'll ever inhabit and you come into it with no training or support. I have no doubt you are doing a very good job, but teenagers challenge us and often we feel we are not good enough."

Encouraging parents to listen to their teenagers, she says: "Listening without interruption is key. Try to name the feeling that's behind what they say: 'You're angry/upset/worried.'

"Highly disturbed behaviour is an inability to express emotion, so it makes sense that when your teen deserves your love the least, they probably need it the most.

"It's also important to limit criticism. Observe your interaction with your teen - is it 'commands/demand' that goes from dawn to dusk? The average commands we give a child are 17 every half-hour, it's not surprising they do not listen. Therefore, have as few rules as possible and empower them to make their own decisions and live with the consequences; to settle squabbles so they learn conflict resolution.

"If you ignore negative behaviour, you will see it decrease over time. Instead, promote and notice when they get it right and don't forget to tell them. A parent said recently, 'I thought my job was to tell them what they got wrong, but when I began telling them what they got right, I am amazed at how it motivated they to do more of it and better.'

"Remember, you cannot take care of anyone else. If you do not first value and take care of yourself. Get out once a week; if only for a walk, meet a friend for a coffee, see a movie. Manage stress through proper diet, exercise, time for relaxation.

"It helps when we do a course to get some practical skills and tips, and feel supported by meeting others experiencing stresses and struggles with their teen; knowing you are not alone and that there are things you can do that help. Mind yourself, because it's true: happy parent, happy child."

Fragile: Why we feel more anxious, stressed and overwhelmed than ever (and what we can do about it) by Stella O'Malley is published by Gill (priced approximately €20)

Parenting Tips

⬤ Connect into and be interested in your child's life

⬤ Know what is going on for them

⬤ Build self-esteem by mirroring their worth and goodness

⬤ Love your child for who they are, not what they do

⬤ Show you believe in them

⬤ Enable them by giving them opportunities

⬤ Help them become independent and self-reliant

⬤ Advise against early serious relationships

⬤ Get help for your child if they need it

⬤ Seek support for yourself to handle your child's anxiety better.

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