As an author, psychoanalyst and parenting expert, I decided to write my new book, Chicken Little the Sky Isn’t Falling: Raising Resilient Adolescents in the New Age of Anxiety as a guide for parents because we are in the midst of an adolescent mental health crisis.
Even before our lives were turned upside down from the pandemic and related public health measures, adolescents were struggling with record levels of anxiety and depression. Under healthy circumstances, puberty, identity and finding a place in our ever-changing world can be traumatic. But in today’s tumultuous times, anxiety for adolescents has become more intense than ever.
Our world is changing rapidly, and the media bombards us daily with reminders of political, economic and environmental crises and turmoil. Hate crimes and violence are at an all-time high, feeling unsafe and uncertain is the new reality. Additionally, drugs and alcohol, video games, social media and other forms of technology combined with academic stress and high expectations create a complicated melting pot. Like a pressure cooker, there is always a danger that things could explode.
Parenting an adolescent can be confusing. Luckily, there are ways that parents can help their adolescents navigate this age of anxiety. As parents, it is important to be aware that you are your child’s first line of defence against mental health and behavioural issues.
Something to remember is that adolescents do not need parents to be their friends. Though parents who try to be friends with their children may have good intentions, the job of a parent is to provide clear boundaries and clear expectations. Adolescents need a parent who is a reliable, emotionally safe harbor, who will help them navigate acceptable and unacceptable behaviours. Healthy limits and boundaries are important, and being able to say no to our children allows for honest and emotionally healthy relationships.
It is also important that parents exhibit high self-esteem and model positive self-worth. Parents who are perfectionists or harshly critical of themselves pass these self-hating behaviours down to their children. By loving ourselves and acknowledging our strengths and weaknesses as well as our limits and capabilities, we model positive self-esteem.
Furthermore, parents need to exhibit emotional stability and emotional regulation for their adolescents. If you respond to frustration with impatience and intolerance, your children will too. Parents who emotionally regulate are able to keep feelings and reactions from becoming overly intense or harmful to others.
By remaining calm and thoughtful even in situations that frighten, anger, or frustrate us, we teach our children to respond to situations similarly. When parents experience anxiety, depression, or have unresolved conflicts and emotional volatility, the burden is on them to seek help so that adolescents are not continuously exposed to such negative behaviours.
Finally, parents who are resilient to stress have a greater chance of passing that quality down to their children. Parents are resilient to stress when they feel emotionally secure and have the inner resources to soothe themselves in times of adversity and distress. Resilient adults are in turn able to raise resilient children by being sensitive and empathetic, able to identify, reflect on, and soothe feelings of distress.
In contrast, adolescents with parents who dismiss or ignore their feelings of distress are less likely to grow up to be resilient adults. Neuroscience research is clear in that sensitivity and empathy are key to raising emotionally healthy human beings. If we struggle with empathy toward our children, how can we expect them to feel for those closest to them in the future, or to address a world full of problems?
Part of being an empathic parent is listening to our children and paying attention to signs of emotional distress. There are many potential signs that your adolescent may be struggling with a mental health disorder, just some of which include changes in their behaviour such as sleeping too much or too little, eating more or less than usual, fatigue, hyperactive energy or more aggressive behaviour.
Other signs may include being socially isolated or struggling, or dramatic changes in school performance. In addition, look for panic attacks (bouts of sweating, racing heart or feelings of tightness in the chest), and prolonged feelings of intense sadness, despair, or hopelessness.
As parents, it is your responsibility to ensure that your adolescent receives help if they are struggling. As soon as your adolescent is exhibiting these signs, find them a psychotherapist who specialises in their age group. Parents can also help struggling adolescents by being as present emotionally and physically as possible so they are available whenever their adolescent feels ready to talk, connect and share their experiences.
While the journey of raising an adolescent is not always an easy one, being able to watch your adolescent grow up, celebrate victories and face disappointments without feeling overwhelmed or crushed by them is among the most satisfying and rewarding experiences as a parent.