It’s no secret that being a teenager today comes with many challenges and changes. Change is a constant thing that can be scary; it means we’re entering a new experience or stage of life, sometimes without the resources it feels like we need to be ready. Change might come in many different forms for our teenagers, like new schools, hormonal changes, the pandemic, friend and family dynamics, and so, so much more.
As we grow, the way we move through the world changes, what we want for ourselves and others shifts, and some perspectives are gained while others are lost. The way we handle this can have huge implications on our emotional state, not to mention the impact it can have on the people around us. For young kids, the stress of change can lead to things like temper tantrums, thumb sucking, and attention issues – but for teens, it can take on a life of its own with things like anxiety and depression, aggression, and substance use.
And teenagers, almost without question, are going through a lot of changes. Not just physical, but emotional, social, situational changes. As our youth transition from one grade to another – or even from one school to another – there is usually a lot of uncertainty. There can be new teachers, new classmates, new school policies, and new expectations. Each teen might react differently to these changes and have a harder time adjusting.
This has been seen better than maybe any other time in the past two years. Ever since the start of the pandemic, our teens have had to navigate their way through change after change. They’ve run the gamut from wearing masks in schools to adjusting to virtual learning (and then back to in-person) to grieving family members who passed due to COVID. Even outside of COVID, some may have witnessed their family structure change (divorce, siblings moving away, etc.), gone through a painful breakup, or grown in different directions from old friends. Is it any wonder that almost 40% of high schoolers reported poor mental health last year? Or that 44% said they “persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year”? Even before the pandemic, more and more teens said that they were struggling with their mental health.
“These data echo a cry for help,” says CDC Acting Principal Deputy Director Debra Houry, M.D., M.P.H. “The COVID-19 pandemic has created traumatic stressors that have the potential to further erode students’ mental wellbeing.”
So the question is: how do we help our youth navigate these changes?
Like Dr. Houry says, “surrounding youth with the proper support can reverse these trends and help our youth now and in the future.” Compassion is key. Often when going through changes or difficult circumstances, teenagers may be extremely hard on themselves. But change is normal; it may not reflect on who they are or what they’ve done, so kindness and reassurance from the people around them can have a big impact on their ability to manage changes on their own.
Even when changes are positive, like getting into their top college, or desired, like getting asked out by their first crush, it may make teens feel anxious at first. Change is almost always uncomfortable. “When it comes to positive life changes, the brain is still challenged to do something different,” says Dr. Srini Pillay. But helping teens to reflect back on similar situations and remember how they managed it can put things into context. It can remind them that sometimes anxiety isn’t a sign of something bad – sometimes it’s just a bit of anxiety.
And whether change feels too big for teens to navigate on their own, like after the death of a loved one, or whether they just need a little extra support, therapy is always worth encouraging in teens. Giving them an outlet where they can reflect on their lives and have assistance from a professional can be extremely helpful.
Supporting teenagers through the change and challenges they face is not an easy feat. However, with the support of loved ones and their community, teens can have an easier time adjusting to the change life throws at them.
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