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Connections Help Teens Build Resilience in a Stressful World
Being a teenager—or the parent of a teenager—was never easy, and it is especially challenging these days. After a decade of rising rates of anxiety and depression among teens, a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that sadness among U.S. teens is at the highest level ever recorded. The survey of nearly 8,000 teens nationwide suggests that worries relating to the pandemic and the challenges facing our world are taking their toll. Amidst these headlines, however, is a glimmer of hope: The survey found that teens who feel connected at school show much lower rates of poor mental health.
This point is significant because it suggests a roadmap for helping a generation of young people emerge from this moment with the values and skills they need to lead healthy adult lives. Feeling connected at school represents having strong relationships with peers and adult mentors, alongside a general sense of purposefulness. These are the antidotes needed for the many teens who are suffering from a general malaise—a feeling of being detached from society that has been exacerbated by pandemic conditions.
Try these approaches to help your teen cultivate a healthy perspective:
Honor positive outcomes. Even amidst a sea of uncertainty and challenge, help teens identify areas of growth or specific moments to celebrate. Perhaps recent years have led to deeper relationships with siblings, more confidence in life skills such as cooking dinner, or a renewed interest in painting.
Take small, steady steps to reconnect socially. For many, electronic devices have become such a replacement for curtailed activities that spending time with others now may feel daunting. Plus, it is not uncommon to see in-person gatherings where most people have their cell phones out. Socializing in person is an inherently complex and intense interaction. And yet, experts agree that close social relationships are an insulator from stress. Much like going to the gym after a long absence, the best way to increase our capacity for socializing in person is to use those muscles consistently over time.
Revisit basic healthy habits. When was the last time your teen felt energized? Help them connect the dots between mental health and the natural endorphins produced through exercise, sleep, and good nutrition.
Seek out adult mentors. In addition to peer relationships, teens benefit from the investment of caring adults. Teens may find such mentors through school, extra-curricular activities, jobs, extended family, or even in the parents of their peers. Encourage your teen to explore their community and build an age-appropriate network. You never know when weeding the garden with grandma or meeting a challenge set by the boss will inspire a teen to find new ways to be connected.
Clarify what “self-care” means. Everyone needs time to recharge. Help your teen understand that the purpose of self-care is to increase their bandwidth for reengaging with the world. A marathon gaming session that leaves a teen exhausted and uninterested in anything else but more gaming on the following day qualifies as avoidance. Self-care is about refilling the well with activities that increase your capacity to handle stress. Reading a book to engage the imagination, listening to a podcast to discuss later with friends, or going for a hike to enjoy the sunshine are just a few possibilities.
Fortunately, young people can be incredibly resilient. For some families, therapeutic interventions may be needed to help a young person reset their outlook. But sometimes opportunity, time—and even an experience with failure—may be all that is necessary for a system to shift. This is an important moment to encourage teens to get out there, make personal connections, take healthy risks, and pursue life goals.
Jeremy McGeorge specializes in serving families whose children need nontraditional services as part of their educational plan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org