Is it normal teen development or mental illness - hope for parents of teens.
About one in five teenagers has a diagnosable mental health issue. Yet by the age of 25, those number drop dramatically. Have we gone too far in labeling normal teenage attitudes and behaviors as mental illness? Has our society come to accept depression, attention deficit disorder, bipolar disorder and even substance abuse among teens as normal?
Scientists studying the biology of teen development are challenged by the constant changes of the normally developing adolescent brain. While brain imaging studies may pinpoint a particular region of the brain that is activated during a teen meltdown, for instance, the area may be completely different just a short time later. Many more nerve connections are made within a teenager's brain than will ultimately be used, and there is a whole lot of internal energy being expended on sorting and connecting and discarding. And all that sorting is taking place in an internal environment awash in an avalanche of hormones that the body is also having to learn how to control.
The intersection between hormonal and developmental changes happening inside a teen's brain is also impacted by environmental influences and stresses that are harder to measure directly. While some teenagers struggle with the beginnings of serious mental illness that follows them into adulthood, many seem to almost magically outgrow symptoms and develop into well adjusted adults. And even in those cases where there is a serious mental health issue, there is evidence to suggest that parents can make an enormous difference in whether or not those long term issues are serious or simply inconvenient.
Scientists generally agree that parents can make an enormous impact in the mental health of their teenagers. Here are four guidelines to keep in mind.
- Pay attention to what may be warning signs of mental health issues. Things like signs of depression, "acting out" in anger, changes in eating or sleeping patterns may signal a serious mental health issue. These symptoms may also simply indicate that you have a teenager.
- The inner connections of teen's brains aren't finished until age 25 or 30. That is far later than previously believed.
- Parents who are intentionally and enthusiastically involved in their teenager's lives can sometimes prevent mental health issues from becoming long term problems, can lessen the effects of mental health issues, and can sometimes turn things around enough that by adulthood many troubled teens are no longer diagnosable.
- Some mental health issues seems completely unaffected by parental intervention or professional treatment, and parents should explore effective methods for dealing with their teen's issues while refusing to wallow in guilt if their involvement does not have the desired effect.
How does this translate into every day situations in families with teenagers?
Teens are impacted by electronic communication devices for nearly 12 hours every single day (more than double what it was a decade ago). The sheer volume of input entering the teen brain while it is busy sorting and growing and discarding is stunning. Add hormonal changes, family and life stresses, and genetic influences, and it is a wonder that there are any teenagers without a serious mental health diagnosis.
Here are a few points to keep in mind if you're parenting, teaching, or interacting with teens.
- Distraction does not need to be labeled ADD for you to be compassionate about your teen's struggle to stay focused. Offer support, tangible ideas, and time to practice new skills that can give your teen confidence in balancing lots of input.
- Overwhelming emotional responses is a hallmark of teenage. Don't wait for a diagnosis of clinical depression to intervene.
- Temper tantrums are not cute, at any age. You do your child a disservice by not finding solutions early for a child who has poor impulse control.
- It is never too early, or too late, to seek out tangible ideas and support for a teen who struggles with mental health issues - while remembering that most often there is no real reason to come up with a label.
- Personal responsibility and accountability is a skill that needs to be taught intentionally and modeled constantly.
- Actively explore with your teen different activities that can provide them a focused, grounded emotional place from which to grow - like music or sports.
Bottom line is that there is ample evidence for some mental health disorders that begin to show up during adolescence. It is also a fact that "normal" teen development often includes symptoms remarkably similar to mental health issues. Parents who remain enthusiastically involved, and who teach responsibility, accountability, balance, and interpersonal relationship skills have provided a healthy foundation for teens who grow into well balanced adults.
For clear and tangible ideas for raising emotionally healthy teens, check out HOPE Notes from the HOPE Coach, delivered every few days in your inbox!