In 2015, about 3 million teens ages 12 to 17 had had at least one major depressive episode in the past year. More than 2 million reported experiencing depression that impairs their daily function. About 30% of girls and 20% of boys (totaling 6.3 million teens, is one of them yours?) have had an anxiety disorder diagnosed. All these numbers come from a Time article dated October 2016. These statistics are probably on the low end because behaviors related to depression and anxiety are deliberately secretive. Shame is inside of this. Negative behaviors which are used to cope (including cutting) are inside of this. Dealing with stress on their own so they don’t burden those they love (who are also stressed) are inside of this. Secrets cause harm. And shame loves secret-keeping.
Being a teenager today can feel as draining as a full-time job. They’ve got school and homework to deal with, managing their social media identity, and fretting about career, climate change, terror threats, racism, sexism, etc. and etc. That list is varied but still anxiety-filled.
What is new for them that was not true for us is that every world problem and every friend problem is documented online for hours or days after the incident. Because of the blessing and curse of social media, teens cannot escape their problems. Rarely do they get to remove themselves from this world to gain some perspective.
Aren’t you tired for them? (I know you are tired too.) At least you have learned perspective and can shut down the voices of social media. You have learned this, right?
At this point, you are probably going to want to do anything within your power to help your teen. Pause for a moment. Recognize the fear that is involved. Don’t let fear lead.
One of the best paths forward for anxious kids is helping them learn to externalize the feelings that cause them so much fear and anxiety. Including giving them “emotional vocabulary” to identify some of the overwhelming secrets they carry. When your child is able to put words to his/her fears, there really is progress forward. Sometimes they don’t know the words. Sometimes the word they want is too scary for them to say first.
Imagine your teen as a musical prodigy–maybe Yo-Yo Ma–who is still learning to play his instrument. There are fully formed songs inside of your teen with no way of bring that beautiful music out into the world–yet. Your teen hits the wrong notes, plays the wrong key and sometimes can’t even find his cello.
It is in tensions like this that emotions can be a teacher for your child too. You giving them words, thus bringing some emotions to the surface above the secrets, is placing them in this opportunity to learn. Remember always, you are a great safety net your teen has to fall into.
Though be careful of giving them such words as “Don’t worry” or “God has a plan.” Both are true. But they are also used to move out of the tension that is uncomfortably there by glossing over the emotions with this truth.
Here is a small thing you can do daily. Find some time with your teen to disconnect and engage them eye-to-eye in a relaxed setting where stressors are minimized and the volume of life is turned down. It’s not much, but it can be so much. Maybe you can also offer a word to help them identify. It may not completely reveal the secrets, but it may give them a break to gain some perspective and some trust in you.
Shame thrives in secret-keeping. Putting words to those unformed thoughts inside your growing teen’s head is putting words to what otherwise might grow into shame. What a gift you are giving your teen.
How about giving them actual words? Like a word list. I’ve included one for you to use at the end of this article.
My suggestion is to print the word list so it is ready. When there is a flurry of misunderstanding going on, find the word list and ask your child to circle which words he/she is feeling right now. You may need to help them with the definitions of some of the words. Pray.
Then do not be surprised when “ignored” or “let down” is circled that suddenly the storm is slowed down. Something about putting a word to the flurry brings calm. Brings understanding. Like maybe he/she was heard. And understood. Which always leads to growth. And very likely the brain can interpret the emotions better for the future.
And most importantly, shame is not internalized.
How is it parenting a cyclone of growing brain and cells and a soul? Thank you for parenting. This youth pastor is very grateful.