So how do you know if your teen is experiencing genuine symptoms of anxiety or depression, or if they’re simply, well…uh…a teenager. Adolescents have always shown symptoms of moodiness because of the hormone changes taking place, due to the life station they’re in. They can be emotional, withdrawn or even act out. Often, these are just signs of the times. Teenagers are people who are somewhere between childhood and adulthood.
At other times, however, they can be experiencing deep angst that may need responses beyond a teacher, coach or parent who is coping with them or punishing them—especially in today’s world.
You do know the mental health issues teens face today, don’t you?
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration collects data on teenagers’ mental health. They tell us in 2006, about 8 percent of American teens suffered from at least one major depressive episode in the past year. In 2016, the number had risen 5 percent. By then, around one in every eight teens in the U.S. suffered major depressive episodes. Further, a full 60 percent of these students don’t get any treatment for it. Pause and reflect for a moment on this fact. Millions of teens suffer from significant depressive experiences, and neither they nor their parents do anything about it. And those who do see someone about it are now setting counselor appointments in record numbers on college campuses.
An Issue of Control
I’ve written before about Generation Z and their struggle with mental health issues. What I have not covered much is the meta-narrative for why this is happening.
Many from Generation Z feel demoralized about whether they’ll be able to succeed in life after college. The economic prospects are much lower than they were when Millennials were graduating from high school, feeling like they were on top of the world. According to a time-lag study from “Monitoring the Future,” a growing number of teens feel that success is just out of reach, following the Great Recession, as well as the fact that they watched siblings or parents struggle to find the right job. Professor Dr. Jean Twenge writes, “Psychologists call such beliefs external locus of control. Someone with an internal locus of control believes she is in control of her life, and someone with an external locus of control believes his life is controlled by outside forces.” In short, this generation is much more an “outside locus of control.”
When I stop and reflect, it is clear that an overriding melancholic emotion would prevail if I grew up feeling like success was out of my control.
Five Steps We Can Take
In light of this data, I suggest we consider the following responses in our leadership:
1. Be inquisitive and look for social withdrawals in their behavior.
One of the initial signals of depression is the person begins withdrawing from social environments. Keep your antennas up, without acting strange around them. Beware of any abnormalities, such as moving away from contact with people; low energy levels, anger or tears for seemingly no reason and other unexplainable behavior.
2. Talk with them about how both of you are feeling.
It’s often tough to get a teen to open up to an adult, parent, coach or teacher. It comes easier when you open up first and become transparent. Create a safe space for them to share any melancholy feelings they have. Validate their feelings even when you don’t understand them. Hear them out. This is key to spotting anything unhealthy.
3. Talk to others about them.
Sometimes parents have the most difficult time discovering what’s going on in their teen’s or young adult’s life. A student who is depressed will often have impaired functioning in several areas of life, and it may require you get a 360-degree view, gaining feedback from people who are part of their typical day to help you evaluate. Check with the school, coaches, family, and friends to see if they also notice a change.
4. Empower them to take control of their decisions.
Especially if your students appear to embrace the external locus of control paradigm, you’ll want to help them to weigh out options, then make their own decisions, hence, fostering the feeling that life is at least somewhat in their control. The older they get, the more they should be making life choices for themselves. This will reduce anxiety.
5. Remind them of “wins” and encourage them.
When they make decisions that lead to positive outcomes, point it out. Connect the dots for them. Help them see that the choice they made turned out well and led to benefits. This will help shift their locus of control perspective to internal. Then, be encouraging. More than Millennials, Gen Z may need to hear consistent encouragement about the future.
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