ParentEd.: 4 Tips to Identify Troubles in Teen Mental Health
“For God did not give us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and a sound mind.”
— 2 Timothy 1:7
Even with faith, the topic of mental health is an issue of concern in the hearts and minds of parents everywhere, especially for those of middle and high school students. Biblically, Christians are instructed not to fear for the future, but that can prove difficult when parents see their children struggling. Here, the middle and high school counselors at Mount Paran Christian School share their expertise and offer four tips to help recognize some of the emotional roadblocks adolescents are facing.
People don’t tend to think of stressors as being positive or developmentally appropriate, but worry can surface in a variety of ways. Sometimes that worry is deemed as “good stress” or on the opposite end, a “worry brain” which can become more problematic.
1. Identify the Symptoms and Stressors
One example of “good stress” would be an experience around events such as homecoming, or a big game, or getting ready for a trip with friends. It manifests as that feeling of excitement when there is a lot going on which helps feed the energy to do everything. The stress steps into being problematic when it becomes “the worrying brain” which is when individuals start having thoughts in their head where they start encountering the “what ifs.” Parents can all relate to these “what if” feelings. Everyone has them to a degree, which is completely normal.
“Anxiety land” is when individuals fixate on the what ifs and it becomes not just a cognitive process that is happening, but now it is a physiological process where it manifests within the body. And, for some middle and high school students, it comes about with stomach aches and headaches or the feeling that their heart is racing. That is when the stress has the potential of having academic, social, and physical repercussions. The American Psychological Association recognizes these physical symptoms of stress in their definition of anxiety as “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure.”
Stress or anxiety can present so much in a physical sense that parents may see their child visiting the school nurse more and more as a comfort. That is when the root of the issue needs to be discovered: Is it anxiety, or is it a different physical issue? If it is anxiety, what is it stemming from? Very often, it is a fear of doing a new activity, because of the mindset of “If I am going to try this, I’ve got to be really good at it.” Those perfectionistic type tendencies where students put a lot of additional pressure on themselves can branch off into some of the anxiety and depression that experts often see.
2. Identify What Is Age Appropriate
It is also important to remember that there are developmentally appropriate stages to this type of mental and emotional growth that can sometimes spill into other things. For example, in middle school, students are often wondering “Who am I”? However, this is a stage of identity formation. Often, this is when adolescents realize that the friends they had in fourth and fifth grade don’t have as much in common with them as they used to have. This is a time of exploration where they can look closer at their God given talents and personalities and find some direction on where they may go from there.
It is developmentally appropriate for adolescents to find out a little more about who they were created to be. Think of young teens or tweens as a country. As an example, if the entire United States of America represents your teenager’s life and each one of those states represents a different facet of their lives, Georgia could represent their friendships; Florida could be the activities that they participate in; Tennessee is how they study; and California is how they wear their hair. These different formations are the things that they're going through developmentally. This is when they may start to view their parents as “troops'' occupying these states. At that point, it's the parents role to slowly start retreating out of those states so that the adolescents can then stand more independently and sometimes even fail—while doing so in a safe, nurturing environment.
3. Identify What IS Healthy
Parents do need to provide a schedule that is conducive for the physiological “bounce back” needed with sleep, because a lack of sleep can be a significant contributor to anxiety. It is important to understand that just because a parent sees their child retreat to their room for bedtime doesn’t necessarily mean the tween or teen is going to sleep right away. There are a lot of kids who are ruminating at night and worrying instead of sleeping. This not only affects their sleep and physical health, but it also gets them in the “worry brain” of those cyclical negative thoughts. If parents keep this in mind and try to allot for a sleep schedule that is age appropriate, this can help ensure that their child is getting enough restful sleep.
4. Identify the Helpers
Another way that parents can guide their tween or teen is to utilize the resources available in their school or community. Students often close themselves off emotionally if they fail a test, an audition, or a tryout, and see themselves as a failure. But that isn’t reality. Teachers want to help, but the rational part of the student’s brain has turned off. They are again getting caught in their “worry brain” falsely believing that their teacher doesn’t like them or their parents are going to perceive them differently. This is because their deep desire is to impress their parents and teachers. Parents should encourage their child to advocate for themselves and reach out to get support from teachers or school counselors. This puts yet another “tool” in their life skills toolbox that will help them feel more independent and able to navigate future roadblocks with a little more ease.
It is understandable that parents sometimes want to hold their cards close and not tell others what's going on. But it is important to recognize that involving experts such as school counselors is completely confidential. Please seek help from your school counselors or pediatrician if you identify some of the symptoms in your child of a “worry brain.”
One of the biggest blessings of faith-based school communities like Mount Paran Christian School is that God uses the talents and gifts of faculty and staff to nurture students academically, socially, athletically, artistically, spiritually, and emotionally. With the lens of scripture that God provides us to cast our fears upon Him, He equips us to do that with a community of love and support.
“Cast all your anxiety upon him; for he cares for you.” —1 Peter 5:7
To learn more about the breadth of offerings from the MPCS Counseling Services team, click here.
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