Why is NOW so HARD? If my own feelings are any barometer (not to mention our practice phone ringing off the hook for new therapy referrals), there is collective suffering happening out there. I have read countless articles on the increased rates of anxiety and depression over the past year, for all ages, especially teens and young adults. WE KNOW! The question is how do we make coherent and usable sense of it all?
Of course it is clear that we have all suffered over the past (almost) 2 years. Though it almost feels as if we gloss over the actual impact of our traumatization and are attempting to just return to business as usual (hyperfunctioning). Instead of seeing each individual in a vacuum, it may help to understand what we are experiencing as collective trauma. Collective Trauma has been described by many professionals in the field of psychology and in general, is defined by the impacts from traumatic events that affect groups of people, whole communities, or societies. It is not only COVID-19. We are also facing an existential climate crisis, racial tensions and reckonings, and great disparities in agreement on a common reality as defined by a set of facts.
Core features of traumatic impact are fragmentation, or a sense of internal disorganization, while reacting from our fight, flight, freeze response, rather than a more thoughtful and reasoned place in ourselves. The anxiety, depression, and behavioral reactivity we are seeing in our teens right now reflects their systems’ way of achieving protection and makes total sense. Depression and anxiety can express by lashing out with aggression, verbal ire, storming off in protest, or feeling stuck (avoidance), which are all fight, flight, freeze responses.
As we continue to cope with ongoing and very real stressors happening in our larger culture (not to mention added individual traumas teens may face such as abuse, neglect, poverty, family conflict, social exclusion or bullying, etc..), we may have to accept that we will continue to struggle, at least for a while. Families are stressed, teachers are overwhelmed, therapists are saturated, and teens are coping with multiple challenges. We need to see that we are all in this together, even if individual circumstances differ. This may also mean allowing ourselves and our teens to slow down, expect less, and allow for a more gradual return to whatever used to be our experience of “normal”. Our expectations need to match realistically with our level and ability to function. If that is less than usual right now, so be it.
If we accept this reality as a new collective meaning of our experience, maybe we can move forward and work together on things we can do collectively to help our teens. In our What Works With Teens efforts, we focus on the use of relationships with teens as the vehicle for delivering intervention. Here are the reminders of the elements that create supportive relationships with teens and some ideas to engage in collective healing at home, in schools, community groups, and in mental health settings.
- Value that there are real and valid reasons we and our teens are struggling right now.
- Understand difficult to manage behaviors as our teens’ instinctive system to protect themselves (however maladaptive it may be at the moment). This will allow us to understand the function of their behavior rather than personalizing it and reacting with our own negative emotions.
- Provide supports and opportunities for teens (and you) to engage in self care and wellness behaviors (many schools have built in catch up or wellness/downtime in the schedule, regular mindfulness teaching and practicing through the day and videos on morning announcements or on hallway video screens, and other mental health promoting events and activities- one public high school brought in 15 emotional support dogs for students to interact with!). Can we please do these EVERY month and not just for Mental Health Awareness Month???
- Allow teens to express real and honest emotions, especially anger. Remember they are immature communicators so hang in there when they raise their voice. This is not a sign of disrespect. If we mistake their anger expressions for disrespect we inadvertently silence them and won’t know how they are really feeling. One way to tell the difference is by evaluating the words they are using rather than their tone, tenor or volume. If their words are insulting, f bombing or worse, tell them you can’t hear what they are trying to express if their words are targeted at you. If they can hear you over their own emotions and are able to redirect, offer another opportunity to try again with different words. If they are so angry they can’t hear what you are saying, postpone the conversation and try again later.
- Help teens put their narrative of the past year+ into words- this could be a great opportunity for writing assignments in school. Art classes could have students do a piece depicting their experience and what the past year has meant to them and how it has affected them. Sharing our expressions could help us find a more synthesized and coherent common experience of meaning in our collective trauma and lead to collective healing.
- Be honest (with appropriate boundaries) about how you are feeling, what you may be struggling with in efforts to provide support for them, and in giving and accepting honest feedback. Teens need to let us know what we are doing that is not helpful too.
- Teens need limits they can rely on. Be clear ahead of time, what the expectations are (home, school, community) and help them predict possible outcomes based on choices. Teens have immature prefrontal cortexes, which is the part of the brain in charge of thoughtful decision making and understanding planning and cause/effect. Offer assistance in thinking forward (ie: you may want to remember you have a big assignment due on Monday when you are making your weekend plans so you have enough time to get the work done).
- Collaboratively problem solve and develop solutions together with teens when possible so they feel a part of and ownership in a solution. This means being flexible to integrate the teen perspective and finding what works for both of you to achieve a common goal.
- Predict, based on how your teen may be suffering, that their functioning may realistically be impacted and therefore expectations may reasonably need to shift temporarily.
- Create spaces where teens feel compassion, and can therefore feel safe expressing themselves. Express that you care about them, love them and are here for them (even and especially when they are being really difficult-once any inappropriate behaviors subside).
- Much is written on compassion and compassionate practices in parenting, education and treatment settings. Have fun learning new ways to engage in compassion.
- Remember that compassion IS consistent with limits and limits are loving.
- Let’s accept what we can do to be supportive (like the school that brought in the dogs!) and mitigate stress where we can. Accept we may need to be flexible and creative.
- Let teens know you hear them and how they feel makes sense (without trying to change anything-that’s the hardest part)
- The big takeaway is that we need to accept that teens (and we) are and will likely continue to struggle, at least for a while. Acceptance helps us tolerate distress and this is a great skill to model for teens. It is ok to struggle. We can do our best to be there for our teens each day and work toward finding a greater sense of meaning and healing as we move through all of this…together.
This piece will be posted on our social media pages and we will encourage others to share the things they are doing to help teens right now. Follow us to see what others have to offer on this topic! Let’s do this TOGETHER!