Teenagers are going through lots of changes as they move into a new stage of life. It is normal for them to experience strong emotions and for these to come and go quite rapidly. While it is normal for teenagers to have ups and downs, some young people can be prone to anxiety and depression.
On behalf of Parenting SA, Adelaide psychologist Kirrilie Smout gives parents and carers some tips and strategies to help teens deal with feelings, and to know when to get help.
More information about teenagers and feelings can be found at Parenting SA.
The Parenting SA website also has many other topics for parents of children aged 0 to 18 years.
Hi, I’m Kirrilie and I work with kids, teens and their parents, and here are some things to think about when it comes to teenagers and feelings.
Teenagers, just like adults, have a range of feelings. They get frustrated, they feel worried, they feel sad, they feel happy. They have a whole lot of feelings that go on day to day. Parents sometimes underestimate how many negative feelings that teenagers do have. For teenagers, feelings often happen rapidly. They can come on quickly, they can leave quickly and for parents this sometimes can be quite confusing. It is important to understand that for teenagers, intense feelings are a relatively new experience. As adults, we’ve lived with emotions for many years. Teenagers are just at that early stage of knowing what it feels like to feel intensely, and the fact that feelings do go. So sometimes teenagers react to their own feelings with panic, with worry and with great distress. It’s really important for us as parents to be empathic about this and to try and help young people get used to having strong feelings and living with them well.
As well as it being normal for teenagers to having a range of emotions, some teenagers are particularly prone to feeling quite depressed and getting quite anxious. This can be for a whole range of reasons. It might be that there have been significant events in their life. It might be that simply they have brains that have a tendency towards having lots of depression and lots of anxiety.
Teenagers express their emotions in a variety of ways. They don’t always sit down calmly and tell us exactly what it is they are thinking and feeling. Instead, they might act in irritable ways, they might withdraw, they might not want to do the things they used to do. They might be very reluctant to go to school, for example, or see friends.
When we notice young people having a hard time, this is a cue for us to ask a few more questions. To do a bit of digging if we can, to gently, empathically and carefully ask young people what the hardest things are for them. Go back to asking questions that are easy to answer. Ask either/or questions. ‘It seems like you’re having a bit of a tough day. Is it things to do with this…, or more to do with this…?’ If young people aren’t wanting to talk to us, then see if we can get them talking to other people.
Ask questions via a note, an email or a text. It’s really important to ask young people what’s happening for them, to ask for details about what’s happening for them. When teenagers get to express how they feel, they’re more likely to be able to manage it than if they keep all of those words and feelings bottled up.
When young people do express their worries, feelings, frustrations to us, it’s really important that we start by being empathic. This is hard for us as parents because we have a deep desire to give advice, to try and make it all better, to try and solve things for young people. And we will say things to them like ‘You know, it’s OK’, or ‘You don’t need to worry so much’, or ‘Maybe you should try this’. Now while all of that advice and reassuring is OK, if we don’t start with empathy we accidentally give messages to young people which say that ‘It’s not OK for you to feel like this’, or ‘This needs to be solved’. And we don’t empower them to try and cope with this themselves.
So empathy has always got to be the place we start. Empathy can just look like ‘I’m really sorry you’re having a hard time’, ‘Oh, that sounds tough’, ‘Gee, that really sucks’, ’I’m really sorry you’re going through that’.
In helping young people cope with hard times, we do want to help them stay socially connected. Young people who are struggling, spending long hours in their room by themselves doesn’t help them. We need to endeavour to get them to school, to sport, to be with people as much as we can.
For young people dealing with tough times, it’s also important that we keep giving them opportunities to be in meaningful activity. Underactivity is a big problem for young people who are anxious or down. Young people need to be doing things that feel like they are ticking things off a list. Even if it’s really small activities like cleaning a little bit of their bag out, or perhaps going to one lesson at school, or maybe going to half of football training. If young people are doing achievement-orientated activities, it helps them feel better about themselves and to focus on things other than what’s going on in their head.
Young people who are having a tough time will sometimes find it quite hard to talk to parents. This is normal. Young people aren’t always good at talking at the best of times. When they’re feeling down, communication centres in their brain aren’t working particularly well. So go slow, be gentle, take it easy but don’t give up. Keep asking. Go back again the next day. If young people really don’t want to talk to us, we really need to connect them in with other people. Make appointments for them, try and set up other people to come and talk to them, give them ideas about web-counselling, about access to email counselling for example. Or talk to a GP, a school counsellor.
If a young person really won’t talk to anyone and you are worried about them, it is important for you as a parent to get support and help. Go and talk to your own GP, someone at school, to a psychologist who works with young people, or get help online yourself.
Remember, young people do experience difficult times just like adults do. It’s normal for them to have ups and downs. But if you are concerned about your young person’s wellbeing over a longer period of time, or you have any concerns about their safety, please get help straight away. Either get them talking to somebody else, or talk to somebody else yourself.
Remember, when young people are talking to you, do don’t have to have all the answers. You don’t have to fix things or give suggestions. Sometimes just listening and empathising can make a big difference in the life of a young person.
If you need help and support, contact a health professional.