The Definition of Adolescence

Adolescence is the transitional stage of life that lasts from the end of childhood to the beginning of adulthood – usually between the ages of 13 and 19. This stage is preceded by the preteen or ‘tween’ stage, in which a lot of the psychological and physical changes that manifest in adolescence, begin. Adolescence can be a very exciting time, and it can also be pretty unsettling as young people navigate their emerging identities and independence.

Adolescents have a lot to face, including challenges around what academics or career to pursue, which friendships to cultivate, questions around their sexuality, and what boundaries to have around things like drugs and alcohol.

Through adolescence the family will often take a backseat to peers, and adolescents will often become increasingly aware of their appearance and how interesting they are to others in terms of romance and friendship. The ‘self-centred’ way of understanding the self and the world that formed in childhood persists, and means that adolescents experience the world as being centred around them. They believe that others are focused on them and this can lead to insecurities and a sense of being judged. All of this can understandably induce anxieties around things like,

  • Physical appearance
  • Relationship with self
  • Relationships with others, and
  • Status and direction in the world

Anxiety at this time is typical, and usually not too serious, but other more serious mental and emotional difficulties can begin to present in adolescence. Prompt treatment and support will really help.

How to talk to adolescents about mental health.

Genuine, empathic connection with adolescents is so important when talking about mental health. Forming connection with adolescents, as an adult, holds its own challenges partly because of that shift they are going through that orients them towards peers rather than parental figures. But introducing teens to the concept of mental wellbeing, and how they might begin to nurture mental wellbeing in themselves, is an invaluable gift to give.

Listen

As well as sharing useful wellbeing affirming tools that you might have with teens, it is also important to just listen. Adolescents have spent much of their lives so far being told what to do and how to do it, and that has been necessary to raise them but in terms of building relationship and helping in a therapeutic sense, setting aside the urge to talk and offer solutions can really help. Active listening can help enhance the intimacy and trust in your relationship and can allow the adolescent the space to really process what they are going through.

Are teens now more anxious than generations past?

Many of the mental health conditions people confront as adults begin to manifest in adolescence. In fact, twenty percent of adolescents experience a mental health problem in any given year according to mentalhealth.org.uk. However, some degree of depression and anxiety can be considered developmentally appropriate and will not last into adulthood, this makes it somewhat tricky to know when a problem requires professional intervention. Checking in with other people in your adolescent’s lives can offer good clues as to how they really are – so, how are they at school?, and is there any scope for support from a counsellor at school? Is there another mental health professional you can reach out to get some guidance and feedback?, are all questions worth asking.

Anxiety is one of the most common mental health issue experienced by all age groups. To determine the prevalence and severity of various disorders in the adolescent population in the US the National Comorbidity Survey identified the presence of DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) criteria in interviews with over 10,000 U.S. teens in 2001-2004 and found that 31.9% met criteria for an anxiety disorder by the age of 18, of these 8.3% experienced severe impairment of functioning from their anxiety disorder.

The DSM is not without its critics however, writers such as leading psychotherapist Gary Greenberg, in his 2013 book The Book of Woe: The DSM and the unmaking of psychiatry, Greenberg states that the DSM, and the fields of medicine and psychiatry generally, errs on the side of pathologising normal, everyday suffering too readily. Greenberg posits that every day suffering is not a mental illness, and framing it as such is damaging.

Mild to moderate mental illness may appear to be more prevalent because there has been a huge effort toward the destigmatisation of mental illness, and a big cultural shift toward talking about one’s feelings. This means that self-identifying as having a mental illness, and having a language in which to talk about mental and emotional issues has become far more accessible. This is probably in part a wonderful thing that allows for greater healing and quicker intervention, and also may be extension of that urge to pathologise discussed by Greenberg.

Foster mental wellbeing

Often teens are under so much pressure to perform well in exams, at the same time as managing complicated social and familial dynamics, whilst growing up that they actually get burned out. Accepting our limitations is such an important part of staying well-resourced and mentally well. So it’s important to get to know what early signs/symptoms we experience when we are pushing ourselves too hard, so we can put in some self-care tools and take a break before we get unwell.

Another good question to ask anyone struggling with stress and anxiety is, what are your boundaries and how can you maintain them? Boundaries are something we can set up to keep us safe, happy, and healthy. To do this you have to get to know where the line is between feeling well resourced, good and happy and feeling tired and anxious.

Decide how much you are willing to give to your work, school and relationships, and remember to leave something for yourself each and every day – one useful tip is to put one activity you can do for yourself each day into your google diary to remind you to take a break and do something that leaves you a bit better resourced.

None of us are robots – we all need a break some time.