This May, many high school seniors will be thinking about graduation and leaving their homes to attend college. Last year looked very different, with school-aged children and teens moving to virtual classrooms and online learning. It was a new reality we all had to adjust to, and it did not come without loss. Teenagers were isolated from friends and people they were used to seeing on a regular basis, they missed out on proms and school activities, sporting events, and end-of-year celebrations with friends. They may have missed opportunities to form romantic relationships, and graduation ceremonies happened virtually instead of in-person with all their peers. These milestones help to define us and contribute to our sense of self and by extension, our self-esteem.
According to a new study, researchers have found that nearly half of all teenagers experienced a decline in their mental health last year, with more teen girls experiencing anxiety than teen boys. Not only are teens experiencing struggles with their own mental health – which largely stem from disruptions in their social lives – they are also directly witnessing the increased stress of one or both of their parents.
Adolescence as Formative Years
Adolescence is one of the most formative periods in a person’s life. It sets the groundwork for maintaining mental well-being, including developing social relationships and identifying values. The teen years are also when we start to see micro-traumas, many occurring in middle school.
At this age, girls are at a greater risk for experiencing trauma than boys. Their range of experiences often includes things like comments made about their body or the way they dress, unsolicited sexual attention or remarks, boundary violations, insults and put-downs, exclusion, the ending of significant relationships, cyber-bullying and frenemies, and unrealistic expectations for body image found in both social regular media.
- Cumulative and repetitive psychic injuries
- Often embedded in a relational context and in social situations
- Undermine a person’s sense of self-worth
These more subtle injuries, sometimes called “small-t traumas,” build up over time and become chronic. Eventually, if left untreated, these injuries cause harm to a person’s emotional well-being, sense of worth, and feeling of security. If and may have the same effect as a major trauma.
Trauma can impact a person’s beliefs about themselves and others, the ability to regulate emotions and behaviors, memory and the ability to concentrate, and how we relate to others. Those who experience trauma are also more at risk for depression, anxiety, and developing substance use disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Supporting Teenage Girls Through Difficult and Stressful Times
The right kind of support is paramount for treating and alleviating trauma symptoms. Sometimes, this means enlisting the help of a trained mental health professional. As mentioned, trauma can disrupt a person’s ability to self-regulate, especially when it comes to emotions. The ability to communicate with others in an easy fashion and observe our own limits can also be adversely impacted.
The DBT skills listed below can help with emotional regulation:
- Paying Attention to Positive Events – Because of evolutionary developments, our brain latches onto negative events like Velcro and lets positive events slip away like Teflon. Our brain is wired to pay attention to things that could be harmful to us as a survival instinct (it helped our ancestors stay alive to pay attention to the big nasty things that could eat them). After a trauma we are more “primed” to pay attention to threats in our lives. Intentionally paying attention to positive events in our days can shift this vigilance for threats to observation of positives. A gratitude practice like journaling is one way to do this. Meditation, yoga, listening to music that gives us joy, reading – there are a multitude of ways to be positive.
- Check The Facts – Emotions are not facts, and thoughts are not orders. We do not need to act on everything we feel. We can choose how to behave by letting our feelings inform us. Socratic questioning is a helpful tool to check our interpretation of situations, as well as reflecting on the intensity of our emotions at the time to see if they match the event. Taking a pause to reflect can help reduce the intensity of our emotions.
- Try The Opposite Action – This one may feel awkward and counterintuitive because feelings feel so real at the time, but research shows that our thoughts and feelings affect our behavior, and vice versa. In DBT, the opposite action skill is a deliberate attempt to act in the way that’s the opposite of your emotional urge. If you’re feeling afraid and your usual reaction is to flee or hide or lash out, try to do exactly the opposite of your “conditioned” urge. You can practice this by confronting your fears – or whatever emotional urge you choose – to desensitize yourself to your normal reaction. In that way, you gain control.
Reduction in Confidence for Teen Girls
Research also has shown that before puberty, girls’ confidence levels are relatively equal to boys. However, by age 14, their confidence dramatically drops. Why? The answer may not be cut-and-dry, but it seems to have to do with a culture of comparison and competition that girls suddenly find themselves in, beginning in their teen years.
Everyone wants to be seen, heard, and loved. As a parent, you want to think about whether you yourself are feeling this way when engaging with your child. Otherwise, your body and mind might be sending you negative messages and, inadvertently, you may pass that negativity on to your daughter.
Providing teen girls with tools to improve and protect their self-esteem will need to be critical areas of focus in schools, sports teams and clubs, and homes. Studies in this area suggest that as long as there is practice getting out of her comfort zone, confidence will usually result from a process of struggle and mastery.
“You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” — Buddha
To learn more about THIRA’s treatment options, please visit us at www.thirahealth.com