By Lana Turnbull and Hart Wylie
As I was researching the article for this issue, “Helping girls prepare for and navigate puberty,” I thought a lot about the tumultuous time of the tween and teen years. So much is changing at once. Outwardly, kids are beginning to look more grown up, but inside they can be filled with doubt, anxiety, self-doubt and confusion.
I started thinking about what it was like when I was a teen. (Yes, I can still remember it!) Every struggle, each embarrassing incident, all the perceived failures and unwitting slights, loomed enormously in my psyche. No one could tell me it wasn’t the end of the world, because in my limited experience it all seemed apocalyptic. The indignities just didn’t stop…I didn’t have a date for the dance… My face was breaking out…My feet were too small…And the piéce de resistance, to paraphrase the character Lucy from the film While you were Sleeping, I took after my dad, ‘tall with a flat chest.’
We can laugh about it now, but at the time no one could convince me that the ever-present cloud hanging over me would clear one day. But, not so long after high school I discovered that all the things that made me feel like the biggest nerd in my class, also made me the person I was meant to be. No, I wasn’t athletic or popular or brilliant or gorgeous in high school, but once I was out in the world I found other former nerds I would get to know who would accept and appreciate what made me different.
With all that said, I realize my teen traumas were tame compared to what kids face today with cyber bullying, sexting, drugs and alcohol, social media, sexual identity crises, overloaded schedules and competition for the best colleges. So what can we do to make sure today’s tweens and teens aren’t crushed under the load? How can we convince them there is light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s not an oncoming train? For advice I turned to Hart Wylie, PMHNP at Jackson Psychiatry Group.
“The first thing to keep in mind is that mood fluctuation, experimenting with different personas, and pushing away from parents during the tween & teen years are NORMAL,” notes Hart. “What is not normal is a persistent pattern of sadness, crying, and personality changes that last 2 weeks or longer. Other red flags are changes in your teen’s eating and sleeping habits, a change in grades, or a big change in outside activities. For example, a tween who wants to switch from baseball to karate is not worrisome. But, a tween or teen who has been in the band for four years and suddenly quits would be cause for some concern.”
“For most tweens and teens, the adolescent years are a bit rocky, but for the most part, it is all part of normal development,” Hart explains. “Adolescence is a time of huge physical and emotional change. The job of a teenager is to figure out who they are and who they want to be and that is HARD WORK! Feeling the effects of that hard work is understandable. As teens grow in their own self-awareness, things begin to stabilize and their emotions follow suit. Much of the time, teens come through adolescence successfully without clinical intervention.”
There are many things parents can do to help their teens navigate this time of life. Eating meals together as a family, getting exercise, and participating in extracurricular activities are all protective factors.
“If a parent believes their teen’s behavior goes beyond what is developmentally normal, ask for help! A pediatrician is a great place to start. Other professionals who can assist are licensed counselors, nurse practitioners, and psychiatrists,” adds Hart.