I’ve noticed something in working with middle and high school students and I’m beginning to see it’s consequences.
It’s something they need, but they don’t know they need it. In fact, they think they have this skill, but I would argue most don’t.
What is it? It’s this – they need to know how to be alone and be “ok” with their own thoughts, feelings, self.
They don’t and it’s a problem.
I recently visited with a licensed counselor that works in a local high school. She explained that she recently moved to work with high school students because of her experience working with college students. She would meet students over and over again, who had graduated from high-achieving high schools, who kept a great appearance, who were well-liked, who were considered popular/successful in high school…
…but were visiting a counselor because they were floundering in the early stages of college. She attributed this problem to the fact that they don’t have basic coping skills nor do they have the ability to truly confront issues/problems/hard things in their lives. A lot of those skills come from being alone, reflecting, and working things out on our own. Teens are not every truly alone anymore and therefore not developing basic internal resources and skills.
We need to pay attention to this.
We live in a very connected world and I’m afraid students don’t know how to turn it off. Everyone has their favorite distraction. I can’t tell you how many times I unnecessarily check my phone. It seems as though I’ve trained my brain that anytime I slow down…or complete a task…or need to think about what to do next… equals – I should check my phone! “Maybe something new has happened since I last checked it”, I tell myself.
Honestly, there is nothing that productive or beneficial that comes from this. What am I truly going to accomplish on my phone at a stoplight?
For your teen, it may be getting lost in snapchat or instagram, it may be scrolling through spotify for new music, it may be a netflix binge, but whatever it is – it is a distraction from being alone with their own feelings, thoughts, self and it’s a problem.
The high school counselor shared she often has students do an exercise where they imagine they are on a plane for 8 hours with no entertainment. No phone. No wifi. No computer. What thoughts would come into your head? What would you do? She said, this often produces a lot of anxiety in the student. That should tell us something. It is usually during this exercise that students realize that they are never truly alone and truly have no idea what they would do.
This was the same realization those college students came to when they sought her office at the university level. We are seeing similar things in our impressive high school students as they head off to college.
In a connected world, full of distractions, it’s easy to ignore a conflict. It’s easy to avoid something difficult. It’s easy to project feelings elsewhere or get a shot of dopamine from social media or a netflix binge, but when it’s all over the issue is still there. We can’t always run from difficult things.
PARENTS, THIS IS WHERE YOU COME IN
I appreciate Dr. Williams thoughts here:
We’ve all encountered struggles that felt bigger than us. And we all develop our own ways of managing emotional pain, shame, and regret. When faced with difficult circumstances, it’s very normal to look for ways to cope.
Over the years, parents have verbalized their uncertainty regarding how best to assist their teen as they navigate the ups and downs of life. Being a teen today is tough. Teens face increasing expectations. All of these expectations can and do cause internal pressure. Some teens are able to successfully navigate these waters. Others may flail or buckle under the pressure. It’s a normal human experience to want to escape reality.
When any of these behaviors become a way to DISTRACT, NUMB, or AVOID facing hard circumstances or prevent others from seeing our real selves, it can lead to feeling stuck and disconnected, which can cause us to spiral into more destructive behavior.
What’s the remedy when our teens feel stuck or disconnected?
The more we can teach our children to deal with (and not run away from) life’s challenges, the better they will realize their own unique capabilities, which fosters resilience and a sense of autonomy.
A parent’s task in helping avoidant teens is further complicated by the contradictory impulses of teens. They want us around, and at the same time, want us to go far away. The research is, however, clear. Parents are powerful pillars of influence in their teens’ lives!
Below are five ways that will help you recognize when your teen may be feeling stuck, as well as ways you can help them get unstuck.
1. Watch for warning signs. Some “stuck” teens will display difficulty concentrating and low motivation. They may be irritable, negative, easily frustrated, or prone to outbursts. Some overachieving “stuck” teens may be highly sensitive to criticism and begin to withdraw from family and friends. Since some of these signs are a part of normal adolescent development, it’s important to note what appears to be a departure from your teen’s typical pattern of behavior.
2. Initiate the conversation. Demonstrate casual interest by asking questions and reflecting on what you’ve heard. Teens can tell the difference between questions that show interest and ones that simply appear nosy. Be present but not intrusive. One conversation starter could be: “It’s normal to feel overwhelmed. I know that you want to do well (in school/sports/making friends), so I’m sure that you might feel some pressure at times. You’re not alone. I’m here if you ever want to talk about it.” Your teen may not open up initially. The key, though, is making yourself available for when they’re ready.
3. Be open. Sharing your own struggles with distractions and avoidance may help your teen better cope with their own situations (See below for an idea of how to do this this week!). For many parents the thought of disclosing their own teenage antics is a nightmarish proposition. However, research suggests that parents who have an open, warm, and nurturing relationship with their children can help them buffer stresses that can otherwise be destructive. Your teen may not show deep interest or ask many questions. Don’t worry . . . they are listening.
4. Stay tuned in. As a therapist, I can’t emphasize how important it is to plug in to your teen. What does that mean? Get to know their musical tastes, favorite artists, and even purchases. Know the names of their friends and their enemies. Regarding social media, I’m an advocate of intermittent parental monitoring. This one is tricky—teens also need some degree of privacy—but it’s a parent’s responsibility to know what’s going on. The content you discover may clue you in to ways to better connect with your child, or it may alert you to signs of stress. As parents, we must plug in to this important aspect of teen social life. Don’t tell my teens I said that.
5. Seek Professional help. Part of our job as parents is to help our children find resources to be successful. Those could include a school counselor, therapist, or trusted church leader. Remember that there are many avoidant behaviors that are simply a part of adolescence. It’s helpful to consult with a professional who can assess the severity and offer assistance. One technique that I like to teach is “mindfulness”—it’s is ideal for decreasing distressful thoughts. The ability to disrupt a cycle of negative thinking is crucial for optimal mental health and can help teens to plug in, to get “unstuck.”
Whether or not they tell you or show you, your teen values your engagement. What are some ways that you can engage with your teen this week?
Dr. Chinwé Williams is a licensed counselor in Roswell, GA. For more from Dr. Williams and other resources for parents of teenagers, visit TheParentCue.org.
Whether your teenager is facing a challenge right now or whether you just know they will in the future, one thing we can all do to help our students cope with challenges is to model the way.
We can show them what it looks like to face a challenge instead of avoiding it.
Think about one area where you’re tempted to avoid or escape instead of “dealing” with it. Maybe you’d rather shop online than think about work. Or maybe work is the escape for a complicated situation at home. Maybe it’s easier to scroll through the news than to look at your budget. It doesn’t have to be something serious or dangerous—just one way you are personally tempted to put off dealing with real life.
This week, share that with your teenager. Maybe in the car you say . . .
• Hey, you’re not going to believe this, but I just deleted the Facebook app from my phone. I would catch myself scrolling every time I was mad just to avoid having a conversation.
• Hey, I know this probably sounds crazy to you, but I just realized I’ve been staying late at work because it means I won’t have time to go to the gym. Today I’m setting an alarm to leave on time so I can work out.
• Hey, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I have a bad habit of _______ to avoid dealing with _______. So I’ve decided to start working on that by setting up an appointment with a mentor/counselor/ doctor/coach.
It may feel a little awkward to admit feeling stuck in front of your teenager, but when you do, you’re giving them the tools and the courage to move forward in whatever they’re facing.