Supporting Young People In Anxious Times
Media reports come thick and fast at the moment about the challenge of mental health for teenagers and young adults. And these concerns certainly aren’t new. Instead, pre-existing pressures have been magnified by the pandemic. And the situation is made even more challenging by the increased demand on already limited child and adolescent mental health services, and the resulting difficulties of accessing good treatment.
This leaves those who love and care for young people - parents, youth workers, teachers and friends - in a difficult position. Knowing how hard it is to get good care and support, and particularly amidst the challenges of accessing general practice in this season, many people admit to feeling anxious if any mention at all of negative emotions comes up, uncomfortably aware of how difficult it might be should a problem develop.
It can be really tough
I know - I’m a psychologist, and equipping young people to manage difficult emotions is one of the things I am most passionate about. But I am also a Mum - and it’s hard, when your child comes home in tears, or is in a state of nervous tension about exams or schoolwork, not to feel those pangs of panic - what if this is the start of a bigger problem? What if I can’t help with this one?
But it’s important to recognise that negative emotions are a normal part of life - and more than that, they are part of how our healthy minds interact with the world. Emotions like anxiety moderate and focus our attention and at lower levels improve our performance. Even sadness is about bringing something significant to the front of our mind so we can process and understand its importance. And of course, we express our emotions because we’re designed as social beings not to manage these things on our own.
So how should we respond to the worries about wellbeing - particularly in this post lockdown season when so many more are struggling?
Here are three important pieces of advice:
1. Balance the things you hear and read…
It’s not surprising we are anxious when you bear in mind the stories that are so often in the media. But of course - those are the stories about young people who are struggling. And whilst recent reports do show a significant proportion of young people struggling, most studies still show that although the pandemic was tough for everyone, the majority are managing well. So we mustn’t assume for every teen there is an emotional time bomb in their brain.
2. Recognise that there are challenges
This world is an intense mix of chaos and uncertainty right now and young people are hearing a lot of negative messages about their future and their mental health. What this means is that the only messages they may hear about emotional wellbeing will be about illness - meaning the only frameworks they know to interpret the often intense emotions that are normal in adolescence are about being unwell. This makes those emotions feel even more overwhelming, and can leave teens frightened, isolated and alone.
And of course some ARE really struggling. It has been well documented that as we emerge from the lockdowns we have seen a rise in the numbers of teens seeking help for some mental health problems - with eating disorders, self harm and issues with anxiety particularly showing an increase. The frequent changes of re-entry have raised stress levels for everyone and teenagers are no exception. And in this season in particular some teens who found the lockdowns a relief and a release from issues like social anxiety, anxiety around school and bullying are having to return to those pressures - and inevitably finding it hard.
3. What we can do
Therefore the third and most important message is about the things we CAN do to support them, creating or finding safe spaces and opportunities for them to talk and share as they process the things they are experiencing, pondering or worrying about. This may come through time with parents, or as they grow (and inevitably start to want to become more independent from parents), spaces with other adults they know - relatives, friends and youth workers/teachers.
Recognise in those conversations it isn’t about needing to become an expert, or amateur therapist - it is about helping them make sense of a confusing world and, where they hit things they do not know how to handle, exploring more together. So many of the conversations and comments they hear and read about emotional wellbeing or related issues like body image or identity come from people with a strong agenda to push - meaning they have to question everything, and look behind a message to question the motives of the person sharing.
We can help them by being people they can talk to without fear of being pressed or influenced - so they can weigh things up well and process everything life is throwing at them. And of course, we can also share our own emotional experiences - the days we manage things well and (gulp) the days we get overwhelmed, modelling how to manage emotions without fear and making sure they do hear stories about what it looks like to be human and have emotions - but also find ways through tough moments.
It is this third message that underlies a new, free resource being released this week by Youthscape, in conjunction with the youth focused space Headstrong - which is a collaboration between Youthscape and us here at The Mind and Soul Foundation
Brave aims to resource and equip both adults supporting young people and them themselves to understand four key areas which have been particularly difficult through the pandemic. These 4 keys areas are:
1. Tough stuff (how do we manage lif’es storms and traumas?)
2. Control (and how to deal with times you feel out of control)
For each of these, BRAVE offers a toolkit of videos, podcasts and articles, as well as games and creative ideas designed to help start good conversations.
And it’s not just about them - BRAVE also recognises many of these issues have been challenges for us too. This is a direct response to conversations and focus groups we had with parents, youth workers and leaders which all demonstrated the same thing: adults often struggle to talk about these things because they find them hard themselves. So we’ve included material specifically designed for you, as an adult, to help you understand why this is hard for everyone and take time to process, ponder and pray through your own experiences - before you approach it with the young people you want to support.
You can access all the material and resources for BRAVE at http://www.youthscape.co.uk/brave