I Don’t Know Why

The recent media coverage of Bobbi Kristian Brown and the unknown circustmances of her recovery warrants addressing depression in adolescents.  Often discussion of depression often leads to children and teenagers, even some adults, to describe feelings in the context of “I don’t know why I feel this way…” and the sad reality confirms this truth. Struggling with depression doesn’t warrant a cause or explanation, just understanding.  Here are some guidelines that will hopefully help you and/or your adolescent understand.

Low Mood.  Depression in children and adolescents often rears its sad head in the form of irritation that is not usual for your child.  In addition, the teen can be viewed as “copping an attitude,” reports of feeling sad, or quick to cry.  These expression of low mood can be reported by your child or witness by you, as a change in your child.

Losing Interest.  Children and adolescents, suffering from depression, often discontinue engaging in activities that are pleasurable, such as listening to music, an extra-curricular activity, hanging out with friends.  The child may react lethargically when presented with an activity (such as going to the movie) when normally he/she would be excited about it.

Appetite Change.  Loss of appetite can be an indication that your teen is struggling with depressed feelings, while an increase in appetite could warrant the same struggle.  Notice whether your teen is not eating or eating in excess more days than not, where his/her decrease/increase in appetite is not better explained by other medical conditions or concerns.

Trouble Sleeping.  Normal sleep patterns for teens are sometimes difficult to navigate in general, due to working, hanging with friends, or homework.  Having difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep for nearly every day could be a warning sign.  Opposite of that would be observing your child sleeping too much, as if he/she can’t get enough to sleep.

Too Tired.  Is your teen reporting feelings of fatigue or loss of energy every day?  Are you seeing a change in his/her motivation?  This could be indication of depression.

Low Self-Esteem.  Witnessing or hearing your child report feeling worthless or guilty about something in particular nearly every day could be a symptom of depression.

Difficulty Focusing.  Watching your teen’s ability to concentrate, make decisions, or think straight can be a challenge for parents, especially when the teen feels he/she can’t explain the recent diminishment.

Death & Suicide.   Ongoing thoughts of death and dying are scary, and teens have difficulty explaining why he/she has those in the mind.  Suicidal thoughts, whether with or without intent, are immediate cause for alarm and should always be taken seriously.

Feeling sad and unmotivated one day isn’t reason to immediately consider depression. So how will you know if your adolescent is experiencing depression?  Consider what and how many of the symptoms your teen displays and reports.  How long do those symptoms last (an hour, days, weeks)?  Are they severe enough to cause a significant change in his/her personality?  While adults who feel depressed can confidentially go to a counselor, your teen doesn’t always have that option.  A child/adolescent relies on his/her parent, caregiver, teacher, school counselor to notice these changes and take action to address the symptoms, ask questions, and make him/her feel validated.  Ask and offer suggestions of help, including seeking out a mental health professional who can further inform you and the adolescent if his/her behavior should warrant a concern.

The Difficulty of Grief for Teens

Death is hard. Period. Being at teen is hard. Period. But going through grief as a teen is confounding.

The smalltown community I serve was recent devastated with not one, but three teens, who passed away entirely too young, in an auto accident. I was called on, with several other fabulous counselor I work with, to respond in crisis mode to assist with the mounting grief students would experience processing the realism of death.

Hours of being with students of my own and counseling those I’ve never met, until today, brought light to sharing some key elements of teen grief.

The first emotion nearly always seems to be shock; that look of disbelief and turmoil. Floodgates open and emotions flow out so strongly that crashes any amount of sense lingering in their mind: anger, regret, sadness, guilt, blame, confusion.

Normalize the feelings.
Allow that teen to experience that emotion and remind him/her that those emotions are normal. As adults, we’ve learned through many experiences that most of the feelings we have when processes grief are normal. I’m not certain if it is raging hormones, lack of experiences, or the idea of invincible, but teens do not seem to have the same coping skills as adults. Normalize those feelings and assure him/her it is ok to feel and express those feelings. Create a condition in which that is encouraged and welcomed.

“I just wish I had (fill in the blank).”
I have heard this statement so many times. Teens who feel guilty for surviving when a classmate didn’t. Teens who regret not saying something to that person when alive. Survivor’s guilt comes in so many forms, and it can develop from those teens who barely associated with the one who passed. Again, normalize those feelings as a normal reaction in the form of grief. Challenge that teen to create a positive outcome from such devastation; empower him/her to serve using this feeling as a motivation. Suggestions: write a letter to that person, find a way to contribute to something, give blood, or volunteer in some aspect that would make the deceased proud. Be open to that teen sharing good memories of the deceased; validate the teens “I can’t stop thinking about him/her” and remind them it is OK to remember a loved one in a positive way.

Grief is a process.
Share with the teen that grief is an ongoing process, not an isolated event, where one wakes up all better tomorrow. Discuss triggers of emotions; a song, a class, an activity associated with the deceased. Encourage the teen to continue normal activities such as school and class, even if he/she doesn’t want to, even if it is going through the motions. Suggest eating healthy foods, and snacks, getting plenty of rest, and keeping a journal to write down feelings. Remind the teen to spend time with those he/she loves, even if it is difficult, spend time with family, friends, and pets. Laugh. It might sound completely out of the question, but recommend to the teen to laugh when he/she can.

Grief is hard. Your grieving, my grieving all looks and feels differently from someone else. Allow the teen to express feelings, and thoughts (in a safe way) during grief that may not necessarily make sense; because it probably doesn’t even make sense to the teen living it.  This photo reminds me not to put anyone or their feelings into boxes; each person’s owns his/her individual set of emotions.

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“I am a nice shark, not a mindless eating machine..” Dealing with Bullying

Finding Nemo is a one of my favorite Disney movies, for many reasons.  Among the most endearing characters are the three sharks that are desperately attempting to stay on a “vegetarian path.”  Who doesn’t remember the sharks reciting: “I am a nice shark, not a mindless eating machine.  If I am to change this image, I must first change myself.  Fish are friends, not food”?  A smile spreads across my face as I type those words.  

 However, that smile quickly disappears when I think of how applicable those same words can be for today’s young teens.  Bullying and mean girls are a prevalent topic, not only among my teenage clients, but also for my adult clients who’ve been tormented with memories of their childhood.  Certainly with the surfacing of mainstream social media, more avenues for bullying are presented.  

 What if your teenager is (embarrassingly) that mean girl or bully in his/her school?  (Yikes!!)  When questioning your child about bullying behavior, don’t be surprised when you hear “just kidding.”  While a defense mechanism, the child is really trying to deflect accountability and make it appear as if you are overreacting.  (You aren’t.)  Listen and ask, genuinely, what is going on in the child’s life that is presenting a situation where he/she feels the need to be mean.  Then, LISTEN; listen and voice understanding your teen’s his/her behavior, when applicable.  Here comes the part where he/she might shut down and focus on a far off land because what do parents know.  Question your child about whether he/she has been made fun of, bullied, or had feelings hurt.  Discuss the emotions your teenager felt, and try to parallel that the effects of his/her actions as a bully.  Empower your teen to do the right thing, even when it goes against his/her “group” of friends.  Encourage and role play with your teen about how to be different, say different, and act different.  Be supportive at all attempts even sarcastic ones.  Acknowledge and praise any interaction towards your teen trying.  Voice the positive qualities you observe in your teen.  Point out the label of bully or mean girl is not popular or respected and will eventually lead to loneliness.  

 How do parents comfort a child who is the victim of mean girls or bullying?  First, LISTEN.  While this seems obvious, most parents don’t really engage in conversation, they dominate it.  Listen to your teen and affirm his/her emotions, despite how silly they may sound.  Feel free to share you experience, but only AFTER you’ve listened to his/hers.  Next, use the opportunity to show the importance of building relationships in a positive light, instead of using someone for entertainment benefit at the expense of someone else’s emotions.  Allow and encourage your teen to role play scenarios, giving him/her guidance with how to deal face-to-face with the bully.  This allows for your child to explore boundaries he/she is comfortable expressing.  Discuss the important fact that not every hurtful word deserves a comeback and sometimes the best option is to walk away without saying anything in return.   

 Remember the sharks in Finding Nemo?  Developing and maintaining healthy, gossip-free relationships with those around us can be an example to our children.  If you find that you are not setting an that right example, use that as a foundation to change, for yourself and your child(ren).  “If I am to change this image, I must first change myself.” 

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Mulan – The Past Can Hurt…

We are often hurt by experiences with people who we love the hardest, trust the deepest. Pain from such destruction caused is hard to bounce back from. However, we have two options, best stated by Mulan…. “The past can hurt, but the way I see it, you can either run from it or learn from it.” Becoming a better person as a result of pain caused to you by someone/something else is the celebrated proof that you can learn from your past.
 
When your child/teen is reeling from a bad grade, ended relationship, or grief, you have a choice to comfort him/her.  Take the opportunity to be a part of that child’s rebuilt better self.  Discuss with him/her how he/she can learn from whatever pain experienced.  Affirm the reality of what he/she is going through.  The last words anyone wants to hear is “It won’t matter five years from now,” so don’t say it.  Be the parent that builds your child not breaks him.
 
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