Teen Mental Health: Brains Still Under Construction

My kids love the fact that I am older than the internet (technically the world wide web). It cracks them up. I was so excited when I could finally “chat” with my friends in middle school with a dial-up modem and a cord that ran through the length of the house. I would put on my “MTV Party To-Go 8”, connect the 20-foot cord, wait for the long obnoxious noise, have to unplug and try again at least six times, and then celebrate when I was finally connected– only to be disconnected moments later by someone calling the house.

In school, there was no i-Ready or Go Noodle!, but our technology breaks included a game called The Oregon Trail. You played the role of a wagon leader and guided your group of settlers from Independence, Missouri, to the Willamette Valley in Oregon along the Oregon Trail in 1848. You had to stock up on supplies including wagon axles, hunt squirrels and rabbits to eat, and at least one person would die of dysentery.

Just like my generation will never fully understand the ways of the generation who, “walked uphill in the snow both ways to school every day,” my kids will not understand the simplicity of the Oregon Trail. They will never know the peace of riding bikes wherever we wanted until the sun went down or life before Google. Our teens and tweens may not live in fear of dysentery, but they are battling a whole new set of illnesses that do not present as obviously. In December 2021, the U.S. Surgeon General released a public health advisory addressing the youth mental health crisis.

Across the US, 42% percent of high school students in 2021 reported feeling so sad or hopeless, for at least two consecutive weeks in the previous year, that they stopped engaging in their usual activities, up from 26 % in 2009. Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts, and completed suicides among young people also rose in that period, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s biennial Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) and CDC statistics. Depression and anxiety among young people, by some measures, doubled as the COVID-19 pandemic dragged on. On a local level, the YRBS has not been completed since 2017, but the numbers for the state of North Carolina reflect national averages.

Adolescence is a critical time for brain development when different areas of the brain begin to integrate, and the prefrontal cortex develops at an accelerated pace. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for focusing one’s attention, evaluating the consequences of one’s actions, impulse control, and planning for the future. One of the challenges of trying to rationalize with a teen is that the brain is not developing at the same rate as the body of a teen. So while they might seem old enough to understand on the outside; inside their brain is still struggling to make a decision.

My middle school and high school experiences were colorful, to say the least, and I recently apologized to my parents for some of the things I put them through now that I have a tween of my own. I had plenty of challenges and unfortunately, bullies will stand the test of time. Social media didn’t exist yet (thank goodness), and bullies’ messages lived on scrubbable bathroom walls not in perpetuity on the internet. I also didn’t have a cell phone that I opened daily only to be bombarded with messages about looking hip and cool, while also hearing about gun violence in schools, a global pandemic, and turmoil in other countries. All of these messages are harmful considering that the Surgeon General warns that, during adolescence, the brain is especially open to learning and growth, and teens may have intensified sensitivity to the nature of social media.

Children & Family Resource Center has been offering parenting support for caregivers of children for almost 25 years this April. Our work has evolved over these last few years to include the Parents Matter Curriculum and our newest addition, the Family Mental Health Navigator. On March 25th from 6-8 pm we will be hosting a hybrid of these two programs for caregivers of 8-14-year-olds called, “I Like Me.” The goal of this one-time program is to help caregivers learn how to help their adolescents navigate confidence, identity, and self-worth. There are a variety of ways that we as a community can help improve the mental health of teens and it is our goal, with this offering, to work upstream by helping the caregivers and teens learn a variety of ways to regulate emotions, build resilience for managing difficult situations, and promote supportive social environments by building open lines of communication between the caregiver and adolescent. There will be a shared family-style meal followed by separate facilitated conversation between the caregivers and a guided activity for the teens.

With my experience of the 1800’s and the 1900’s limited to old westerns and the Oregon Trail, it is difficult for me to imagine the grit required for primitive life and living each day waking up to go hunt your next meal, to survive the weather, and build shelter without a drill or a nail gun. I described this to my kids, and they told me, “It sounds like Minecraft,” missing the point entirely.

Each generation is navigating brand new issues that will have lasting effects that we may not notice right away. These long-term effects can also impact our parenting skills as we raise the next generation. Maybe someone will develop a way to offer therapeutic interventions through Fortnight, Roblox, and Marco Polo someday, but right now, it is up to us to help reduce levels of stress, depression, and anxiety by encouraging kids to disconnect from technology (and doing so ourselves), building strong relationships, working on daily routines, getting creative, and normalizing talking about mental health. We can also carry forward some gems from the Oregon Trail –that we should not leave anyone behind or expect them to fend for themselves. Instead, we need to rally together and lend each other (and most importantly our children) a hand up and eventually, these tools will gain us passage into new territory and help our adolescents as they grow into fully developed adults.

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