by Angela Blackwell
Lisa Medoff, PhD, is a developmental psychologist specializing in adolescent mental health, and an Education Specialist at Stanford University’s School of Medicine. Dr. Medoff spoke to an audience of approximately 220 parents and educators at Drew School on February 2, 2015. Her topic was “Under Pressure: helping your teen reduce stress and build resilience.”
Dr. Medoff began by reminding us that as a culture, we are confused about adolescents and we often send them mixed messages. We are unsure whether to treat them as children or as adults. Our culture lacks rites of passage that mark the transition to adulthood. In addition, this age group is often used as a scapegoat for stressors that are actually happening in the wider society. It’s not easy to be an adolescent!
Teenagers go through profound changes in a short period of time: biological, cognitive, social and emotional. Not all of the changes happen at the same time and not all of them happen for good. Teenagers’ social/emotional networks develop faster than their impulse control, which can lead to decisions that they might regret later. Many teens have a “personal fable”: a belief that they are special and that nothing can happen to them. This can lead to risky behavior.
Dr. Medoff pointed out that socially, teens are quite segregated from other age groups. As a result, they tend to they look to each other for validation. Middle and high school students often feel that everyone is watching them. Social media has exacerbated this tendency, because it is so much of a presence in students’ lives. It is harder now than at any time in the past for teens to get away from the opinions and judgments of their peers. At the same time, they feel tremendous pressure to succeed in school. As a result, their minds are on high-alert all day, both academically and socially.
This kind of pressure can result in extreme behavior, such as working on overload during the week and drinking on the weekends. Chronic stress also impacts the teen brain, affecting their ability to store and access information, and making it harder to learn. Late bed times have increased in the last thirty years; inadequate sleep is associated with higher levels of depression and lowered school performance.
So what can adults do to help adolescents navigate this difficult time? Dr. Medoff made several suggestions.
- Adolescents often find it hard to express emotions and have intense highs and lows. We need to have direct conversations with teens about how to deal with anger, jealousy, loneliness etc. Teenagers tend to retreat to technology- posting status updates as a way of coping. They need to learn to sit with their emotions rather than broadcasting them via social media, which tends to exaggerate the situation.
- Technology has aggravated other problematic teenage behavior. Texting makes it easier for people to avoid planning ahead, but this is a skill that teens need to learn. She suggests helping teens run through different scenarios and imagining the consequences of different choices. When teens find themselves in social situations that are difficult to handle, Dr. Medoff advises them to excuse themselves to go to the bathroom. This takes them out of the immediate social situation and buys them some time to think.
Young people need to practice empathy. So much communication happens online that it is harder for some adolescents to read others’ facial expressions and to work out what is going on. Teens need lessons about how to use media and social networking. They need to learn specific skills such as how to ask someone to take down a post or a picture that is upsetting, They need to learn how to post responses that are positive and do not attack.
Dr. Medoff advised parents and teachers to be careful how they communicate about success. Parents tend to send their children the message that their entire identity is bound up with success in school, and teens often feel that that they have to be good at everything. But this is unsustainable; most successful people are successful only in one or two areas. Dr. Medoff recommends that parents reconsider what success means to them and make it clear to teenagers that there are many different paths to success. Teens need options to be successful in different ways. Encourage adolescents to develop interests beyond school, and to volunteer for something beyond the college resume. All teenagers should do some chores around the house, and a part time job can give a teenager a different way to feel successful.
Above all, says Dr. Medoff, teenagers need to develop resilience, which can be defined as the ability to cope with stress and bounce back from adverse situations. Perfectionism works against this. If a student is afraid of a bad grade, he or she will not take risks or develop creativity. It is crucial to show teenagers that they can fail and survive.