Perhaps the hardest thing about parenting teenagers is the amount of uncertainty involved. It can be incredibly difficult to know how your kid is really doing right? If they’re smoking pot, are they just experimenting, socializing or self medicating? Is it really affecting their brain (yes)? How much? Even if they are getting good grades, is that a result of their drive to succeed and learn or are they perfectionists ruled by anxiety and a fear of failure? Is their moodiness just kind of what teens do or are they really overwhelmed and needing more support? How much of their screen time is healthy and fine and how much is exacerbating avoidance, anxiety, stress and/or depression?
These are the types of questions and concerns that all parents (and teens) should be asking themselves. But here’s the thing about worry. We need to decide whether our worry is something that we need to take action on and find a solution for or whether we need to recognize that it’s not a real or credible threat in which case we need to walk through the fire of our fear and anxiety, trusting that everything is very likely to be ok.
For example, if you found out that your teen smoked pot a couple times, is this a gateway to addiction, harder drugs and major problems? Or are these one off experiences that they didn’t really enjoy that much but were just curious about? Perhaps somewhere in the middle? We, along with our teen, probably need more information.
As I mentioned, this is incredibly hard to do with our own kids because we care so so much. This is why I think it’s essential that as parents we remain in a constant state of curiosity, openness and learning. This can come from books, other parents, education professionals, workshops, therapists or other medical professionals and teens themselves (we often forget this great resource)!
Whether you have a teen that you know to be struggling with depression or anxiety or you’re not sure and you just want to get ahead of these concerns. It’s worth taking the time to try and sort out.
Below are a few things to keep in mind as you consider whether what’s going on with your teen is “normal” or not.
1. Are they struggling in more than one place or area of their life? For example if they’re moody and disrespectful at home but are doing well at school, have good friends and involved in extracurricular activities then there may be some things to improve at home as a family but they’re probably doing ok overall.
2. They just don’t seem to care. When teens are depressed they often experience normal daily activities as major chores and effort (Not talking about normal whining and complaining). They’ll also say that they don’t really enjoy the things they should enjoy like seeing friends or playing music or sports. It’s not that they’re lazy or not caring, because they really want to care they just don’t know how to. You’re also likely to see an unusual amount of isolation and/or irritability. If this is happening, it is a definite concern that you should seek professional help for.
3. They’re avoiding a lot of things that don’t seem reasonable. Some teens develop a habit of avoiding things like school, home, social situations or new experiences. Despite your support and encouragement they still won’t budge. Or they’ll agree on doing that thing (going to school on time) and when it’s time to actually do it, nothing happens. As a result, their belief in themselves goes down and you get frustrated. If this is happening, anxiety (manifesting in the form of avoidance) is probably running the show and it will need to be addressed directly.
4. They’re humming along and it seems too easy. Straight A’s, successful athlete, no drugs/alcohol, zero behavior problems, and they’re quiet. Don’t drink the Kool Aid just yet, you may have a major internalizer on your hands. Be aware of the possibility that this kid may struggle when they get to college and things get much harder both socially, emotionally and academically. Adversity is an essential ingredient to resilience. Those who are “lucky” enough to sail through middle and high school may have been robbed of the opportunity to build resilience.
5. They say they only smoke pot every once in a while but you keep smelling it on them and you’ve found stuff in their room. If this is happening, it’s a problem. There’s a good chance that at least some if not all of their marijuana use is self-medication to avoid anxiety and stress. It’s important that these issues get addressed directly because it will probably get worse over time. Don’t let them smoke in your house thinking “at least it’s under our roof and we can supervise”. When parents do this, teens have not just one supervised place but an additional place that they didn’t previously have. So they’re likely to smoke more than they would otherwise.
Being a teen is really hard (remember?). At least some amount of anxiety, stress or depression are to be expected. What’s “normal” or not can be elusive and you’re walking a fine line to be sure. Their ability to cope with stress and uncertainty while developing healthy relationships are what will make the difference over a lifetime. Your involvement and support of them is critical in this process.