The teenage years can be tough, marked with physical and emotional changes, new choices and responsibilities, and evolving relationships with the people who surround us. But a recent report shows that hormones aren’t the only thing troubling the teen years; young people are increasingly showing a general inability to identify the source of their angst and pain. These results have serious implications for those who care for kids.
A review of more than 830,000 calls, text messages, emails and chats received by the Boys Town National Hotline since 2012 has shown a clear trend: teens are struggling more than ever with anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide. The combined mental anguish among teens contacting the hotline has spiked 12 percent in the last five years alone.
The finding is twofold: encouraging and troubling.
It is undeniably positive that more kids are seeking help when they feel sad or worried. It’s important they know that whether they are anxious, depressed or worse, an open ear of a trained professional is just a phone call away. And with the hotline’s addition of text messaging and chat options, worried teens have even more available options to reach out.
On the other hand, it is troubling that youth are less able to express the cause of their mental pain, whereas teens five years ago were able to attribute their angst to problems with family, friends or romantic relationships. The increased pace of life creates more stress for kids and allows less time to cope. Technology has provided valuable tools for gathering information and connecting, but at the expense of another important connection: the connection to family.
Many kids and parents have been able to navigate this terrain by adjusting schedules and connecting in unique ways, but kids who are predisposed to anxiety and mental health issues are struggling more than ever.
Teenagers find their purpose through relationships. When they feel less connected to their families and their peers, which tends to happen in our increasingly busy world, their mental health challenges are exacerbated. To make matters more difficult, the world keeps moving quickly around them, and they are unable to figure out what exactly is troubling them or how to reach out to family members to whom they don’t feel much of a connection. What they know for sure, is they are anxious, depressed or worse.
When Boys Town started 100 years ago, kids faced different challenges. And Boys Town could help them grow up to be fully-functioning, well-adjusted adults by merely listening and making the time to form relationships, in most cases.
But, in the increasing pace of today’s world, how can we help teens who struggle to understand exactly why they are struggling? Part of the solution, it seems, is as simple as it is revolutionary: reducing our schedule, putting down our phones, and listening.
We use this common sense tactic at our hotline nearly every day. When the hotline gets a text about suicidal thoughts, for example, the first move is to encourage the individual to call on the phone. Hearing a voice and making a personal connection is critical — and often what these teens are lacking.
Parents can use the same approach with their own teens in day-to-day situations. Here are some basic steps to engage and support teens:
- Look for the signs. Changes in your child’s behavior, mood or overall desire to do things — as well as physical changes like headaches or problems eating and sleeping — could be indications of pain.
- Let kids know it is okay to feel upset. Help kids identify their feelings, and let them know that life will go on and that they can learn to study, laugh and have fun again.
- Designate more family time together. Organize family outings and least two meals per week — without the distraction of electronic devices. Building and nurturing personal relationships helps young people express themselves and know they are heard.
Being anxious and depressed is a part of every teen’s life. Taking the time to listen allows adults to guide teens to find out why — and figure out the helpful solutions that they need.
The Boys Town National Hotline can be reached 24/7 at 800-448-3000.
Daniel Daly is a psychologist with Boys Town.