Today’s piece features guest author Roberta Cheng, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist offering therapy for youth and families in the South Bay. I met Roberta four years ago and she has become a dearly trusted colleague over the years. I’m grateful for the privilege to share her work on my blog. Enjoy!
We have all known what it’s like to walk through the teenage years. Some of us look back and remember with fondness the carefree days, whereas others of us can clearly remember navigating a maze of awkward exploration, asking questions of “Who am I?”, “Where do I fit in?” and “What am I doing with my life?”.
We seem to continue to ask these questions even as adults, yet these fundamental questions are far more complicated for millennial teens. The reliance on social media as a primary way of connecting has made it more difficult for teens to relate with their peers. We are seeing an increase of teens who feel lonely, excluded, and constantly attached to social media. Each year we see the rising rates of depression and anxiety, accompanied by symptoms of suicidal thoughts and attempts.
It’s a tough world for our teens these days. I see that in my work with struggling teens and hear it from their parents who feel frustrated and stuck. Yet during this very crucial time, teens are pretty open, and I love empowering them to better relate with others and constructively deal with their disappointments and difficulties. I find that teens are far less fragile than we give them credit. Helping your teen build resiliency is the key for overcoming challenges and continuing healthy development into adulthood.
What makes teens more resilient than others?
I have worked as a school-based therapist in both alternative education as well as traditional school settings. There are various presenting issues that teens come in for therapy: depression, anxiety, identity exploration, conflict with peers and parents, drug and alcohol use, relationship issues, grief and loss. Differences in the work varies from the level of parental participation and involvement, perceived community support, exposure to traumatic events, and the level of resilience emotionally.
Surprisingly, in my experience, the teens in alternative school settings are more resilient than those in traditional schools.
Resiliency is defined as “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness”. Overall, the teens at the alternative school experience multiple losses and are frequently exposed to traumatic events (family separation, frequent relocation, domestic violence, gang violence). Despite this, I notice that these teens often possess a greater capacity to recover emotionally. Although depression, PTSD, and anxiety are present, there is a lower level of suicidality and hospitalizations compared to the teens I work with in traditional schools.
I believe these teens differ in their perception of community support. The alternative school is a small tight-knit community, where the staff provide consistent structure and are able to have individual relationships with students. Students frequently receive the message that they are given an opportunity to create a future different than what they’ve had. Most teens are also involved in some gang activity, and despite this resulting in negative consequences and decision-making, they strongly feel supported by some form of community.
In contrast, a large number of the teens at the traditional schools are severely depressed, struggle with suicidal thoughts and self harm behaviors, and have immense difficulty changing their outlook on life. These teens also have experienced traumatic events, but less frequently. Yet these teens are often isolated and withdrawn from their relationships. They report feeling disconnected from peers and sometimes do not feel supported by family or school staff. Our therapy goals would include improving one relationship of the teen’s choice. Teens report increased connectedness with their families, friends, or supportive community (religious group, club, workplace).
The secret ingredient of resiliency: supportive relationships
This is the power of relationships. People often report feeling better after a single conversation where they have felt heard, connected, and known.
So how do you cultivate resiliency in your struggling teen?
Allow them to be in relationships with a supportive community. These supportive relationships become the source of strength for teens to deal with obstacles and painful emotions. Relational connections help build a teen’s inner strength and personal belief in their capacity to overcome challenges and hold hopefulness for the future.
Isolation is a risk factor for suicide. Encourage your teen to spend less time on social media platforms and engage in face-to-face interactions. Have your teen hang out with their friends, participate in volunteer work, or belong to a group of interest that spurs positive behavior. Lastly, make the space to really listen and connect with your teen. I have seen how much healing a struggling teen experiences when there is a deep connection with their parent.
Connect with me with any thoughts or questions! I would love to hear from you.
Roberta Cheng is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist focusing on teen issues, particularly in cross-cultural and immigrant families. She has a private practice in San Jose, California. www.birdiechengmft.com