Paving the Way for Emotional Health In Teen Girls

Since its release, the movie “Inside Out” has helped put emotional health on the front burner of discussions and will hopefully make it a lot easier for families to talk about emotions on a regular basis.  This movie was, quite simply, brilliant in going somewhere no other film for children has ever gone (at least none that I’m aware).  Why?  Cuz emotions and mental health are topics that people have historically tiptoed about as if they were walking on eggshells.  It’s time we extracted our heads from out of the hole of ignorance, taboo and stigma.  There ain’t nothin’ about emotions and mental health that should warrant keeping our heads buried like that.  Nothin’ at all……….

I sincerely believe that “Inside Out” can be instrumental in helping children to better understand their emotions and realize that feeling sad is just as critical as feeling happy, it’s NORMAL to feel negative emotions like sadness and anger, and all emotions should be expressed rather than suppressed.  A good way to express/release/process your emotions is to talk about them or even write about them.

I’ve found that many adults have enough challenges in understanding/coping with/expressing/releasing/processing their own emotions, let alone help their children understand/cope/express/release/process theirs.  And thus the critical need for resources from experienced professionals that are abundantly available out there.  You just need to know how to find them.

I have mentioned one invaluable resource for girls in previous posts, and I want to bring it up again today.  It’s Girls Leadership.  Although the focus of my blog is on maternal mental health and mothers were all young girls at one point–all too many of whom have faced issues early in life that pave the way to the adults they are today–the information within the Girls Leadership articles below applies to boys as well.  If you are a parent of a girl, read through the website’s posts on a wide variety of topics, including confidence, identity, body image, books, school, friendships, role models, and conflict.  What a difference it would’ve made to me while growing up if such resources had been available to my mother, if I had had a better relationship with my mother, if I had had a network of support, and if I had had a mentor in my life. Speaking of mentor, “How to Find a Mentor” by Joanne Wilson on July 2, 2015 is a must read! The Girls Leadership posts I ran across in the past couple of weeks are:

  1. Emotional Intelligence Workout: respecting/expressing your feelings critical to development of emotional intelligence (EI)
  2. Removing the Stigma: understanding/talking about /seeking help for mental illness, which applies to 11% of teenagers by the time they hit 18; girls more susceptible than boys
  3. A Powerful New Tool for Girls’ Courage & Confidence: Self-Compassion: practicing mindfulness and self-compassion rather than self-destructive thinking

I want to bring particular attention to the 3rd post because it highlights issues all too many girls face, which are explained in such an on-point fashion in this post the likes of which I have not seen anywhere else to date:

  • tendency to dwell / fixate on their problems rather than realize/following through on solutions
  • tendency to feel more shame / self hatred than boys
  • tendency to feel the need to “fit in” and they are thus more easily influenced by social media, which appeal to girls more than boys.  Social media sites, such as Instagram and Facebook (which I will not allow my daughter to access until she can drive), are just another way to make girls feel more isolated and bad about themselves because these sites, for the most part, only provide glimpses of the positive moments in other people’s lives.  Let me illustrate. My Facebook circle is a rather small one compared to other people’s circles.  Of this circle less than 50% are considered active (i.e., log on, post, like and comment at least a few times a week).  Of my active Facebook friends, only about 5% post things that are truly accurate reflections of what’s going on in their minds and lives….like me.  I say what’s on my mind without sugar coating anything.  Of the remaining 95% or so of the active posters, you’ll see the accomplishments, smiling faces, and all is fine-and-dandy posts / pictures (with a couple people doing it more regularly than others).  It’s these kinds of posts that can influence young girls–ones with the tendency to dwell/fixate on problems, feel bad about themselves, and feel like the one priority in life is fitting in/belonging–into comparing themselves with others and believing that everyone else is living much better and happier lives.  Hence, the “why me, my life sucks” mindsets.  These sites are just as anti-social as they are “social” because rather than encouraging face-to-face interactions, they make you believe that interaction limited to the Internet is all you need to be “social.”

You may wonder how all this has anything to do with postpartum depression (PPD).  It’s important to remember that many cases of depression surface during the teenage years and follow you throughout life.  One of the primary risk factors of PPD is a history of depression. I delve into relevant statistics and risk factors in my book. And you may be interested in checking out my prior posts relating to teenage years.

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Let’s Face It, Your Kids Can’t Avoid Bullies and Mean Kids – But You Can Help Them Develop Problem Solving Skills

*** This post may be triggering if you are suffering from postpartum depression (PPD) and are sensitive to negative news events ***

I am so tired of feeling devastated, seeing the constant posts of children taking their own lives.  Reading about teen suicides that seem to be occurring more and more frequently is truly heartbreaking.

There’s 11 year old Michael Morones who was bullied (and is now in a persistent vegetative state from hanging himself) for being a My Little Pony fan.  Every time I see his beautiful face on my Facebook feed, I just want to break down and cry.

Then there’s Ashley Payton who was driven to bullycide on February 5, 2014,  just shy of her 16th birthday.  A girl who was so beautiful and yet was convinced she wasn’t.  Self esteem issues seemingly at play here, as is at the heart of all too many other teen-related issues like eating disorders (anorexia/bulimia), cutting, drugs, and depression….just to name a few.

And finally, there’s the article in the Clarion Ledger dated April 12, 2014 titled “Anti-bullying Laws Fail to Stem Youth Suicide” by Emily Le Coz, which is what motivated me to write this post today.  The article reveals frightening statistics of the numbers of youth suicides each year and how bullying is most often cited as the root of the epidemic, despite anti-bullying laws in place in most states.  The article mentions 15-year-old Lyndsey Taylor Aust, bullied for merely having acnie, was but one of THREE suicides in her school within ONE MONTH period (this is what is referred to as a “contagion effect”).

Sure, schools have some form of anti-bullying policy in place, but I have yet to hear about a school that has an effective one.  For one thing, instead of an environment of transparency in schools, you have one that is controlled by fear that stems from the stigma of depression and suicide. Instead of transparency and a culture that TRULY cares about the welfare of students, schools fear doing anything to change the negative culture, hence the sweeping of depression, suicide and bullying under the rug.  There is a price to pay for such willful ignorance.  Look at what happened at Scott County Central High School in Mississippi….three suicides in ONE MONTH.

The fact of the matter is our children are feeling hopeless and helpless enough to end their own precious lives.  There have been arguments that bullying is not necessarily the sole and direct cause of all youth suicides.  That it might just be “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” Well, there is ABSOLUTELY a correlation between victims of bullying and suicidal thoughts and attempts, according to a study published in the March 2014 edition of JAMA Pediatrics.  You can also review the booklet posted over on the CDC website titled The Relationship Between Bullying & Suicide.  Both parents and educators should familiarize themselves with this information.

If there are self esteem issues that are leading toward changes in behavior/sleep/eating, depression should be looked at and treated. In a number of recent cases I’ve read about recently, I noticed that parents indicated there was absolutely no sign whatsoever that anything was out of the ordinary.  Their children seemed like their happy, normal selves.  I don’t know any of these families’ situations, but there is a greater tendency to bully or be bullied in the following situations in which a stable support system is lacking:

  1. Greater numbers of single parents than ever before
  2. Dual-career parents who are busy working long hours at full-time jobs and spending less time at home with the kids and providing positive behavior role modeling, interaction, and simply listening opportunities
  3. Risk factors for depression and other mental health issues, like eating disorders, self esteem issues, family history of mental illness, extreme poverty, emotional/physical abuse, lack of nurturing, etc.

I am not in any way blaming any parents whose children took their own lives.  I’m imploring ALL parents to be more in tune with their children. If there is an underlying mental health issue, then PLEASE get help for them.  If you see that there are changes in demeanor, behavior, diet, and sleep, please observe, talk to and listen….REALLY LISTEN TO WHAT THEY HAVE TO SAY AND REALLY OBSERVE THEIR BEHAVIOR AND MANNERISMS CLOSELY.  If they refuse to open up to you, please try to get them a neutral third party–someone experienced with teen issues and depression, like a family counselor–to talk to them.  Put aside any feelings of shame or fear from the stigma of mental illness.

If you are of the camp of parents who believes the best way your children will learn to adapt to and survive in this world is by doing it with very little to no guidance from you, I implore you to put aside any feelings you may have that, since you toughed it up and lasted through mean kids and got through tough times in school, your child can too.  Don’t think for one second that what you went through growing up back in the 60s, 70s or 80s is the same as growing up today in the 21st century when kids are heavy users of social media and can be cyberbullied day and night via texting, Twitter, Facebook, Instragram, and online forums in which teens “hang out” in an often anonymous fashion.  Anonymity affords cyberbullies/trolls access to an easy–albeit even more cowardly than in-person bullying–means to harass, intimidate and taunt in a public forum, and gives others to join in/gang up to make an emotionally vulnerable young individual miserable.  And put aside the belief that it’s impossible for them to ever have any mental health issues because “depression just doesn’t happen to anyone in my household; I wouldn’t allow them to be weak like that.”

In these cases–since we all know that middle and high schools are a breeding ground for kids undergoing hormone changes who, as part of the socialization process that goes with growing up, try to assert themselves in inappropriate ways–we need to ensure our children are prepared.  I’m  not saying we need to be like the helicopter parents that are so oft criticized in parenting articles, and solve all our kids’ problems so we can keep them out of harm’s way.  No, not at all.  I’m saying that we need to provide guidance to our children.  After all, that’s what parents do.  We use our own experiences and wisdom gained from living and learning….and from our own parents.  From the time our children are toddlers, we teach/coach/guide our children to feed themselves, go potty themselves, talk, stand up, walk, change themselves, brush their teeth, behave appropriate/use inside voices in public spaces…and so on.

I can’t help but view a school as one huge boxing ring within which kids are forced to demonstrate their survival skills.  Because school ends up being where kids spend most of their time every day of the school year, it’s not unreasonable for me to say that every school district should help kids with training on how to cope with mean kids.  In fact, I fervently believe schools should be mandated to add to their curriculum–for first grade all the way through twelfth grade–a year long training on social skills.

It’s one thing that schools observe a Week of Kindness every October.  That’s only five days out of a 183-day school year.   Schools will generally have a mission that includes words like emotional wellness, appreciation of diversity, fostering respect.  But let’s face it, since we can’t even get the majority of schools in this country to deal with bullying effectively, the responsibility for teaching our kids coping skills rests on parents.

It is inevitable that there are mean kids in every school.  What we need to focus on is how to provide our children with guidance on how to cope with mean kids.  It is crucial that parents teach their children to adapt to and survive in this world by nurturing, guidance, and simply being there for them.  Providing guidance is not the same thing as making things easier for our kids and fixing all their issues so down the road they have no problem solving skills of their own. I’m talking about helping our children develop skills they need to fix their own problems. Self esteem is a huge issue for all too many teens. Not every teen is going to know how to let mean behavior slide like it took me years to learn how to do myself.

Resources I would like to recommend for both parents and educators (I am early in my research, so more to come in future blog posts):