Existential Fear In Teenagers

Existential fear is fear arising from a growing and undeniable recognition that death is inescapable. It is more than a logical realization. It is the deep, gut level personal truth that feels the fact that almost everyone who has ever existed is now dead and that the same fate awaits me and everyone I know. When teenagers have this experience it can be very frightening and parents can be very helpful in assisting their teenagers to cope with it. 

Young teenagers in particular can be very distressed by the visceral realization that they will one day die and may start speaking a lot about death, macabre subjects, and generally exploring the darker side of life. The important thing for parents to keep in mind is that this experience is normal in teenagers. It is a developmental stage that encourages the development of the teenager's individual way of understanding the nature of life and creating a personal, meaningful philosophy about it. This can be a rocky phase for teenagers but parents should allow their teenagers to explore this and be open to talking about it. Some parents feel that conversations with their teenagers about the darker side of existence is harmful to the teenagers but the opposite tends to be true. If death is something that cannot be openly discussed you may create a sense of taboo in your teenager that can interfere with their attempts to understand and cope. 
Expressions of love are very important at this time. Feelings of being loved and important to parents takes some of the edge off and allows the teenager to explore their fears in a more productive way. It can be helpful to speak to your teenager about the ways in which you as an adult cope with the certainty of eventual death. This can take the shape of religious or spiritual beliefs or whatever philosophy or strategy is helpful to you. Say these things as an example of how one person deals with death but don't get pushy or preachy. Do not pressure them to cope in the same way you do, especially if you feel resistence. You should say that it is everyone's personal quest to answer the question of how to cope with the knowledge of their own deaths and that you as a parent will be there to support their efforts to do this with love and acceptance. 

A certain amount of brooding and time alone thinking is normal when teenagers face this challenge. Some light and loving checking in with them might be all that is required here. However, if you notice that grades are dropping, that they are loosing interest in things, that they feel stuck, have stopped socializing or talk about killing themselves it is a sign that your teenager needs extra help. Psychotherapy can be very helpful to both teenagers and parents in this situation and there is no responsible reason to postpone starting. 


Better Advice To Help Teenagers Socialize

I often see teenagers who have difficulty socializing with their peers.  Anxiety is often at the heart of this difficulty. In general, these teenagers are occupied with ideas of being judged, rejected, or attacked in some social sense (For example: having rumors spread about them). After having this problem for a while teenagers usually seek help or someone notices them struggling and tries to help them. This help usually comes in the form of advice about how to start conversations, keep them going and avoid silences.  Although this is well intentioned I believe that it can do more harm than good. 
Teenagers who try to take this kind of mechanistic advice on conversations start to see talking to their peers as a task that is done well or done badly. They spend time before and during conversations trying hard to prepare for what they are going to say next, how to react well, how to keep the person they are talking to entertained and they loose sight of the real function of conversations! The real function of talking to people in casual, non-goal oriented ways is to establish an emotional connection. So, instead of feeling for a connection, something that may or may not happen (and it's OK if it doesn't happen), these anxious teenagers spend their time evaluating their performances and even if they are successful in these attempts they end up missing an important point and it can end up feeling fake. So, even if they end up making a friend that person is not friends with the real them! 
Friendships and emotional connections are not forced. They are not jobs well done.
Better analogies for helping teenagers understand conversations are improvisational art works like jazz, unstructured dancing, rap battles, and visual art with an element of randomness and chaos. It's not about forcing it, making it happen or doing a good job. It's about allowing the experience to unfold in a spontaneous, non-intellectual, non-rational way. The outcome of these kinds of artistic expression is not know before it has already started to be created. Even novels are often written in this way. 
Trying to predict where improvisational art is going to go and what is going to come out of it is obviously a ridiculous task! You'll never be able to! So the message is this: don't try and don't try not to try. There is no way to prepare for a genuine and spontaneous conversation that results in an emotional connection. 
Explaining conversations to teenagers in this way can help them to shift their attention and stop them trying to make cumbersome advice work. 
Some teenager may be afraid that this kind of approach to conversations leaves the door open to may too many mistakes. Here the common anxieties kick in. Fears of rejection, judgement, offending, attacks. One of the most helpful things to tell teenagers when this comes up is: Yes! Those things will eventually happen to you. They happen to everyone. Forget about avoiding these experiences. Surrender to them. Going through experiences like that can be very helpful to improve your conversations if you allow yourself to suffer them, think about them, learn from them, and talk to trusted people about them. Again, this is something you don't have to try to do. It happens automatically when you feel fully, reflect on, and come to an understanding of your experiences. 
This way of explaining conversations also undermines a common fantasy related to the idea that conversations are jobs well done and it is this: If I do this job well enough I can avoid everything that I am afraid will happen in the conversation. This is totally wrong and the opposite tends to be true. The harder you try, the longer you're stuck in a situation where these things are likely to happen to you. At this point parents can be helpful and say something like: Yes, you will get hurt. But, you're strong! And you can take it!


Is My Teenager Emotionally Strong? Or Bottling Up Feelings?

It's a common belief. Being strong means not showing emotions, pain or vulnerability. In reality the habit of bottling up feelings tends to be based on fear of what might happen if you let the feelings out. For teenagers who do not have much experience in managing unpleasant or painful feelings this can be particularly difficult.  Further complicating the situation, teenagers can be going through a phase where they believe that their reactions are being very closely watched and judged by everyone and they can feel intense self-consciousness, making it even more difficult to take the chance of trying to express their feelings. Teenagers may also not have been exposed to the rationale of expressing feelings. Parents can be very helpful in addressing this unhealthy state and there are several things they can do to teach their teenagers the value of opening up. 

It can be important for parents to review how they may have contributed to their teenager's tendency to bottle emotions up. Being honest with your teenager about these and apologizing when appropriate can make your teenager feel a lot better about opening up. Some common ways parents unintentionally contribute to bottling up feelings are:

1.  Trying to convince your teenager that they should not be feeling a particular emotion or that some emotions are wrong. 

2. Getting angry at teenagers for feelings certain things or giving them the cold shoulder when certain feelings come up. 

3. Dismissing certain feelings as unimportant. 

4. Telling teenagers that their feelings are too intense or that they are being dramatic when they express pain.

5. Trying to solve the problem instead of allowing them to share their feelings and trying to understand. 

6. Telling them directly to be strong (meaning do not show your feelings).

Every parent sometimes makes the mistakes listed above, or says these things at the wrong time. Being honest about your mistakes can have a great breaking-the-ice effect and make talking about feeling much easier.

It's helpful to remind yourself as parents that emotions are not decisions. They are involuntary reactions and in that way they are never "wrong". The appropriate way to deal with emotions is to see them as being entitled to full expression followed by attempts to make sense of them. Treating emotions in this way will allow them to take their course, be processed and contribute to the emotional maturity and intelligence of your teenager. This is a much healthier approach than bottling emotions up and raising the risk of an explosive and unhelpful release when they can't take it anymore.  

It may also be very helpful to talk to teenagers about their fears regarding opening up. These tend to be fears related to feeling weak, being judged, being attacked, or a lack of trust. There may be a lot of work to do surrounding trust before your teenager feels able to share certain things with you. Gently reassuring them that you will do your best to treat them well when they express their feelings can be enough to get the ball rolling as well as asking them directly to trust you. There is also a lot of value in being able to respectfully wait and earn their trust if they are not ready to give it right now. Explaining that real strength is not in avoiding powerful emotions but in facing them might also help.

When speaking to your teenager about opening up emotionally it is also very helpful to remind them that sometimes they are right to put their feelings on hold and that it does reflect a strength they have, but that there is also a time and place to express and understand emotions and that doing so is essential for their own mental health. Tell them that you as a loving parent would like them to feel comfortable sharing their emotional lives with you and that when you are interested in making time for them to do that. 

While it can be clear to parents that their teenagers are having trouble expressing their emotions it is useful to pay attention to certain signs that this is happening. 

1. Their facial expression does not match what they are telling you. 
    If your teenager is crying or frowning and telling you that they are fine they may be making a strong effort to bottle up their feelings and avoid the painful task of expressing them. Gently calling them out and encouraging them to share can be very helpful in these situations. Let them know that they do not have to hide their feelings from you and that you want to understand what they are going through. If you have been able to help your teenager cry and share what is upsetting them your only task is to try to understand them and offer tender emotional support. Trust me this can be enough! 

2. If your teenager almost never shares feelings of sadness, pain, hurt, disappointment. 
    Even for the most well adjusted and psychologically healthy people there's no avoiding psychological pain. Mental health is not characterized by an absence of psychological pain it is characterized by the presence of strong and effective ways of managing that pain. Nobody is happy all the time. So if this is how your teenager is telling you his or her life is they may be very good and convincing people that they never struggle emotionally. It is safe to assume that there is pain there somewhere. It is possible that they may be genuinely unaware of their pain but the only other alternative is that they are having trouble expressing it and end up bottling it up. Talking to your teenager about the value of opening up and sharing feelings will let them know that when they are ready you will be there interested in helping them do that. 

3. There are periodic emotionally intense explosions.
    This is a clear sign that things have been building up. It is helpful to remind teenagers that they do not have to wait for the situation to become unbearable before they allow themselves to talk about it or seek emotional support. Tell them that they should take their emotions seriously when they come up and make efforts to express it and talk about. It's these seemingly small and manageable chunks of emotion that build up to produce overwhelming emotional situations. 

Of course sometimes we all get in over our heads and the best most sensible advice doesn't help. If you find yourself in this spot with your teenager don't be afraid to seek profession help. Even if your teenager refuses to participate in therapy a capable therapist will be able to help you improve your ability to relate to your teenager and in time your teenager may be open to the possibility of working directly with a therapist. Having your teenager see you go to therapy and seeing things improve as a result sends a very positive message of being humble enough to get help when you need it as well as giving the message that they do not have to do it alone. 

3 Common Ways Teenagers Respond To Counseling

3 Common Ways Teenagers Respond To Counseling

In my experience as a therapist who works almost exclusively with teenagers I have noticed that teenagers' reactions to therapy fall into three main groups. Each one comes with its own challenges, both for the parents and for the teenagers themselves.  I explain these different reactions to the parents of the teenagers that come to see me because I feel that it is important to know what the future terrain of therapy could be as a way to prepare and protect against its pitfalls.


Read More

Facebook, Twitter, Social Media and Teenagers

Facebook, Twitter, Social Media and Teenagers
The rise of social media has transformed the way people around the world communicate, stay in touch, and learn. Much like social revolutions of the past young people such as teenagers are the most likely group to embrace change and pave the way for the future, while the rest of us struggle to keep up to the frantic pace of change. Today’s adolescents will have never know a world without Facebook or Twitter. On the other hand, adults are still playing catch up and reminiscing of simpler times. Social media platform such Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram bring with them exciting possibilities and potential dangers, especially for adolescents. The ability to stay involved in the life of a dear friend who has moved away through Facebook may lessen the emotional blow of having your friend move away. On the other hand, social media has created a new wave of privacy concerns that teens may overlook.
Read More

Sexting And Teenagers

Sexting And Teenagers
In case you are not familiar with his new problem among teenagers let’s start with a basic definition.  Sexting is defined as the act of sending sexually explicit images or text messages between cell phones.  Sexting between adults carries its own risks.  To me it can be tantamount to posting a naked picture of yourself on Facebook.  Something most of us would prefer to avoid.  Of course for teenagers the problem becomes more complicated and potentially much more damaging.  Three things come to mind.
Read More

Back To School For Teenagers, Easier.

Getting started with school again after a nice long summer break can be a bittersweet time for teens. On one hand summer days can seem endless and boring. On the other hand its difficult to welcome back hard work and responsibilities with open arms. Its a trade off that can be difficult for some teens to adjust to. There are several common problems that teenagers tend to experience during the back to school season. Among them are sleep disturbances, increased social anxiety, and education/responsibility related stress. Let's talk a little about each one and what you can do as a parent to help your kids out.
Read More

Smokeless Tobacco Use In Miami Teens Jumps 69%

Teen substance abuse trends move so fast! When I was a teenager in South Florida I though only older people actually chewed tobacco. Now, it seems to be all the rage! Although, as a teen I do remember hearing (and believing!) the misinformation that it was not as harmful to your health compared to smoking cigarettes. Below is the article I found describing the increase in smokeless tobacco use in Miami teens and a good summary of the negative health effects.
Read More

Affluent Teenagers - Privilege and Risk

I recently read an article published by the National Institutes of Health about the mental health characteristics of affluent teenagers as compared to teenagers living near poverty. Before I read the article I assumed that teenagers with the stresses of poverty would have more significant mental health issues than the teenagers of affluent parents. According to this research I was wrong. Here is the link to the article:
Read More