The pandemic and related public health measures delivered more anxiety than most adults can handle. Adolescents were already struggling with record levels of anxiety and depression when our way of life was turned upside down.
Today, many parents are struggling to find the best way to comfort, support, and nurture their adolescents in the face of uncertainty and overwhelming circumstances. I asked Erica Komisar, author of “Chicken Little the Sky Isn’t Falling: Raising Resilient Adolescents in the New Age of Anxiety,” for her advice.
The Epoch Times: Adolescence has always been a tough phase for kids to navigate. This age group was already struggling with record levels of anxiety when a pandemic hit. From what you’re seeing, how are they doing?
Erica Komisar: Adolescents are not doing well from a mental health standpoint. Adolescence is the second critical window of right brain development responsible for emotional regulation, resilience to stress, executive functioning, and long-term working memory. During this adolescent period, from 9 to 25, the brain is very susceptible to environmental stress and there is more stress on adolescents academically, socially, and from parents and schools.
We expect more from them academically and emotionally but give less in the beginning with the rise of two-parent working families and parents who are less physically and emotionally present in the early years. If a child has had a solid foundation of secure attachment and emotional security from early in childhood they tend to do better with the challenges of adolescence.
Many adolescents today are going into this period from 9 to 25 more emotionally and neurologically fragile than ever before, which makes them more susceptible to breakdown. The good news is that if your child is more sensitive or you were not able to give them as much [support] as you would have liked from 0 to 3, adolescence is another window of development where you as a parent have a great amount of influence over their emotional development and mental health.
The Epoch Times: Parents are worried about their children. What are the most important things parents can do during this time to provide their adolescents with what they need?
Ms. Komisar: Parents mistakenly believe that adolescents need them less and as a result become less available themselves. It is often a time when parents go back to work full time or travel; some go back to school themselves. All of these things are helpful in the separation process so parents have something of their own when their children ultimately leave home.
The problem is that if you approach your own interests or work intensely and are less present for your child, it leaves them vulnerable. It is important to balance your own needs as a parent at this time with the knowledge that your child needs you to be as physically and emotionally present as possible so when the door opens and they want to process their day, their experiences, and their feelings you are there. If you are not there and the door closes, you have to wait until the door opens again until they will let you in.
Unfortunately, adolescents’ defenses work on their own time—not on your time—which means coming home from work and knocking on their door is not a bad idea but usually ends up with a conversation that goes something like this: “How was your day?” with their response being “Fine.” You want to catch them when they are vulnerable and open to talking.
Another important thing parents can do is learn to listen without judgment, interruption, and without trying to fix their problems. They will let you know when they want your advice; otherwise, they are usually looking for your empathy and understanding.
These are just a couple of the many things I talk about in the book that parents can do to help their children during this critical period of development.
The Epoch Times: Your book “Chicken Little the Sky Isn’t Falling: Raising Resilient Adolescents in the New Age of Anxiety” aims for resilience. How can parents teach their kids to be resilient?
Ms. Komisar: Resilience is not something we are born with, rather it is something we learn by our primary attachment figures providing us with sensitive empathic nurturing from an early age. When mothers or primary caregivers soothe a baby when they are in distress from moment to moment, that baby develops an emotional scaffolding or way of seeing the world and relationships. They develop a sense of trust and emotional security, which is the foundation of resilience to stress or the ability to cope with adversity in the future.
It is the same in adolescence. When parents provide adolescents with the same comfort and empathy, rather than judgment and harshness, they become the emotional refueling stations for their kids. We live in an individualistic, self-centered world where we are all encouraged to put ourselves first, but if we do not put our children first when they are going through this challenging time, they often lose their way.
This does not mean becoming overbearing helicopter parents. It is important for adolescents to become independent and try to do things on their own, but that is different than being alone with their emotions or having to cope alone with many of the conflicts they may face.
Learning as much as you can as a parent about their culture, music, dress, and interests is positive so you can accept their individual identity, but that is not the same as trying to be their friend or peer. Adolescents need to know you are the parent and that you are secure in that identity, so they can be the child. They will need to push you away emotionally, but if you are secure and understand why they are pushing you away you can remain loving, non-defensive, and empathic. This security, stability, constancy, empathy, and attention to their feelings promotes resilience.
The Epoch Times: What are the most common misunderstandings parents tend to have about adolescence?
Ms. Komisar: Parents often feel their adolescents don’t need them because they seem more independent or seem to avoid contact with their parents. This is truly a misunderstanding. Yes, they do need to distance themselves from you physically and emotionally at times, but it is a kind of practice for being on their own. If you become defensive or feel rejected by them or get angry in response to their aggressive behavior, you are missing the boat. They need you as much as they needed you when they were small, just in a different way.
If you are calm, present, empathic (asking good questions, being a good listener, and reflecting their emotions), and accepting without judgment their thoughts and feelings, then you are on your way to understanding your child. You can love your child with all of your heart and not understand them which can be as painful as not feeling loved at all.
The Epoch Times: What are the signs that an adolescent is really struggling mentally and emotionally?
Ms. Komisar: Look for any changes in their behavior such as sleeping too much or too little, eating more or less than usual, fatigue, or hyperactive energy, [or] more aggressive behavior. Look for any signs they may be socially isolated or having trouble socially. Also, look for a dramatic change in school performance.
A student who was an A student who is suddenly getting Ds—[this] may be a sign of stress. Anxiety can take the form of panic attacks, so look for extreme bouts of sweating, racing heart, or a tight-chested feeling. In addition, look for feelings of intense sadness, despair, or hopelessness and ask them if they think of harming themselves to understand if they have suicidal thoughts or urges.
If they express at least a few of these symptoms for more than two weeks, get them help right away. The longer you wait, the harder the symptoms are to treat. Seek out a talk therapist who specializes in children and adolescents. Only seek out psychiatry as a last resort. Medication may be recommended by not as the first stop on the treatment train.
The Epoch Times: What’s your biggest concern about these times we’re living through and the impact on this age group?
Ms. Komisar: There is much more uncertainty than ever before. Adolescents and young adults who have so many choices (which can also be overwhelming) often feel they will have very few choices in a climate of COVID, unemployment, shifting work, and economic trends, and a world in which climate change and global warming dominate the news.
In addition, adolescents have too much pressure on them to be amazing, high-achieving, and perfect in terms of their appearance, their career choices, and their social lives. Social media exacerbates this perfectionistic environment which interferes with kids accepting normalcy and “good enough” to be happy. Parents can exacerbate this already fragile and rigid way of thinking by focusing too much on getting good grades and getting into the “right” college, which is code for getting into a top college. We need to be softening the already harsh expectations of children in this age group rather than sharpening them.
The Epoch Times: These have been stressful times for everyone. How much does a parent’s stress impact adolescents and what can a stressed-out parent do to mitigate that?
Ms. Komisar: When parents are anxious or depressed, it impacts their children. Many parents may not be aware they are anxious or depressed but may know they are feeling “stressed.” We pass down coping or lack of coping to our children through the inheritance of acquired characteristics rather than genetic expression. Genetics only determine if we are more or less sensitive to stress, but the rest of our mental health has to do with the environment—and who is a more important part of the environment than your parents when you are a teenager? The other important part of the environment is your peer group, but parents still remain a very critical and influential part of your environment.
If you are feeling stressed out, overwhelmed, and experiencing signs or symptoms of depression or anxiety lasting more than two weeks and with great intensity, then seek help for yourself. By speaking to a therapist, you are not only helping yourself but your children as well. It may be the best thing you ever do for your children.
The Epoch Times: What does it look like when an adolescent is mentally and emotionally thriving?
Ms. Komisar: When an adolescent is healthy, they have relationships with parents, siblings, and friends that are interactive, supportive, and constant and which involve sharing thoughts and feelings about their daily experiences. Friends who they feel understand them and share their experience are particularly important. Interest in activities that give them pleasure outside school is also the sign of a healthy child. In addition, sleeping without help or disruption, eating in a healthy, non-obsessional manner, working hard at school but not obsessing over grades.
Healthy adolescents can celebrate their victories and strengths, and mourn their losses and disappointments without feeling overwhelmed or crushed by them. Resilience does not mean they do not feel sadness or loss, but it does not overwhelm them in the same manner that it does to a child with low self-esteem or one suffering from anxiety or depression.