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A teen turns 16 and is excited to get his driver’s licence. The days before the test are stressful and the parents notice the teen to be a bit more irritable than usual.
He excuses himself from the supper table to be alone in his room. He does not sleep well, eats erratically and skips gym at school.
A few days later the teen passes his driver’s test and one of his first trips is to drive to a friend’s house.
Later he returns home and secludes himself in his bedroom located in the basement where he is known to spend hours playing video games, texting friends, or surfing the Internet using his smart phone.
At midnight the mother detects an odour coming up from the basement. She wanders down and discovers her son is smoking marijuana. He informs her that he does that because it relaxes him and that he read online that cigarettes and alcohol are more dangerous than “weed.” The mom is shocked to find a pair of condoms in the teen’s bathroom.
In one night, the family discovers that in retrospect the teen was depressed, used marijuana to self-medicate and had sex to cope with stress. They never saw it coming; they were told that most teens are moody, sleep poorly and like to be with friends more than the parents.
This is not an unusual story and perhaps many parents of teens can identify with it. Stressed adolescents, in increasing numbers, are showing up in doctor’s offices. Mental health experts are finding it harder and harder to cope with an ever-increasing volume of depressed teens who lack resilience to cope with life and who even go as far as harming themselves.
A recent report by the Canadian Institute of Health Information says the number of teens cutting themselves has increased significantly. The report, which was launched Nov. 18, indicates that girls are four times more likely to be hospitalized for self-harm (see www.cihi.ca for more information).
Psychologists, successful parents, authors of best-selling books on parenting and pediatricians specializing in adolescent care could argue that the parents in the story above should never have been blind-sided.
They may argue that the parents bought the teen a cellphone when he was too young; that video games should have been monitored more closely and that the parents should have been better listeners. They may also argue that stress in teens is nothing new and that good parenting requires unconditional love and spending lots of time with children.
What is not debatable is that one of the biggest gifts a parent can give a child is to help him or her develop resilience. Resilience is defined as the capacity to rise above difficult circumstances, allowing our children to exist in this less-than-perfect world, while moving forward with optimism and confidence.
Given the steady increase of teens with depression and anxiety and the dwindling resources - often incredibly hard to access - one wonders about the role of prevention. Can we be more proactive?
Dr. Ken Ginsburg is a pediatrician specializing in adolescent medicine at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and a Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. He is the author of Building Resilience in Children and Teens and also the host of the website www.fosteringresilience.com
In his book Ginsburg discusses what he calls the “7 C s of Resilience.” These are: competence, confidence, connection, character, contribution, coping and control. He refers to adolescence as “a time to learn how to walk through life’s puddles.”
One way to help a teen cope with stress (navigate these puddles), is to build up his or her confidence by using praise. In an era where some parenting experts and teachers lament the fact that praise is often given just for showing up at school, Ginsburg explains that giving praise is indeed an art.
To illustrate ... instead of saying, “You are so smart,” a better way may be, “I love watching you think. You work so hard to figure things out.” And instead of saying, “I am so proud of your grades,” comment “I think you did well because you really studied. I really admire how well you’ll search for the answers and get help until you feel confident. It paid off.”
Ginsburg also teamed up with the American Academy of Pediatrics to develop terrific resources for parents on the topic of instilling resilience. In my own clinic. I have bookmarked www.healthychildren.org/BuildingResilience on the computers in the exam rooms. It is a great way to instantly share more information with parents and teens.
The Psychology Foundation of Canada launched their own program on how stress impacts children and teens. For more information see www.kidshavestresstoo.org
Dr. Nieman is a Calgary-based pediatrician. He is host of www.healthykids.ca and serves as the Alberta Chapter President of the American Academy of Pediatrics. He appears biweekly on CTV Morning Live.