Mental illness is often the result of a complicated interaction between our genetic makeup, lived experiences and the environment we inhabit.
Scientists have yet to precisely identify the root of the difficulties 1 in 5 Americans face in a given year (National Alliance on Mental illness, 2017).
Advances in the area of mental health research are vitally important as they can help to inform new treatments.
Researchers at the Institute of Human Genetics at the University of Bonn in Germany recently discovered that a gene called “SLC6A4” was strongly correlated with someone's chances of suffering from social anxiety disorder (SAD). Initial findings have been published online in the journal of Psychiatric Genetics.
SLC6A4 is involved in transporting serotonin in the nervous system. Serotonin is sometimes referred to as the “happiness hormone” as it is involved in feelings of positivity and wellbeing.
The fact that some people are born with an innate disposition towards suffering from SAD is extremely interesting, particularly given its high prevalence rates in the American population.
Anxiety disorders are amongst the most common mental illnesses affecting up to 18% of the population (Anxiety and Depression association of America, 2017).
What is Social Anxiety Disorder?
SAD is often minimized by people confusing it with “shyness” or simply being introverted. In reality, SAD is an intense and persistent fear of social situations. Those with SAD may experience bouts of anxiety over simple everyday things such as answering the phone or being asked directions on the street.
Whilst many of us may experience mild anxiety over social situations, those with SAD will experience chronic worry before, during and after the social scenario. They particularly fear embarrassment or social rejection.
SAD is often apparent from an early age and first manifests itself in childhood or adolescence. It is also almost twice as common in women as men, with prevalence particularly high in Europe and North America.
Scientists are not fully sure why women are more prone to anxiety but some have theorised that this propensity may be linked to differences in brain chemistry and hormone fluctuations.
Women are also more prone to stress and tend to mull over stressful situations more than men, who tend to pursue more active coping strategies.
So what does Social Anxiety Disorder look like and how is it diagnosed? Here are some of the signs:
Some individuals who suffer from SAD also experience panic attacks.
Panic attacks result from fear of social situations that becomes overwhelming, leading up to a physical response. Although panic attacks usually only last a few minutes, they are extremely unpleasant.
The individual may feel nauseous and experience trembling, palpitations and a shortness of breath. Although panic attacks don’t lead to any long- term physical difficulties they are extremely alarming.
SAD often co- occurs with other disorders such as depression, generalised anxiety disorder and post- traumatic stress disorder.
What Causes Social Anxiety Disorder?
As previously discussed SAD is the result of a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Although certain genes may significantly increase the likelihood of SAD, this may not be enough for the disorder to manifest itself.
Researchers have linked parenting styles to the likelihood of developing SAD. As SAD may have a genetic root, parents may be more worried or anxious, translating poor coping styles to their children.
Getting Diagnosed with SAD
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association, is the tool most commonly used to diagnose mental conditions including SAD. Criteria includes:
Persistent fear of and/ or intense anxiety about social scenarios in which you believe you may be judged or act in a way that's embarrassing.
Avoidance of social situations and/or intense anxiety when present in social situations
Anxiety that's out of proportion to the situation
Anxiety or distress that impedes your daily living
Fear or anxiety that cannot be explained by a different medical condition, medication or substance problem
These criteria should be present for 6 months or more
How is SAD Treated?
SAD may be treated with medications and/ or psychotherapy. Psychological counselling is highly effective for those suffering from SAD. It can help the individual learn ways to deal with stress in social situations and build self- confidence.
One of the more commonly used treatments is CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). CBT may help the individual to see that their fears are irrational and help them to gradually work up to facing the social situations they fear the most. One tactic that is often employed is role- playing, whereby the individual can practice being in social situations and build up confidence in a safe and secure environment.
SAD can be all- consuming for the sufferer, as being crippled regarding ones social life and interactions limits our ability to form relationships, push our personal boundaries and live a happy and fulfilling life.
It has a remarkably high prevalence rate and many suffers stay under the radar undiagnosed.
SAD responds remarkably well to treatment, however, and if you suspect you may have SAD, please seek out a local mental health professional and learn to tame the anxiety you face daily.
American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-IV-TR. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.
Turk, C. L., Heimberg, R. G., & Hope, D. A. (2001). Social anxiety disorder. Clinical handbook of psychological disorders: A step-by-step treatment manual, 3, 114-153.
Having a child with a developmental delay can be a very scary experience for a parent.
In a culture that values academic success more and more highly and measures it at younger and younger ages, any type of deficiency in academic ability can become blown out of proportion.
On the other hand, the impulse to provide a child the highest quality education is a very natural parental impulse. So long as it does not become unreasonable, taking a keen interest in the child's intellectual development from a young age is one of the most important parts of a parent's job.
Unfortunately, however, even parents with the best intentions often feel ill-equipped to help their children overcome language abnormalities. Every child is different, and it can often times feel impossible to truly understand the difference between a slight difficulty in a serious delay.
For example, when a slight speech impediment keeps your child from being able to read fluently, it could perhaps be nothing more than an innocuous (and undeniably cute) little developmental hiccup. That same speech impediment, though, might also mask a delay in reading ability that could potentially lead to serious consequences down the road.
In this context, it becomes important to understand the differences between the different types of developmental disorders in the realm of reading, speech, and language.
Let’s take a look at these three realms specifically, with an eye to understand the differences between the three, how they are diagnosed, and what you should do for your child.
The Difference Between Speaking, Reading, and Using Language
At first glance, speaking, reading and using language all seem to be different sides of the same coin. But upon closer review, the relationship between the three is strikingly complex, particularly during the ages in which all three abilities begin to develop.
Specifically, most childhood language use disorders fall into three distinct diagnostic categories: language impairment, reading disability, and speech sound disorder.
Let's take a look at each of these individually.
With these three definitions in mind, two things become immediately apparent.
First, it is clear that the three different developmental language disorders are distinct. A child could have one of the three without having the other two.
Second, it is clear that diagnosing a child with one of the three disorders independently of the other two would not be straightforward, particularly at certain ages.
Let’s take a look at this second point more specifically, on the difficulties with diagnosis.
Difficulties with Diagnosis
Speech language pathologists often have a difficult task ahead of them when trying to diagnose a young child who clearly has language difficulties.
For example, it would be impossible to ascertain if a child has a reading disability before they have been instructed how to read. However, the very act of instructing a child how to read might be difficult and/or delayed if a child had language impairment.
Furthermore, as we mentioned in the introduction above, a child's difficulties in producing spoken language while reading (caused by a speech sound disorder) could potentially cloud a parent’s ability to judge whether their child is developing reading skills at the appropriate pace.
To be even more specific, consider the possible causes for a speech sound disorder, as presented in an article called “Relations Among Speech, Language, and Reading Disorders,” by researchers Bruce Pennington and Dorothy Bishop.
The authors write that causes for a speech sound disorder could include difficulties processing sounds, motor problems with planning and producing the movements necessary for speech, brain issues involving the mapping between motor planning and speech production, difficulties identifying the differences between similar sounding speech patterns, or some combination of any of these causes.
So in summary, not only could a child have language impairment without a reading disorder, a speech sound disorder without language impairment, or any other combination of these three, but it is also difficult to separate out the different causes that would prompt one of the three diagnosis.
And as if all of this complexity wasn't enough, the issue can be further complicated by introducing other developmental or cognitive disorders. In the case of ADHD, the authors explicitly state:
“One can readily imagine that a child might appear to be inattentive or hyperactive in the classroom because of the frustration elicited by difficulties with reading rather than as a consequence of the neurocognitive difficulties that are typically associated with ADHD in the absence of [reading disability].” ~Pennington & Bishop, 299
The Takeaway for You and Your Child
Despite the occasionally overwhelming complexity, any experienced parent knows that children are very resilient. The way in which they constantly grow and improve despite obstacles never ceases to amaze.
A parent's response when faced with facing a situation of a child struggling with some type of language difficulty should not be to run away from the complexity and give up. It can be easy to settle on the quickest and easiest diagnosis and hide behind that label.
And while a close relationship with a trusted, capable speech-language pathologist can certainly go a long way towards getting your child the attention he or she deserves, in the end it is the parents that know best what specific difficulties the child has, and what they can do in response.
No matter the situation, there are always activities and exercises that you can do with your child that will hone in on the specific problems they have.
As with all things in parenting, the more individual attention you can give your child, the more able they will be to overcome individual difficulties and develop into healthy, thriving adults.
In the immortal words of Albert Einstein, “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want your children to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”
Pennington, B. F., & Bishop, D. V. (2009). Relations Among Speech, Language, and Reading Disorders. Annual Review of Psychology, 60, 283-306.
For many people, nutrition comes down to diet, and diet comes down to what you eat.
Unfortunately, this is a sadly uninformed and incomplete picture of nutrition, and a perspective that can be seriously detrimental for individuals. If an individual believes that the only way to eat healthy is by cutting out the unhealthy foods they love and incorporating the healthy foods they hate, they make the task of finding a healthy, balanced lifestyle much more difficult than it has to be.
The truth of the matter is that nutrition is a complex interplay between a variety of different factors. It’s a balancing act: Consistently eating healthy foods is important, but it’s also important to have variety. Limiting unhealthy foods is important, but it’s also important to enjoy your food.
In addition, recent research supports the idea that the timing of eating also plays a major role. Specifically, when people eat in relation to when they sleep can impact how well they eat and how well they sleep.
Let’s review two different research findings that dive deeper into the science of routine, and how eating and sleeping interact with each other.
Less Sleeping = More Eating?
One piece of evidence that supports the connection between eating and sleeping was provided in a 2016 research study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
The researchers performed what is called a meta-analysis, meaning a statistical analysis of multiple previously published research studies. The purpose of a meta-analysis is to compare different published research studies and draw more broad conclusions about what the research suggests.
In this study, the researchers were interested in establishing a connection between how long people sleep and their overall energy balance, which includes how many calories they intake through eating and how many calories they burn through physical activity.
The researchers reviewed 17 different research studies and ended up including 11 in their meta-analysis. The conclusions the researchers presented were from a combination of each of these studies put together, and included data from a total of 172 research participants.
The overall conclusion of the study was that people who got less than adequate sleep (between 3½ to 5½ hours), they ate an average of 385 extra calories the following day. For reference, 385 calories are roughly 20% of the calories required per day on a 2000-calorie diet. This is roughly the same amount of calories as a serving of homemade chicken stir fry, or a heaping bowl of your favorite sugary cereal with milk.
However, the lack of sleep did not translate into more physical activity, so the extra calories consumed after insufficient sleep definitely had the potential to contribute to weight gain.
Less Eating = More Sleeping?
The research above connecting insufficient sleep to increased eating was built on a solid foundation of published research. The following idea also links eating and sleeping, but comes from unpublished data that were presented at a conference for the Obesity Society.
Despite the fact that it has not yet been proven to be fully reliable, the research nonetheless establishes a provocative connection between eating and sleeping. The main idea of the study is that eating nothing between the hours of 2PM and 8AM may be effective in burning body fat and losing weight.
The study tracked the eating of 11 overweight research participants on two different feeding schedules. For one schedule, participants ate during normal feeding hours, with meals falling anywhere from 8AM to 8PM. By contrast, on the “early time-restricted feeding” schedule, participants did not eat anything before 8AM or after 2PM. The total amount of calories consumed did not change between the two schedules.
The researchers concluded that incorporating a daily 18-hour fast caused participants to burn more fat while they slept, and also helped to regulate appetite levels throughout the day.
It’s important to note that this feeding schedule could not be generalized to all people, in all likelihood. In one sense, participants were essentially using the scheduling of their eating to activate the body’s fat-burning reaction, so that they could utilize their sleeping time to burn the excess fat they had stored on their bodies. For people who do not have similar fat stores, this approach could be less effective and more problematic.
Nonetheless, the point is that through controlling their daily eating and sleeping routine, participants were able to fundamentally change the way their body metabolized food – even while keeping their diet and their total number of calories consistent.
Getting to the Meat of these Research Findings
We have a lot to learn about the science of nutrition, so it’s important not to latch onto every new finding as ground-breaking or life-altering.
However, the new research presented above does support the idea that there is a real relationship between how much you eat and how much you sleep. Even more broadly, there seems to be a growing consensus that individuals should note the timing of their eating just as much as they take note of the food that they eat.
This should not be seen as an endorsement of the dietary plan outlined above, in which individuals do not eat anything after 2PM. There is insufficient research to support the effectiveness of this plan, and even if there was sufficient research, that wouldn’t mean that it would be a good fit for everyone.
When making dietary changes, remember the three P’s: Practical, Personal, and Pleasurable.
The overall conclusion is that nutritional scientists have recently demonstrated that eating and sleeping are integrally linked, and the timing of eating is an important factor for overall dietary health. Individuals should take care not only to watch what they eat, but also to take note of when they eat.
When you are able to settle into a good routine, and when what you eat, when you eat, and how much you sleep all come together into a healthy balance, you’ll be amazed at how much energy you can have and how in sync you will feel with the world around you!
Al Khatib, H. K., Harding, S. V., Darzi, J., & Pot, G. K. (2016). The effects of partial sleep deprivation on energy balance: a systematic review and meta-analysis. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Peterson, C. (2016). Time-Restricted Feeding Increases Fat Oxidation and Reduces Swings in Appetite Levels in Humans. Oral abstract presentation at: The Obesity Society Annual Meeting 2016; October 31 – November 4, 2016. Retrieved from:
Addictions can invade every facet of our lives. Whether we are the addict, in close relationship with an addict, or deal with it at work or in friendships our hope is this series will help with understanding and seeking help to work through and come out the other side healthy and whole. So please stick with us and post comments or email us and ask us questions.... we are here to help!
For as prevalent as addiction is, the amount of misinformation and misunderstanding that surrounds the issue is truly disheartening. The word itself is used in a variety of different contexts, anywhere from offhand comments to deadly serious medical conversations.
In this three-part series on addiction, our goals are to first define what addiction is, then to understand why and how addictions happen, and finally to look and see what we can do about addiction.
In Part 1 of our series, in exploring what addiction is, we came to understand that it’s vitally important to keep addiction in the proper perspective: The established prevalence rates are undoubtedly alarming, and higher than you might think. And yet, at the same time, it’s important to keep in mind the rigorous scientific criteria for addiction, so that we don’t mistake an innocuous habit for a deadly disease.
In this second in-depth look at addiction, we’ll try to understand why addiction happens, and how this works in the brain.
Etiology of Addiction
When medical professionals consider the causes of things, they will often times use the word “etiology.” Also spelled “aetiology,” the word comes from the Greek words “aití,” meaning cause, and “logos,” meaning discourse or study.
So when we discuss the etiology of addiction, what we are talking about is simply the study of or discourse about the causes of addiction.
And as with any ongoing study, there are a variety of models by which we can explain addiction, each with its own degree of truth. These theories are generally divided into three major subgroups: Social theories of addiction, psychological theories of addiction, and biological theories of addiction.
Of course this wealth of information provided by the different theories and ideas about the causes of addiction are very difficult to sum up in brief. Nonetheless, here is a short list of factors that have been identified by scientists as potential contributors to the development of an addiction:
It’s important to note here that this is not an exhaustive list, nor is it a conclusive diagnosis. This is simply an informal assemblage of some of the different factors that, when combined together, can potentially lead to addiction.
Brain Mechanism of Addiction
None of the factors listed above is a conclusive diagnosis for an addiction. And all of the factors above contribute to the development of an addiction in different ways, according to different models. Some factors contribute to social development of an addiction; others contribute to psychological need.
But in one very important sense, all of these various different understandings of addiction ultimately come down to the brain.
Every predisposition, every personality feature, every behavior, every memory, every fixed action pattern, every temperamental factor – ultimately, each of these bears a physical legacy in the brain of the individual. And regardless of whether treatments for addiction include talk or behavioral therapy, social support groups, medications, or any combination of these, it is the brain that is treated.
In this way, understanding how addiction manifests from the microscopic perspective of the brain is just as important as understanding how addiction manifests from the macroscopic perspective of etiology.
In brief, understanding how addiction happens in the brain is tantamount to understanding long-term memory. Basically, when something positive or pleasurable happens to us, it is advantageous for us to remember this feeling, and to know how to recreate it. For prehistoric man, the ability to remember a lush watering hole could have been the difference between health and starvation.
And mostly, the things that make us happy (or, more to the point, the things that activate the reward pathway of the brain) are also the things that provide us adaptive advantages, such as loving relationships, wholesome foods, exercise, etc.
However, in addiction this adaptive learning process becomes twisted, and we “learn” that the rush of neurochemical release that accompanies a reward will only come if we continue using a substance or performing a behavior that has been demonstrably damaging to our body or our relationships.
Why This Matters
Without going into too much detail, the important thing to understand about the neurobiology of the reward pathway mentioned above is that the effects of the addiction can have very widespread effects.
The connections involved in the reward pathway are located in the part of the brain known as the medial forebrain bundle, which is important to understand because this bundle has nerve connections throughout a big portion of the brain, including areas that are involved with emotion, pleasure, memory, and decision-making ability.
So when an addiction to a substance or behavior ends up changing or altering the neural machinery for an entire class of molecule – such as the way the pleasure neurotransmitter dopamine is taken up and used by brain cells – this global change can’t help but impact a huge variety of different areas. When the brain’s pleasure system becomes rewired due to addiction, it can affect everything.
Just in the same way that a bodily disease like cancer can metastasize and spread throughout a number of different organ systems, so too can the brain disease of addiction spread throughout a number of different mental and emotional systems, wreaking havoc in just the same way.
Fortunately, unlike cancer, the effects of recovery efforts and rehabilitation programs can form a positive spiral, making the chronic brain disease of addiction something that is eminently treatable.
Stay tuned: In Part 3 of our series we will discuss the responses necessary to lead to wholeness and healing from the horror of addiction.
Erickson, C. K., & Wilcox, R. E. (2001). Neurobiological causes of addiction. Journal of Social Work Practice in the Addictions, 1(3), 7-22.
Hyman, S. E., Malenka, R. C., & Nestler, E. J. (2006). Neural mechanisms of addiction: The role of reward-related learning and memory. Annual Reviews of Neuroscience, 29, 565-598.
Jadidi, N., & Nakhaee, N. (2014). Etiology of drug abuse: A narrative analysis. Journal of Addiction.
Many people look forward to the holiday season throughout the entire year. Children count down the days, and adults often plan events months and months in advance.
However, all of this anticipation is a double-edged sword, and it's an unfortunate truth that the time of year expected and advertised to be the most joyous and celebrated can often times end up being the most stressful and disappointing.
In this two-part article, we’ll first try to gain some perspective on the holiday season, and break down the reasons why the holidays are challenging, what factors are at play in staying balanced during the holidays, and what research has to say about what really matters.
In part two, we’ll move on to specific strategies that you can follow in order to make this holiday season all about joy, and not about stress.
We'll begin by breaking down some of the challenges that arise during the holidays.
Challenges Associated with the Holiday Season
Human beings are creatures of habit. During a large part of the year, most of us settle into very comfortable and staid routines.
Of course spontaneity is important, and there is a degree of truth in the old adage that variety is the spice of life, but maintaining positive, healthy habits is also very valuable. Routine keeps us oriented, it helps us manage stress, and it ensures that through constant, steady effort, we will eventually reach our goals.
One of the primary difficulties of the holiday season, therefore, is how much these routines can be altered. For parents with children, having the kids home from school for a period of multiple weeks is a major blessing, on the one hand, and a huge disruption of routine on the other hand.
When routines get disrupted, little tasks fall through the cracks. When little tasks fall through the cracks, a feeling of disorientation can arise, as though you are constantly forgetting something. When these feelings surface, they can lead to stress. And with a high level of stress, things like self-care, exercise, and other routine-oriented tasks get lost, completing the vicious cycle.
But this difficulty is only on the personal level. On the interpersonal level, the holiday season can bring about a large number of different expectations on your time and energy.
Children at different ages require more or less attention in order to have an enjoyable experience. Parents, siblings, and extended family members can push too hard for the fulfillment of one tradition or another. Groups including churches, service organizations, and even workplaces often schedule time commitments that they wouldn't otherwise.
And to compound all of these various challenges, the holidays are also the time of year when there is the least amount of sunlight, the most dangerous weather (depending on your location), the most delays because of traffic or weather, and often times the most sickness.
With all of these practical challenges, it can be hard to remember what's truly important. Let's take a look at what research has to say on the topic.
The Holidays Are About Meaning and Community, Not Consumerism
While it may seem strange to think about the holiday season from an academic perspective, one of the things that research helpfully does is organize information in such a way to make things that we already knew seem fresh and interesting.
In this way, considering what researchers have to say about the holiday season helps to orient us towards what's really important.
One study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies surveyed a variety of different people in a town in the Midwestern United States. The study specifically focused on Christmas, and asked participants to fill out several different questions about their Christmas experiences while also measuring things like life satisfaction, well-being, and stress.
The researchers demonstrated that the more materialistic aspects of the Christmas tradition were essentially unrelated to happiness or well-being. In fact, the researchers went so far as to explicitly state: “Despite the fact that people spend relatively large portions of their income on gifts, as well as time shopping for and wrapping them, such behavior apparently contributes little to holiday joy.”
On the other hand, the researchers found that individuals who spent time with family and engaged in religious activities reported greater overall well-being during the holidays. The researchers conjectured that this is because both of these activities often lead to a greater sense of interpersonal relatedness, as well as a greater sense of meaningfulness in life, both of which are well-established predictors of overall happiness.
So, once again: this particular study doesn't exactly tell you anything that you didn't already know. However, it is always helpful to be reminded that what really matters during the holiday season is investing time in family and community.
The Holidays Are a Challenge, and Should Be Treated as Such
With this understanding of what truly matters during the holiday season in mind, it becomes apparent how many things are tangent to these goals but can nonetheless come to dominate.
With challenges like sickness, scheduling, weather, traffic, and of course the entire web of interpersonal difficulties arising from having lots of different people with lots of different expectations, there's no doubt that it's difficult to keep what's truly important in mind.
The first step in any difficult task is always admitting to the challenge; without taking on the difficulty it is impossible to successfully rise above it.
But just because something is challenging doesn't mean it isn't enjoyable or rewarding. Thinking about the holidays as a challenge to be overcome doesn't cheapen the experience at all. As anyone who has planned a wedding knows, some of the most enjoyable and memorable days of our entire lives are also among the most challenging to prepare and to pull off.
So in conclusion, now that we've committed to taking on the challenge of having a happy holiday season this year, in Part 2 of this article we will discuss specific strategies you can use to accomplish this goal.
Kasser, T., & Sheldon, K. M. (2002). What makes for a merry Christmas? Journal of Happiness Studies, 3(4), 313-329.
Teenagers in the modern day are under a tremendous amount of pressure. Though it is difficult to imagine, the truth is that the very word “teenager” has been in use for less than 100 years. In the 19th century, there was no marked transition of adolescence; rather a person simply went from being a child to being an adult. Today’s teens require so much time to make the transition that a third stage is even gaining popularity: the stage of emerging adulthood.
All change has both positive and negative aspects. While this cultural development of the teenage years has certainly led to a host of positive benefits, it has also had the unfortunate consequence of making today’s teens more stressed than ever before. Luckily, recent psychological research has provided a key insight into how this stress can be prevented, or at least effectively managed.
Let’s take a look at the most common stressors for teenagers, the mindsets that they generally employ to deal with this stress, and the new strategy that can help teenagers cope.
The Many Pressures of the Teen Years
There are four primary types of stressors that can begin to manifest in adolescence: physical stressors, emotional stressors, academic stressors, and social stressors.
Physically, the teenage years are a period of immense growth and change. There is a massive cascade of hormones that causes a host of physical changes including the development of the sexual organs and body hair. Not only do these changes often lead to confusion and embarrassment, but with underdeveloped emotional maturity, these difficulties can sometimes fester and go unaddressed.
Additionally, on an emotional level teenagers are feeling a struggle to find their unique identity. Author Jeanne Elium writes: “The conflict between the need to belong to a group and the need to be seen as unique and individual is the dominant struggle of adolescence.” This combined with other cognitive developments can lead to an enormous feeling of pressure for teenagers.
Academically, there has never been more pressure placed on academic performance in middle and high school than there is today. Standardized testing for placement in better schools provides an additional pressure on teens.
And as if this academic pressure wasn’t enough, the priority to perform well is often completely subsumed under a much more urgent need for social acceptance. David Brooks, in his work “The Social Animal,” writes thus: “The purpose of high school is to give young people a sense of where they fit into the social structure...Students correctly understand, though adults appear not to, that socialization is the most intellectually demanding and morally important thing they will do in high school.”
The takeaway here is that it is the teenage years can be a time of immense stress for teenagers, and stressors can arise from a variety of sources. Let’s take a look now at the different ways teenagers generally deal with this stress.
Growth vs. Fixed Mindset
Developmental psychologist Carol Dweck has performed research for many years on the idea of mindset. This theory of mindset provides a comprehensive organizational structure that gives insight into the approaches that teenagers take, generally speaking, in dealing with all of the various categories of stress described above. According to the theory, all responses to stress manifest either a growth or fixed mindset.
A fixed mindset is a belief that a person’s abilities come primarily from innate ability or natural talent, and that these abilities are fixed traits that do not change throughout the lifespan. A growth mindset, on the other hand, maintains that performance is based primarily on hard work and effort, and that through dedicated practice anyone can develop skills and grow.
The best example of this difference in mindsets and how it relates to teenage stress is in the classroom. If two teenagers – one with a growth mindset and one with a fixed mindset – both receive a poor grade in a difficult class, they are likely to have two very different responses. A fixed mindset is likely to internalize the event, and think that a bad grade indicates certain negative traits about the individual student such as that they are stupid, worthless, or bad at that subject. A growth mindset would be more likely to take the bad grade in stride, noting how situational factors such as study time, physical state, and content difficulty played more of a role than innate ability.
In this way, it is easy to extrapolate to the various other types of stressors noted above, and to see how having a growth mindset can keep stress from manifesting in the teenage years. Importantly, recent research by Carol Dweck and her colleagues has demonstrated a simple but effective strategy for teaching teenagers how to develop the resilience to stress that marks a growth mindset.
Teaching Teenagers that People Can Change
The simple strategy employed by researchers to teach teenagers how to cope with stress involved one simple message: people can change. Across multiple different research studies, teenagers were given a simple reading and writing task which taught an incremental theory of personality change, where the social aspects of a person’s personality are demonstrated to change over time. The results were nothing short of amazing.
In one study, participating only in this single brief activity led to a nearly 40% decrease in levels of self-reported depressive symptoms after a 9-month gap. In another study, after less than two weeks of daily diary writing about people’s ability to change, teenagers showed reduced stress response and better performance. A later check-in on these diary-writing students showed that they received better grades overall in their first year of high school than those who did not participate in the intervention.
In conclusion, we are in the midst of a period of transition for teenagers, where the amount of responsibility and stress they have to deal with is higher than ever before. However, research supports the idea that if teenagers gain a belief that people can change, which leads to a growth mindset and a feeling of resilience, they can overcome the challenges of the teenage years and go on to lead happy and fulfilling lives.
Oakville Wellness Team
Brooks, D. (2012). The Social Animal: The hidden sources of love, character, and achievement. Random House Incorporated.
Elium, J., & Elium, D. (2012). Raising a Teenager: Parents and the nurturing of a responsible teen. Celestial Arts.
Miu, A. S., & Yeager, D. S. (2015). Preventing symptoms of depression by teaching adolescents that people can change effects of a brief incremental theory of personality intervention at 9-month follow-up. Clinical Psychological Science, 3(5), 726-743.
Yeager, D. S., & Dweck, C. S. (2012). Mindsets that promote resilience: When students believe that personal characteristics can be developed. Educational Psychologist, 47(4), 302-314.
Yeager, D. S., Lee, H. Y., & Jamieson, J. P. (2016). How to Improve Adolescent Stress Responses Insights from Integrating Implicit Theories of Personality and Biopsychosocial Models. Psychological Science, 27(8), 1078-1091.
Once your children reach puberty, it can be a stressful and confusing time for everyone. The biological and psychological changes that occur, as well as the change in social roles can be dramatic. Although most teenagers and parents go through this stage without the need for counselling and eventually cope with the necessary changes, it is not without some power struggle and suffering. As some would say, “It hurts to grow up.”
Adolescents Create Distance
In this stage of a family’s life cycle, it’s important for teenagers to distance themselves from their families, to uncover their identity and still maintain their allegiance to family’s values, and rehearse their future role as young adults. For parents it’s not always easy to maintain the balance between fostering autonomy and remind their teenagers they are not adults just yet. This double-bind of “you’re no longer a child, but you’re also not an adult” can become a real power struggle inside the home.
“As long as you live in my house, you need to obey my rules.” Is a common sentence in fights and not often ends with a very dramatic teenager walking away or slamming his room door. It is also in this stage that friends become the center of their world, anything and everything they say is more accurate and truthful than the advice you may give them – despite your long years of personal experience “you simply can’t understand me.” – is a sentence often said.
Friends Become More Important
Teenagers seem to become more attached to their friends than their families and parents may feel excluded when a child no longer wishes to engage in activities you used to do together. It’s normal to feel hurt about it, however that distancing is a natural movement and that’s where the teenage paradox resides.
Apparently friends are the most important thing in the world and parents are a drag, but the truth is a parent remains a crucial figure for a child throughout their whole lives. Although a teenager doesn’t want public displays of affection (which needs to be respected) or do anything with you – the truth is they miss it. The good news is when they become young adults the movement inverts and they will explicitly ask for your presence.
But what can you do now? My best advice from my years in private practice is: be your child’s safe haven. They may wander off with friends and spend the least amount of time indoors, but there’s always a place for them in their home – is a message that needs to be conveyed. They are not betraying the family by going out into the world experiencing things – it’s a normal process.
For teenagers, the anguish they portray is mostly related to this paradox: they want to be free and away from their families but also feel as if their place in the family will always be there. It’s up to you as a parent to help them realize they can have the best of both worlds without having to choose.
Oakville Wellness Team