Understanding teenage angst

Emotional changes in teens can result in mood swings, anxiety and also lead to depression or self-harm. So it’s important for parents to recognise the signs when not all is okay, says counselling psychologist Stephanie Borg Bartolo
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The teenage years are a delicate phase in life. It’s a time when children start to change in multiple ways. They no longer feel child-like and long to grow up but, they are still not ready to take the responsibility adulthood brings with it.

This revolution inside their mind and physicality is accompanied by emotional changes. Teens, in fact, tend to present a vast array of emotional problems, most of which have to do with self-esteem and self-worth, body image issues, adjustment and identity, as well as mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.

“These can obviously be secondary to other things going on in their life such as family discord, relationships or lack of relationships, bullying or not coping at school,” counselling psychologist Stephanie Borg Bartolo says.

Mood swings are particularly common in this age group.

“Teenagers’ brains are still developing. Moreover, they are constantly negotiating and trying to adjust to an ever-changing world. They are no longer children but also not full-grown adults. They shift from wanting to be one and the other,” Borg Bartolo explains.

“It can be confusing to know what is age appropriate when one is a teenager, so they often look to peers for this information. They may, however, not like or accept the information they receive, which may lead to them feeling different or isolated, or such information may not be accepted by the parents which may then lead to family conflict.

Teenagers’ bodies are also changing and sexuality is developing.

“A teenager’s feeling may be all over the place and this is difficult to manage,” the psychologist admits.

Modern-day stress factors

Modern-day stress factors may exacerbate the problem, including social media.

“With the huge impact that social media has had in recent years, we are now dealing with teenagers who are bombarded with negative messages,” Borg Bartolo point out.

Teens who follow influencers on Facebook, Instagram or TikTok are constantly being fed content.

“Depending on what and who they choose to follow, this could have an impact. Teens are impressionable and, therefore, the people they chose to follow should be monitored somehow, especially when it’s younger teenagers, or at least have open conversations about it.”

Some teenagers also associate their self-worth or physical appearance with the amount of ‘likes’ they get.

Besides, through social media and online presence, the bullying does not stop when one leaves school, but may continue at home or when someone is trying to enjoy themselves. Therefore, “for some teenagers, the nightmare never stops”, Borg Bartolo notes.

‘Emotional problems can also manifest themselves physically’

All these stress factors make teens feel anxious. Depression, however, is something more serious.

“Anxiety is considered to be excessive worry about things that may happen in the future rather than an imminent threat happening in the here and now. Depression, on the other hand, would constitute more than just a low mood,” Borg Bartolo says.

“It would be linked to increased irritability, feelings of emptiness, lack of appetite and anhedonia, meaning a lack of enjoyment of things that used to be enjoyed.”

Emotional problems can also manifest themselves physically – a condition that is called somatisation. Borg Bartolo gives the example of how anxiety can be experienced physically: through palpitations, sweaty palms, upset stomach and breathlessness.

Other physical symptoms that are caused by emotional problems could be headaches, chronic fatigue and any other ailment which has no medical explanation.

Sometimes such emotional problems can also lead to self-harm.

“Many times, it is a child’s way of communicating that they are not ok,” Borg Bartolo says.

“At other times, it is their way of ‘handling’ their problems because they release their pain in a physical way and feel better in the short term but then, in the long term, they feel guilty and then they enter into a vicious cycle.”

Some teenagers associate their self-worth or physical appearance with the amount of ‘likes’ they get on social media.

What can parents do?

Borg Bartolo believes that, first and foremost, parents need to remember that they were once teenagers too and be understanding and empathic rather than operate from “a position of anger”.

“The key behind a teenager’s tantrum or behaviour is communication: they are trying to tell you something.

“We want to keep the channels of communication as open as possible so that they talk to us rather than shut us out when they really need us.

She also encourages parents to read between the lines, listen and not trivialise what their children are going through.

“As a parent, it may seem a small, temporary issue, but for your child it may feel that this is the hardest thing they have ever faced.

“Try look beyond the behaviour and elicit the meaning behind it. Try to reach the emotion, even if they will never be able to verbalise this to you themselves. The key to keeping an open communication with your child is to understand the meaning of things.”

“The key behind a teenager’s tantrum or behaviour is communication: they are trying to tell you something”

Meanwhile, one should keep on the lookout for changes in patterns of behaviour.

“Has your child drastically reduced his/her portions of food, has sleep changed? Are they withdrawing, not only from you but also from their friends? Are they more irritable or upset than usual for long periods of time? These are the basics. On a more serious note, any signs of self-harm would be a sign of being emotionally distressed.

“All of these signs, especially self-harming, need to be handled with caution rather than alarm and panic. Try to understand what all of this means for your child and then discuss how you can be of help.”

Borg Bartolo admits that sometimes it can be hard to realise when a ‘mood swing’ warrants more attention.

“I think that, in general, parents may get a feeling when things escalate, however, it is always good to check with your child and check with them how they are feeling and whether this is normal for them or not.”

It is very important for parents to keep the communication channels with their children as open as possible.

She says that alarm never helps anyone but one should keep a watchful eye, communicate with their children and offer them professional support if it is something the parent cannot handle and/or if the child prefers to talk to someone outside of the family.

“If parents realise that a problem is serious, they should first talk to the child and look at what may help. When in doubt, if the symptoms are medical, one may wish to speak to either their GP as a first point of reference and to rule out anything medical.

A referral to a mental health professional can then be made.

“If no medical symptoms arise and the issues seem to be getting worse, speaking to a mental health professional would help parents get a better idea on whether their child would need intervention or whether it is a normal part of being a teenager.”

Borg Bartolo is adamant that having a good relationship with your child while keeping an open line of communication is one of the best ways in which parents can be of help during this possibly difficult period.

“Having a supportive family is one of the key factors that helps teenagers. As hard as it is, sometimes as parents we have to acknowledge that many times we cannot ‘fix’ things and make it ‘all go away’. All we can do is listen, try not to judge, empathise and offer help when needed.”

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