Teenagers: soaring achievements & crashing self-esteem
‘Whatever my marks were, it was never enough…’ Tania, now 19.
Depression among teenagers is now recognised as a national as well as a personal and family issue. With many teenagers turning to drugs to cope with academic stress and increase productivity, public and parental fears continue about the pressures on high-achieving teenagers today and their own unrealistic expectations on themselves.
According to Young Minds, the number of young people aged 15-16 with depression nearly doubled between the 1980s and the 2000s and nearly 80,000 children and young people suffer from severe depression in the UK. This is perhaps in part due to the ever more competitive demands of secondary education and a media which tends to compound the image of a very narrow route to academic and life success in the UK.
Under pressure: issues teenagers face
Teenagers studying hard for exams may seem to face just one problem: the test. However, it’s important to consider what else they may be struggling to cope with in their academic lives. It is not only the pressure of getting good grades but also the pressure of competing with other students, especially in the UK’s top academic public schools. ‘Falling behind’ may result in class or cyber bullying and shaming by other students or even their teachers. They may also be torn between multiple responsibilities such as sports matches and nationals tests where the pressure to succeed stems from the urgency of upholding the school’s reputation. Coping with other peer pressures about sexuality, dating and guilt about experimenting with drugs or alcohol can also leave kids running to play catch-up and neglecting their health.
Different sex, different problems
While teenagers share a lot of issues, male or female, there are some symptoms of depression, which seem to manifest far more in either girls or boys. During the teenage years, boys can feel that they fall behind their female peers in achievement. This is also reinforced regularly by the media, which suggests that boys struggle more than girls in achieving high grades. Boys may try to cope with these feelings using alcohol and drugs, or by withdrawing from study altogether, claiming than they are no longer interested in their favourite subjects.
For girls, the pressure to perform well academically may manifest in other kinds of controlling behaviours and perfectionism. They may become hyper-focused on their appearance, creating hard and fast gym schedules or reducing their diet down to be leaner and more athletic-looking. Other girls may also become bullies in an effort to mask their growing anxiety about their seeming failure.
How do I know if my teenager is depressed?
Classic signs of depression (generally in adults):
- Sadness or hopelessness, tearfulness or frequent crying
- Fatigue or lack of energy, lack of enthusiasm, motivation for or interest in activities and withdrawal from friends and family
- Irritability, anger or hostility, restlessness and agitation
- Feelings of worthlessness and guilt, suicidal thoughts
For teenagers however we would also highlight the following depression symptoms:
Ritualistic behaviours – returning to repetitive activities such as tidying books away doesn’t initially sound alarming, far from it, however if these activities become ‘life and death’ to perform and take the place of other more flexible healthy and balanced activities, this may be a sign of depression. Food and diet rituals among teens are to be particularly paid attention to as these could signal the development of an eating disorder. In these cases, controlling food intake or obsessively exercising becomes a dangerous outlet for painful feelings of pressure and stress.
Hyper-sensitivity to criticism – a particularly prevalent issue for ‘over-achievers,’ their outward projection of success may be hiding crashing low self-esteem which means that they are plagued by feelings of worthlessness, making them extremely vulnerable to criticism, rejection, and failure.
Erratic behaviour – reports have shown that teenagers are buying ‘SMART’ drugs online to help them cope with exam stress and increase productivity. Not only are they putting their lives at risk with unknown side-effects, they are also potentially feeding a growing reliance on narcotics to perform adequately at school or college. If your teenager seems to be acting high or low intermittently, this could be a sign.
One of the main things to be aware of in a depressed teenager is a lack of flexibility. This means that when suggestions are made, either by you the parents or by friends, or if normal distractions to study present themselves and are immediately rejected, or if schedules are changed either at home or at school, the teenager reacts irrationally and abusively.
What can I do to help my teenager?
First of all your teenager may be in some denial about their feelings, especially if they have been avoiding addressing those feelings by focusing heavily on school or college work. When approached, they may react in one of two ways; by either completely denying the behaviour and shutting you out, or they may react angrily and lash out. What they are trying to preserve is some sort of control of how they feel which, when compromised or exposed can bring out a range of emotions. You may also see their behaviour worsen initially.
However, being patient and broaching the subject, more than once if needed let’s them know that you’re ready to listen and more importantly to accept them where they are right now. With teenage depression, self-acceptance is largely the missing key so being positive about their achievements is of course a positive step in the right direction. Don’t be afraid to share your own feelings of failure you may have had when you were younger.
If you’re concerned about your teenager or a teenager that you know and love, Fresh Mind Therapy can help. We are sensitive to the difficulties of communication you may be experiencing and can help both the teenager and yourself to come to terms with their feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, fear and anger. We can also help them address dependency issues. Get in touch with us now to talk about how Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and a range of other techniques can help them overcome depression and retain a balance between contentment and productivity.
photo credit: shanon wise via photopin cc