Teenagers today have to charter far choppier waters than we, their parents, ever had to. Increased competition in the classroom and on the sportsfield, challenging economic times and the demands of social media are, quite simply, stressing our children out.
My friend Katie practises an energy psychology called Emotional Freedom Technique with her nursery school class twice a day to help them cope with the daily stressors in their lives. She asks them to focus on something that has upset them. Their responses are fascinating: After break it was ‘Angie wouldn’t play with me and I’m cross with her’ or ‘Joshua pushed me’; but the really interesting answers came at the start of the day. The one which struck me the most was a little boy who said, ‘It upsets me when daddy hits mommy.’ Nursery school is a very interesting place to observe human behaviour. What happens there is simply a microcosm of what happens later. The ‘Angie wouldn’t play with me’ is such a common teenage issue – the need to belong, to feel part of the group, to feel accepted by your peers. And ‘Joshua pushed me’ another huge need – that of having boundaries and the ability to know when they are being stepped on, as well knowing they have the right to say or do something about it.
TODAY’S TEENAGE WORLD
Teenage stress has added dimensions to the stressors we had growing up. The needs of teenagers haven’t changed – they still crave to fit in, to belong, to feel loved and accepted by parents, siblings and friends, to feel safe in the world. However, now they need to negotiate a far more complex world than we did: often two sets of parents and homes, each with different rules and expectations; trying economic times with the added social pressures this brings; and the particular stressors of being online 24/7 – far riskier to share secrets which can be spread via social media if a friendship turns sour. Many parents wonder if they should, and how they could, shield their children from stress. And surely, being overprotective of our children sets them up for a rude shock when they enter the ‘real world’? It turns out that the type of stress that is harmful to children – and in more ways than we could ever have foreseen – is chronic (ongoing) unpredictable stress.
THE EFFECT OF CHRONIC UNPREDICTABLE STRESS
To the developing brain, knowing what’s coming next matters the most. If the stress response in the body is working correctly, when we meet a lion in the bush our body floods with adrenaline so that we can decide quickly: Do I run away or face the lion? After we deal with the crisis, we recover, the stress hormones abate and our body relaxes. But what happens if that lion is circling our hut and we can’t get away from it; we never know if it’s going to attack or when, or what it will do next? Our fight-or-flight response is ‘always on’, our anxiety sensors are always going full blast. This soon permanently resets our stress to a much higher level than it should be. We become hyper-reactive to even very small stressors that, normally, we would take in our stride.
ADVERSE CHILDHOOD EXPERIENCES
So what are the chronic, unpredictable stressors that reset this stress response in our children and teenagers? Research is revealing there are quite specifi c events that qualify that have been named Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) and include obvious things like sexual and physical abuse, having an alcoholic parent, and death of a parent; but also things like chronic verbal abuse, growing up with a depressed parent, witnessing ongoing violence towards a parent, and being bullied by a teacher or other children.* These chronic stressors are the bad guys to watch out for – the ones that permanently raise our stress response and negatively affect our ability to cope with normal, everyday fight-or-flight stressors like exams and competitive sports. Researchers are also finding direct correlations between the number of ACES children encounter and their likelihood of suffering from depression, and even chronic illness later in life. However, most disturbing are the statistics on suicide: while only 1% of those with an ACE score of 0 have ever attempted suicide, almost one in five individuals with an ACE Score of 4 or more has tried to end his or her life. *(for a full list: www.recode.co.za/aces)
WHY SUCH A STRONG ACES-DEPRESSION LINK – PARTICULARLY IN TEENS?
Psychology has helped us understand the link between our childhood wounds and adult emotional problems. But research is starting to reveal that ACES can actually cause deep-seated changes within the brain, and that depression and mood dysregulation are also set in motion on a cellular and neurobiological level. So what is causing neurobiological changes inside the brain itself?
EARLY ADVERSITY CHANGES THE SHAPE AND SIZE OF THE BRAIN
When a young child experiences ACES, cells in the brain release a hormone that actually shrinks the size of the brain’s developing hippocampus – altering their ability to process emotion and manage stress. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies show that the higher an individual’s ACES score, the smaller the brain volume is. This has a profound effect on decision-making abilities, ability to self-regulate, attention, emotional regulation, thoughts and of course, behaviour. Not only that, a type of brain cell called microglia has been discovered that actually prunes neurons. When children reach adolescence, they naturally undergo a period of developmental pruning of neurons. When we are young, we have an overproduction of neurons and synaptic connections. Some of them die off naturally to allow us to ‘turn down the noise in the brain’ (Margaret McCarthy, PhD, professor of neuroscience, University of Maryland School of Medicine, quoted in Childhood Disrupted), so we can increase our mastery in skills that interest us and lose those we don’t need. However, microglia are hypersensitive to chronic unpredictable stress, which easily sets them out of kilter. When this happens, they start to prune not only the unused and dying neurons, but healthy ones too. This excessive pruning (literally, a decrease in our brain capacity) can lead to what McCarthy refers to as a ‘reset tone’ in the brain. And the result? Depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, poor executive function and decision making – many of which can lead to substance abuse. This may be why so many young people first show signs of these disorder in high school – even kids who just a year earlier seemed fine.
Symptoms of stressed teens
- Bad sleeping
- Change in eating habits
- Twitches or tics
- Temper tantrums
- Headaches/migraines, eczema, constipation, stomach aches and bladder infections.
So what can be done for our teenagers? Stress relief for children can be achieved through similar means that adults use – although use of medication is definitely not advised, due to often severe side effects.
- Diet: Concerned parents can encourage a healthy diet (the foundation of good physical and mental health). Try to eliminate sugar, refined carbohydrates, caffeine and soft drinks, and incorporate lots of fresh vegetables and unrefined, nutrient-dense foods.
- Exercise: Regular exercise is essential – exercising with your kids will encourage them to adopt this healthy habit, even a daily walk. Vitamin D through sensible sun exposure is very healing.
- Meditation: Children also respond well to mindfulness and meditation techniques – and learning these at a young age will serve them for life.
- Herbal remedies: These are gentle and effective – try valerian, passionfruit flower, lemon verbena, lemon grass, pennywort and rose pelargonium. For more severe stress, parents can look at energy psychology therapies like Emotional Freedom Technique and the ReCode© methodology. ReCode© also works to heal the brain, calm the fight-or-flight stress response and stimulate the growth of new neural pathways in the brain.
So, fortunately, there are non-drug options available to help our children and teenagers cope with the effects of chronic, unpredictable stress in their lives. It is possible to actually heal the brain, stimulate neural growth and even heal the emotional effects of ACES. Our teens can go on to experience happy, well-adjusted lives, no matter what their past holds.