Archive of ‘Teens’ category

Building A Better Mental Health Future for Our Children

We are living in an unprecedented time – not only are we facing a global pandemic that is having a profound effect on millions of people around the world, but we are also simultaneously navigating difficult issues like climate change, natural disaster, racial injustice, gender equality, political polarization, economic turbulence, war, etc.  All these factors have taken a toll on our mental health.  Mental health disorders can affect anyone; they do not discriminate based on gender, race, age, ethnicity, occupation, religion, economic class, or ethnic background.  It is very likely that each of us knows someone with a mental health challenge or has one ourselves. 

Our children have been hit particularly hard during this challenging time, with us seeing a mental health crisis in children like never before.  Mental health is just as important as physical health, which is an essential part of children’s overall health and well-being. As a therapist, I am seeing an increasing number of parents reaching out for help with their children’s mental health.  Anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, self-harming, internet addictions and truancy are just some of the conditions that are prevailing in young people during this mental health crisis.  Putting the well-being of our children as top priority is paramount now.  Whether you are a parent, caregiver, educator, coach, counselor or anyone who interacts with children and is genuinely interested in their overall wellness, you have the ability to influence them in a positive way. You can make a difference in their lives.

I would like to share with you five things with the acronym, “CARES”, that I believe our children really need.  With those, we can help nurture their mental health:

1. Connection with compassion

We are all social beings that have the innate need to connect.  The social distancing/isolation during the pandemic has made it very hard for us to connect with each other.  Most of our kids today connect with their phones and computers more than they connect with human beings. Research shows that this disconnection has detrimental effects on the mental health of our children.  Dr. Bruce Perry believes that connectedness has the power to counterbalance adversity:

“Human beings are social creatures, and because of that, we are neurologically designed to be in relationships with other people. When you see another person and they send a signal that you belong, or they smile and give you a gentle touch, that literally changes the physiology of your brain and body in ways that lead to a more regulated stress response system, healthier heart, healthier lungs, and literally it will influence your physical and mental health.” 

Let’s focus on building true connections with our children.  When was the last time you sat down with them to have a deep conversation that made them feel seen and heard?  When was the last time you played or created something together?  Giving our children undivided attention and being attuned is connecting with them.  Being curious and asking questions to genuinely get inside your child’s world is connecting with them.  When we connect through compassion, we begin to see things from their perspective without judgement.  Dr. Brené Brown defines connection as “the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” 

2. Acceptance and authenticity

Dr. Alfred Adler teaches us that a human being has an instinctive need to belong and feel significant.  Dr. Abraham Maslow places belongingness as the next most important need just above the physiological and safety needs in his hierarchy of needs model.  Many kids nowadays are not getting this basic need met.  As a result, they become people pleasers and do things to please others to seek approval.  They rely on external factors to define themselves.  They also act out and become defiant to get adult attention. 

So why do kids do these things?  Because they are not being accepted for who they are.  Their most important need is not being met – the need to belong.  Children need to know that they are accepted for who they are.  When children are accepted, they will have a sense of belonging which will allow them to be their authentic self.  They will see their self-worth, which then leads them to a more meaningful and fulfilled life.  Truly accepting a child means to let go of our own expectations of who we want the child to be and embrace who the child really is. 

3. Resilience and responsibility

Resilience is the ability to bounce back from setbacks or failures.  It is a skill that can be learned and practiced.  Many parents like to teach their kids how to win, but I think it is more important to teach them how to fail and get back up.  Allowing our kids to accept failure as part of learning and growing is one way to teach them resilience.  Do not rush to rescue them from moments of struggle or you will deprive them of opportunity to build their resilience muscles.  Another way to help kids develop resilience is by teaching them responsibility and allowing them to contribute to the family and society.  This not only allows them to have a sense of significance, but also allows them to see how capable they are.  

4. Encouragement and empathy

Oftentimes, we tend to criticize our children and focus on the negatives rather than the positives.  When all our children hear from us is how incapable they are and how much they are doing things incorrectly, they will feel discouraged.  It is important for children to know that we all make mistakes.  Let’s model self-acceptance and self-love even when we make mistakes.  Being encouraged and supported builds self-worth and self-confidence.  Alongside encouragement is empathy. Children need to hear encouraging words that come from a place of empathy. 

“Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feeling with the heart of another.”

– Dr. Alfred Adler.

5. Safety and support

Providing a secure environment for children to grow and develop is very important for both their physical and mental health.   According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, safety is one of the most basic human needs for motivation.  Safety does not only refer to physical safety but emotional safety as well.  We want to provide a safe environment for our children to freely express their emotions.  It is important for parents to talk to their children about feelings.  Dr. Daniel Seigel said:

“Parents who speak with their children about their feelings have children who develop emotional intelligence and can understand their own and other people’s feelings more fully.”  

Our goal is to be their anchor so that they feel safe to come to us when the outside world appears to be scary and unsafe to them.  When children have a secure base, they will be more likely to have the courage to explore the world. 

Life is full of unpredictable challenges.  Let’s prepare our kids for whatever lies ahead by fostering their mental health and well-being.  Now more than ever, our children need our support.  Let’s focus on building a better mental health future for our children. 

“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”

– C.S. Lewis

Talking to Adolescents About Porn

Often I am consulting clinically about how best to handle screen time expectations and tech boundaries in terms of both consumption and content. Online pornography is a subset of media that consistently comes up, not only with adults and couples I work with but also with parents and teens. Often, parents regard this topic with fear or uncertainty, so I wanted to share some resources to help create empowered and open communication around media and porn literacy. This feels ever-important during a time where curricula and state law seem to be pushing censorship or shame.

A cultural inevitability 

Our culture is still clumsily navigating the rapid proliferation of readily available and seemingly unavoidable online pornography, which now comprises approximately 1/10 of internet content. Studies show kids are exposed to online pornography at an average age of around 13, and over 40% the initial exposure was accidental. That said, exposure can happen much earlier. Generally, parents tend to address issues around puberty and sexuality around age 13. The assumption here is that sex and sexual issues do not need to be addressed until puberty. Yet, puberty happens more frequently between the ages of 10-12, and sexual consideration and curiosity do not operate like a light switch directly aligned with puberty–it’s a continuum aligned with human developmental stages and begins, in some ways as early as 4 years of age.

Why talking to your preteen or teen about porn is important

Though any sort of sex talk can feel taboo or be awkward, talking about pornography is part of a healthy sex-positive environment and creates an open field of engagement with your child. It is notable that there is a negative assumption that educating adolescents about sex might unintentionally push them to have sex earlier, yet this is statistically untrue. The earlier you can include positive and shame-free sex discussions and education in your home, the better. Based on the lack of porn literacy taught within school settings, the onus is tending to fall on parents and therapists to have these discussions when/if they arise. And knowing 70% of youth either happen upon (scrolling), or seek out online pornography (for education), this is more of a when.

Studies also indicate that, particularly for cis-hetero males, early exposure to porn may be correlated to a desire to seek power over women. Thus, having open conversations about the types of sexual engagements that are depicted in mainstream porn can impact not only a sex-positive attitude but also may deepen relational awareness and connection.

Replacement as Sex Ed

Unfortunately, only 30 states in the U.S. are required to teach sex ed at all, 13 of which are science-based. About 20 of these 30 states still operate under the outmoded abstinence-only model. Interestingly but not surprisingly, the states which lack an affirmative and science-based sexual education model, are also the states with the highest amount of teen pregnancy, and the inverse is true: sex ed that is comprehensive and empirical significantly decreases teen pregnancy.

Based on the dearth of comprehensive and media-literate education and considering the ease with which porn can be located on a device, adolescents are often attempting to educate themselves and their peers using this very easily accessible “resource.”

One of the issues with this, particularly with the absence of other forms of education, is that porn is by nature performative, and often non-consent-driven. This mainstream content easily creates the assumption that this is how sex goes. This type of pornographic content, however, excludes the awkward, messy, real, and autonomous versions of sex. It also tends to be geared more toward cis, hetoronormative, and at times violent, depictions of sex, excluding more diverse and inclusive images of sex. Finally, it outsources imagination, which is core and vital to human life, particularly at this age, to the churn of consumeristic drives of The Algorithm. 

Awareness about this stage

On top of porn’s availability and adolescents’ burgeoning sexual awareness and desire, the stage of adolescence is a marked time for black and white thinking (based on the brain’s development), and it is a wrought time for repetition-compulsion. Adolescents, our greatest nihilists, are beholden to their stage of life which is all about transformation and initiation. Richard Frankel, a Jungian psychoanalyst notes, “without guidance, left on their own, adolescents’ attempts at initiation take on an extreme character” (1999, p. 61). Frankel continues regarding adolescent exploratory methods:

Like the repetition of a symptom after the experience of trauma, the compulsion to repeat these events, be it drug and alcohol use, acts of violence, or discriminant sex, may be better understood not under the rubric of the psychology of addiction, but as failed attempts at initiation that leaves one in a state of yearning for a kind of deliverance that never seems to quite manifest itself. (p. 61)

Our culture, one without much initiation or ritual, operates via dopamine pump: check the email, check again; I liked that substance, I want more; this construct creates this emotion, repeat, repeat, repeat. Rather than allowing a substance or experiences to signify an initiation, they instead become literalized as a threshold itself, with which to carry over newly initiated vision or life stages. Herein, our culture, under which auspices our adolescents are trained, simply craves and acquires more. After the initial experience of a new substance-construct, whether it is alcohol, pornography, a violent event, or a combination, Frankel notes that the “extremity of behavior may lead an adolescent to the threshold of an initiatory door. However, without the proper structures in place, he cannot pass through it” (p. 61). 

In a word: education and cultural, or subcultural, consciousness begets awareness and can help guard against these black and white compulsions.

When/If this topic arises, here are some tips for having that conversation with your kid:

As porn is designed as a means-to-an-end, it mostly misses out on modeling consent. Consent is a must, and training around this can happen as early as 1 year of age. This begins by including permission when wanting to touch or embrace. “Let’s ask Kendell if she’d like a hug to say bye today!” And later can include teaching around body autonomy, and honoring one’s ‘gut’ feelings.

Later, teaching enthusiastic consent, about actual sexual experiences is important. This can happen in middle school if appropriate for your child.

Don’t freak out!

While I would argue pornography is not always a great first exposure to sex, it is common that it is the first brush. The more you can handle this topic with active listening, the better the setup for sex-positive communication between parent and adolescent. Also, discussing porn as a thing that exists can help your child decide how they’d like to interact (or not) with it if it comes up in a peer setting.

No shame!

Sexual curiosity and education-seeking are part of development, and as noted, made more seductive due to our cultural lack of comprehensive education. Generally speaking, when adolescents, who already naturally feel ‘on stage’ incur feelings of outer shame, they shut down. It’s on you to mitigate your fear/upset as a parent, and model and encourage an open line of conversation for your kid.

An opportunity to set boundaries and agreements

Aim for solutions rather than reactive consequences. Part of this education can be teaching kids and teens that porn exists as entertainment and is not meant to be educational. 

Within this, negotiations around screen time or media blocks, particularly for younger ages might be appropriate to help them have lesser access. Though it might feel uncomfortable, asking open-ended questions (where, how, when) rather than possibly accusatory why questions, can help aid in creating discussions that point to the purpose of the search. For instance, if your adolescent was simply curious, more education may be the key. If it was peer pressure, it’s a perfect opportunity to discuss consent (even about media consumption). And, if they accidentally were exposed and feel ashamed or traumatized, it can be a great time to normalize the instance and seek greater awareness of their tech habits, solo and in-situ.

There’s no one way to handle this intricacy-laden and, for some, discomforting topic. But hopefully, this, and the resources listed below are a helpful start!


For parents:

Is the Porn Brain our new Sex Educator by sex educator Yana Tallon-Hicks

Sex Positive Families is a platform that offers a variety of resources to support these talks

Six Minute Sex Ed – podcast on various topucs

How to Talk to Your Kids about Pornography

For adolescents

Yes to consent– a platform offering podcasts that cover myriad topics around tech, consent and porn.

Let’s Talk About It

Wait, What?

Earlier resources for younger kids

Yes! No!: A first conversation about consent

Ways to Helps Your Child Navigate Friendships  

A common question I receive when working with parents is how to offer support when witnessing their child having friendship dilemmas. Friendships are a significant developmental milestone for your child, and it can be tricky to know what to say or how to provide help without causing a rupture in your relationship with them. Here are three ways to help you connect with your child and support them through this challenging phase. 

1. Listen

Friendships are a personal territory often associated with self-consciousness or insecurity, but when children gain the courage to come to you for support, the most helpful thing you can do is listen. Stop whatever you are doing and give them your undivided attention. Thoughtfully listening to your child is key in making them feel not only heard verbally, but also seen in a way that affirms themselves and their experience.

2. Refrain From Giving Advice (At First) 

When your child comes to you and is asking about how to handle a friendship situation, the immediate response may be to fix, solve, or rescue. Resist the temptation to do so. Often times when children go to you for help, what they really want is to be heard. Giving advice can emphasize problem solving rather than focusing on what your child is experiencing. However, sometimes your child may only desire advice. In that case, use bullet point # 3 to try to gauge if there may be any reasons for them not wanting to explore the situation deeply. Some reasons could be avoiding feelings around the friendship or desiring you to intervene and fix the situation. If none of those apply to your child and their situation, then advice giving could be helpful. 

3. Reflecting and Asking Curiosity Questions 

Two things that can help your child navigate friendships are reflecting and asking curiosity questions. Reflecting not only shows that you are listening to what is being said, but it also allows your child to hear how you may be experiencing their thoughts and feelings. Asking your child open ended questions can foster connection and prompts them to explore their situation more deeply. Below are some examples of how you could use reflection and curiosity questions.

Examples of Reflecting: 

  • You seem to be struggling (e.g. angry, frustrated, annoyed) with this situation. 
  • I hear that this friendship is making you question some things. 
  • You sound really concerned (e.g. hurt by, worried, upset with, excited) about your friend. 
  • I appreciate you coming to me and telling me about this. 

Examples of Curiosity Questions:

  • What is this making you feel? 
  • How can I help? 
  • What happened? 
  • Would you like for me to give advice or listen?

These three methods can help you approach this important phase in your child’s life with kindness and empathy, both of which are critical to building a greater connection with them.  If you have any questions for me or would like more information on helping your child through challenging experiences, please reach out to set up a session. 

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