On Your Health

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Mental Health and Brain Development in Teens

Adolescence is one of the most rapid changing phases for human brains, and these years are some of the most formative. Today’s teens are exposed to millions of images and messages – often negative, confusing or conflicting – from their peers, from television, the internet and especially on social media, where truth can be misleading. When you couple typical teen issues with more serious concerns like family problems, substance abuse or depression, it’s no surprise mental health issues are so common in adolescents today.

Teen Brains are Still Growing

Significant brain development occurs during adolescence, continuing until about the age of 25. The teen brain is constantly growing, especially the prefrontal cortex, which is a part of the brain that comprehends situations and deals with higher level cognitive abilities like planning, forethought, working memory and impulse control.

This explains why teens often struggle with forgetfulness and are more likely to engage in risky behavior without thinking through potential consequences. Forgetting homework and making rash decisions are commonplace among teens, but when seriously stressful events happen, this lack of brain maturity can manifest itself in an inability to cope or rise above negative situations. Typical teen angst and loneliness can easily develop into clinical depression.

Self-harm, eating disorders and suicidal thoughts can arise as symptoms of deeper mental health issues. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, one in five American teens has a mental disorder.

Problem Signs for Teens

  • Avoidance of school or friends
  • Excessively argumentative and defiant
  • Threatening harm to self or others
  • Excessive sleeping or insomnia
  • Abandonment or loss of interest in favorite pastimes
  • Unexpected and dramatic decline in academic performance
  • Weight loss and loss of appetite
  • Personality changes that are sharply out of character

In 2017, 32 percent of Oklahoma high school students reported feeling sad or hopeless for a long period of time, to the point where they stopped doing normal activities (across the U.S., that number is 31 percent). Even more shocking, approximately 11 percent of high school students in Oklahoma reported one or more suicide attempt in the past year.

As Iron Sharpens Iron, So One Friend Sharpens Another

The unfortunate truth is that many teens affected by mental health issues often go untreated (or even unnoticed). Fortunately, there are ways to help encourage good mental health habits like resilience, coping, good judgment and optimism.

As the proverb suggests, as iron sharpens iron, so one friend really can sharpen another. Strong and healthy friendships are absolutely vital for teenagers, as are healthy relationships with parents, peers and teachers.

Positive relationships can be built simply by getting involved in an activity, such as sports, music, clubs or volunteering. Helping your teen find an activity in which he or she shows a genuine interest can help build confidence and alleviate social anxiety.

Healthy physical habits also play big role in mental health:

  • Adolescents should get at least one hour of physical activity every day (yet only half are actually getting the recommended amount).
  • A healthy diet helps nurture greater energy levels and alertness.
  • Adequate sleep with an early bedtime and plenty of time to wind down beforehand are essential components for teen mental health, as their circadian rhythms shift with later bedtimes and more taxing night-time activities.

Tips for Parents

  1. Encourage your teen to be physically active in a way that suits them.
  2. Enforce a reasonable bedtime.
  3. Be observant of any changes in your teen’s behavior and don't be afraid to speak up or find help with a counselor or pastor.
  4. Encourage open lines of communication.

This last tip is the most important: be sure to let your children know they can talk to you about absolutely anything, and be attentive when they do confide in you. Approach touchy subjects with an open mind and foster two-sided dialogue. Let your teens know they are not alone in their anxieties, and be willing to talk about your own fears and anxieties as an adolescent. 

Stay mindful of the warning signs mentioned above and seek professional help for your teens if you are alarmed or worried for their safety.

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