By: Jan Hamilton, MS, PMHNP-BC, CEDS
Few parents escape the teenage years without dealing with daily doses of drama that are an inescapable part of growing up. But how do you know when your teen is just being over-dramatic, when they are hurting but healthy, or when the drama is a sign of clinical depression?
Many teens today are dealing with the relationship drama that is part of being a teenager and mood difficulties can be the result of all the drama. Many teens are struggling because they find themselves in relationships, romantic or not, that they aren’t equipped to handle. Depression can result when a relationship fails or does not work out as they expected and the drama associated with sudden changes in relationships only complicates the situation.
Many teens find themselves in relationships that got too romantic too quickly, and not just in the physical sense. The end of a whirlwind relationship can be just as devastating if the connection wasn’t physical, if there was an emotional aspect, that’s enough. The emotional highpoints of a new relationship and the emotional drama experienced when the relationship suddenly disappears can lead teens to feelings of depression.
Social networking, online friendships, and electronic communications have also changed the rules of the teenage game. Unlike the teen years of their parents, today’s teens are hyper-connected to everyone they know, every minute of the day. Twenty years ago, a fight between two friends may have resulted in a flurry of phone calls and drawn in three or four other people. Today, that fight is played out on Facebook in front the entire school. We know as therapists that human beings are not designed to participate in a hundred relationships at the same time which is in essence what social networking sites like Facebook ask us to do. As a result of all of these relationships and the hyper-connected nature of their lives, teens today are bombarded with an exponential amount of relationship drama that is playing out like a television soap opera 24 hours a day.
The implied intimacy of knowing the thoughts, feelings, and everyday activities of the people in your life provides the façade of friendship where no real relationship exists. Many of these online friendships and relationships weren’t built the way real relationships need to be built in order to be sustained. Pair this with the fact that most people will say things to others online that they would never consider saying in person, and it is easy to understand why all this drama can drag our teenagers further into potential mood problems.
Even more concerning for the long term is how social networking impacts the skills teenagers need to develop in order to be able to handle relationships as they move into adulthood. Today there is a whole generation of people who have developed friendships online through platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and chat, but these relationships are not the same as relationships that were formed and built in person. This group of teenagers doesn’t understand how to build real relationships and sustain them over time. As a result, when a real relationship comes into their life, they don’t know how to participate in it or how to take care of it, because the skills they need are missing. And when they lose that real relationship, they don’t know to handle the loss because it isn’t the same as having someone de-friend you on Facebook.
So what should parents do to help their child have healthy relationships and avoid relationship-caused mood problems?
- Encourage your teenager to get involved in extracurricular activities at school, church or other organizations. From participating in sports or youth groups or volunteering for a community organization, all of these live activities provide teens with important one-on-one interaction and the opportunity to develop relationships with people.
- Monitor computer and cell phone usage; set boundaries. I’ve heard some parents say that they insist that their kids share their passwords and give their parents 24 hour access to their social media accounts or text messages. While some might think this is extreme, as parents who are responsible for the well being and safety of our children, it might be a good idea.
- Have regular family time. Another family started a tradition when their children were young of going out to pizza as a family every Friday night. Often times they would invite friends of the kids. Even though the children are now teenagers, and one in college they still look forward to going to dinner as a family every Friday night when the can. The benefit was that the family and kids spent the time eating and having conversation, something they didn’t do when they were all running in different directions.
- Encourage your teen to go out with groups of friends instead of just dating one person exclusively.