Erin Tahvonen, LMHC
Part 2 - The teens aren't alright: Interventions for parents and educators
Part 1 of this series provides some sobering statistics about the mental health of teenagers in the U.S. today. Even reading about the crisis facing our youth can be overwhelming, but fortunately there are many interventions, from small changes to bigger goals, that can help keep things on track:
Technology use is up, face-to-face interaction is down and parents and teachers, alike, are battling against the cell-phone-as-a-lifeline argument. What is apparent, though, is lonely kids want more tech time, and tech time leads to more feelings of loneliness, disconnect, and anxiety. How do we break the cycle?
· Understand the “mere presence effect” of a cell phone. Sometimes the simple existence of an object can have an impact on humans outside of our conscious awareness. Having a cell phone sitting on a table during a discussion decreases individual’s perception of interpersonal closeness, trust, and perceived empathy (Przybylski & Wenstein, 2013). This effect was particularly pronounced when the phone was out during meaningful discussions. When talking to teens, put away your cell phone, laptop, or tablet – and I don’t mean don’t look or use them. I mean, ensure they are not visible in the space.
· Mere presence also had an impact while people are getting to know each other by leading to less close and lower quality relationship formation (Przybylksi & Wenstein, 2013) Set specific rules and expectations about how and when kids should use cell phones. When they are with their friends or getting to know new people, having a cell phone present is damaging.
· Remember, lonely kiddos are more likely to text than talk (Reid & Reid, 2007) and frequent text messaging is associated with lower GPA, an effect not found with number of phone calls (Harman & Sato, 2011). Have a question? Try placing a quick call rather than relying solely on texts. Encourage your kid to call businesses, family members, and friends to touch base or get information rather than using the more impersonal computer mediation communication.
· Kids are using too much social media (Twenge, Spitzberg & Campbell, 2019), engaging in unhealthy social comparison (Favotto, Michaelson, Pickett & Davison, 2019), and potentially encountering messages from friends about self-harm which can increase the likelihood they will act in self-damaging ways (George, 2019). Follow age recommendations/guidelines for social media use. Talk about social comparison and talk through how people post a version of their lifestyle that maintains an image. This might seem common sense to you, but can alleviate some of the pressure kids place on themselves. Monitor the people and posts your kids follow and be on the lookout for references to self-harm.
· Technology use can form addictions where there is an increase in desired time spent online and a decrease in the amount of pleasure it brings (Odaki & Kakan, 2010).Unplugging from technology is more than ok, it is necessary. People rarely even go to the restroom without taking their cell phones. Find a moment to set it down, go outdoors, play games, talk or just exist without a device and ensure the kids get downtime, too.
· Check yourself. You are likely also engaged in too much technology use.
Motivation is struggle for many people these days. We know people are more likely to withdraw and avoid social activities (Cacioppo et al, 2010; Vanhalst, Luyckx, Van Petegem & Soenens, 2018), be less physically active (Hawkley, Thisted & Cacioppo, 2009), and have low levels of intrinsic motivation (Vanhalst et al, 2018).
· In a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials, learning a new skill showed the largest effect size in terms decreasing loneliness (Eccles & Qualter, 2021). Encourage your kids to try a sport, take a class, or join a club. Learning a new skill, particularly in a group setting, can provide the connection and stimulation they perceive to be lacking.
§ Physical activity can decrease loneliness, particularly if you are building relationships while engaged in the activity (Pels & Kleinert, 2016). Team sports have always had an important role to play in wellbeing and they are needed now more than ever. Encourage team sports.
§ Creative outlets are great for kids who are struggling with self-expression and loneliness who are not overly athletic. Encourage band, choir, art club – any creative venture that has a social component.
· Intrinsic motivation is a drive that arises from internal goals where working toward and achieving the goals is naturally appealing to you; it is also the most important and effective type of motivation. However, when we’re lonely, this type of motivation is low for a host of reasons. Keeping this in mind, the teens in your life might not seek out new opportunities they otherwise would find enjoyable. While fostering independence is an important goal, communication from schools, sports teams and clubs, and other extracurricular opportunities needs to include parents to help kids who are avoiding opportunities.
· Interventions to address loneliness are more productive when they are promotion-focused rather than prevention-focused (Vanhalst et al, 2018). Essentially, the distinction is this: Do you play to win or play not to lose? Although this takes some creativity to align with the deficit in intrinsic motivation, it is possible. Talk about what kids have to gain from engaging in activities, tell them the benefits in their life now and in the future, help them set goals to achieve and benchmarks to work toward. Administrators might be wise to evaluate health and engagement promotions.
Sleep dysregulation is common among lonely youth. Kids are experiencing poor sleep quality and daytime sleepiness (Matthews et al, 2017)
· Recognize the impact of tech use on sleep. Both teen technology use, generally, and the experience of being awoken by cell phones, specifically, is positively correlated with shorter sleep duration, waking unrefreshed, and daytime drowsiness (Johansson, Petrisko & Chasens, 2016). Limit tech use prior to bedtime and plug the devices in outside of the bedroom. That might mean springing for an old school alarm clock.
· Rumination plays a large role in the connection between loneliness and sleep dysfunction. It goes like this: When you’re lonely, you tend to ruminate; when you ruminate, you get less quality rest (Zawaclzki, Graham & Genn, 2013). Rumination is replaying a thought and dwelling on problems. It takes a stressful thought or event and, through constant repetition, can create a chronic stressor. Here’s where social support (and possibly cognitive therapy) comes in. When we feel more supported socially, we can decrease rumination. Encourage face-to-face communication and allow kids to share their stressors with you or journal. Help identify stressors that cross into rumination and help them cope with the stress rather than replay the stressful thought. Seek out a treatment provider skilled in CBT if these thoughts persist or disrupt functioning.
Emotional regulation is a constantly evolving skill set and chronic loneliness throws a wrench in the learning process. We know loneliness makes stressors feel more severe, and response to uplifts less pronounced (Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2010). Here are ways to help with emotional regulation in a time of loneliness:
· Stress related to loneliness is often responded to with passive rather than active coping (Cacioppo & Hawkley, 2003), which means that your body is responding to the stress through autonomic activity. For example, your blood pressure will rise, whether or not you act behaviorally on the stressor. This explains the high correlation between loneliness and cardiovascular issues. Help your kids learn active coping strategies like breathing or exercise to help them deal with their stress rather than internalize. Find a trained professional to help kids establish skills if this is a struggle.
· Loneliness can be addressed by decreasing irrational, self-defeating, and self-blaming thoughts, especially by use of cognitive behavioral therapies and mindfulness skill training (Ypsilanti, 2018). Encourage mindfulness practices.
· Talking, even what we consider “small talk” can have a big impact. Just 30 seconds of uninterrupted, face-to-face conversation with another person can make us more connected, happier, and healthier (Pinker, 2015). If you are a parent or teacher who wants to check in with your teen, engage them in direct communication for at least 30 seconds.
The effects of loneliness are real but, fortunately, there is help out there. If you are struggling, reach out to a health professional you trust. If you are in crisis, reach out for help 24/7 at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline @ 1 (800) 273-TALK (8255) or text HOME to 741741.