Embracing Your Teens Sexual Orientation

130403133347-young-lesbian-couple-bed-horizontal-large-galleryWhen I worked as a high school mental health counselor, I worked with a lot of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teens who struggled with telling their parents about their sexual orientation.

Many of them felt like they had to keep their sexual orientation a secret which of course caused them a lot of anxiety and even depression.  Most of all, they were terrified of not being accepted by their family.

Some of them were so scared that they would be disowned by their parents that they contemplated suicide. This was especially true when the youth came from a really religious family/background.

Luckily none of my students ever went this far, but I did help do grief counseling at a high school after a teen committed suicide due to the guilt and fear he felt about being gay and not being able to come out to his parents.

Some  of the teenagers I worked with turned to drugs and alcohol to deal with their feelings. while others turned to self-injurious behaviors like cutting themselves or acted out behaviorally (running away, skipping school, etc.).

Whenever I could, whenever a teen was ready to come out, I always encouraged them to bring their parents in for a family session. Many of them were too afraid to talk to their parents alone and wanted to do it in an environment where they felt safe.

Unfortunately this was something that rarely happened as many of the teens hadn’t yet worked up the courage to come out to their family.

However whenever it did happen, I always discussed the session beforehand with the teen so that there would be no surprises.

I wouldn’t tell the parents anything the teen didn’t want me to tell them, and I always encouraged the teen to lead the conversation while I would be there primarily as guidance and support.

Most of the parents who came to these family sessions already had some clue that their child wasn’t heterosexual. Many more were in denial. Luckily only a very few were visibly upset or angry.

What I wanted the parents to understand is that they didn’t make their child gay nor can they make them not gay.

This was especially true for male students. Sometimes a single mother would blame herself for not making her son “a man” or the father would blame himself for not being “tougher” on his son.

Parents do not make their children gay and “praying the gay away” or “reparative therapy” only works to temporarily change a child’s behavior at best, while risking permanent damage to  their self-esteem and mental health.

It doesn’t work.

Parents often feel angry, sad, and scared when they find out their child is gay. For many of them, they have to grieve over the loss of their ideal child. Maybe little Johnny is not going to marry Suzy and have 2.5 kids. Maybe Little Johnny will marry Billy and they will adopt 2.5 kids.

Many of them fear what their child will have to deal with from society on top of any other prejudices they may already be predisposed to (i.e, being Black and gay). It’s important that parents surround themselves with supportive people including support groups like Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG).

While it’s important for the parents to get support, it’s most important that the parents support their child.

The world can be tough enough for the LGBT community, but it’s even tougher for those whose parents reject them.

The teens I’ve worked with who fared the best mentally and emotionally were the teens whose parents supported them when they came out despite their own personal and religious views.

With the support of their parents it made it easier for them to deal with any other negativity they had to face such as depression and bullying. It also allowed them to blossom into the amazing young people they already were.

In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, being homosexual was once listed as a mental illness. We now know that it is not. It is not something to be cured or prevented. It doesn’t go away if we ignore it.

Get over it.

Embrace it.

Childhood Bullying Can Have Lasting Psychological Affects

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It’s back to school time again and while parents are gearing up and are excited about the new school year, I thought it would be a good idea to remind everyone about childhood bullying.

Often bullying is seen as a normal part of growing up, almost as a harmless rite of passage, but we have all seen what bullying can do to some children.Think about the stories that have been in the news such as the boy who committed suicide. In 12 of 15 school shootings in the 1990s, the shooters had a history of being bullied.

These of course are extreme examples, but countless studies continue to show that childhood bullying can cause long-term psychological damage in some individuals.

In a study published in JAMA Psychiatry, a network publication of the American Medical Association, victims of bullying had an increased risk for anxiety disorders and suicide later in life.

The study showed that for some individuals, even when they grow up and are no longer being bullied, the psychological damage is still there and can affect the rest of their lives. That’s why it’s so important to address and stop childhood bullying early in order to prevent future problems.

Kids Who Are Bullied Often Have:

  • changes in sleep and eating patterns
  • loss of interest in activities they once enjoyed
  • health complaints
  • decreased academic performance
  • higher risk of dropping out of school
  • a higher rate of family hardship
  • were 2.7 times more likely to suffer from generalized anxiety disorder
  • 3.1 times more likely to suffer from panic disorder
  • 4.6 times more likely to suffer from agoraphobia
  • had increased risk for depression

Bullying doesn’t just affect the victims either.

Kids Who Bullied Were:

  • 4.1 times more like to end up diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder (which can lead to increased risk of incarceration and delinquent behavior)
  • Abuse alcohol and other drugs in adolescence and as adults
  • Get into fights
  • vandalize property
  • drop out of school
  • Engage in early sexual activity
  • Have criminal convictions as adults
  • Abuse romantic partners, spouses, or children as adults

What About Sibling Aggression?

While parents are usually alarmed to find out that their child is being bullied at school, they often dismiss the bullying that is going on right under their roof. Stopping bullying at home is just as important as stopping bullying at school.

While sibling aggression is often seen as harmless or even good in order to “toughen up” a child, a study done by the American Academy of Pediatric suggests that kids bullied by their siblings end up showing some of the same psychological damage as children bullied by their peers.

It is important that bullying to recognized and stopped early at school, at home and even online in social media when possible.

So as parents are getting excited about the school year, lets not forget to be on the lookout for or ignore childhood bullying. We have lost too many children  to the affects of bullying and are creating too many adults who are psychological damaged from what may have been seen as harmless behavior.

 

Signs Your Teen May Need To See A Counselor

Bored-teenage-girl-on-couch-jpgVery often I have parents ask me if I think their teen needs counseling. They will tell me about different behaviors they have observed and pretty much ask me if it is “normal”.

The advice I normally give is, if you think your teen needs counseling, they probably do. I have seen more instances of teens not receiving mental health help or receiving it once the issue has gotten out of hand, then I have of parents bringing their teens in for counseling when they are perfectly “normal”.

Don’t get me wrong, I have seen parents who have brought their teens in for counseling only for me to soon realize that it was the parent that actually needed help, and not their teen.

In any case, it never hurts to schedule a session for your teen if you think they may need help. A trained mental health professional will be able to tell you in a couple of sessions or so if your teen needs further help or if the issue extends further into the family system.

Some signs that your teenager may need counseling

  • Mood swings– Yes we all know that teenagers have mood swings. It is definitely part of that developmental age, but as a parent, you should have a general baseline of your teens mood swings. If their mood swings seem extreme or are way outside of your teens normal mood swings (too depressed, too elated, too labile, etc.) trust your gut, it may be worth looking into with a trained professional.
  • Self-medicating– Some teens will try to hide or control their issues, especially when they don’t understand why they think or feel a certain way. Many will turn to drugs, alcohol, sex, self-mutilation, or eating disorders just to name a few, in an effort to make themselves feel better. If you notice your teen involved in any of these things it’s almost a guarantee that they are trying to mask something else, that could be anything from low self-esteem to sexual abuse and it’s worth investigating.
  • Changes in friends– many times when a teen is suffering from a mental illness it will impact their ability to maintain healthy friendships. They may push friends away or become too clingy. You may see some of your teens friends start wanting to avoid them or your teens choices of friends may drastically change.
  • Changes in school performance– is another sign that your teen may be suffering from some form of mental illness. It’s generally hard to concentrate and focus when one is in a poor mental state and this can affect a teens grades and/or conduct.
  • Physical symptoms– if your teen suddenly starts to care less about their appearance, stops taking showers, gains or loses a lot of weight or starts complaining of psychosomatic symptoms like backaches, headaches or stomach aches, these are all possible signs that your teen is dealing with something they can’t handle alone.
  • Behavior changes– behavior like mood can change a lot during the teenage years, but for the most part, if you teens starts presenting as a totally different person to you then it may indicate either a mental illness or substance abuse issue.

Being a teenager is hard and most teens will try their best to hide their problems from their parents, which is why it is imperative that parents are attune with their teenagers. Today it’s even easier for teens to hide how they really feel through social media so parents have to be vigilant to monitor their social media pages as well in order to gain insight into what is really going on with their teen.

With the appropriate help, all mental and emotional issues can be treated and managed so if you  have to ask the question, “Is this normal”, chances are you should contact a qualified mental health professional for a further evaluation.

 

Parents Call Police When Discovering Their Teen Was Sexting

465702557When the parents of a 13-year-old 8th grader in Virginia discovered that their daughter was sending and receiving nude images of other teens on her tablet, they did what many other parents would do, they questioned their daughter and investigated farther. What they found concerned them enough that they did what many parents would not do, they contacted their local law enforcement agency.

What the parents found were sexual pictures of other teenagers (none of their daughter) and conversations going back and forth with other boys that they found were inappropriate for their daughters age.

“Everybody wanted to be her friend, because according to these people, she was cool now,” the teens mother said.

What also upset them were that older teens who they believe were 17 to 18 were requesting to have sex with their daughter. The parents contacted law enforcement to protect their daughter even if that meant she would also get in legal trouble for sexting.

“We did this now to protect her. For now and in the future, because this could get worse, she could be taken,” the teens mother said.

The teens involved in the sexting can face charges as severe as felonies for possessing child pornography.

While the mom acknowledges that many parents wouldn’t do what she did, she feels like she did what she had to do to protect her daughter from possible sexual abuse now and in the future.

A Couple of Quick facts about sexting

  • 40 percent of teenage girls do it as a joke, 34 percent do it to feel sexy, and 12 percent feel pressured to do it according to research.
  • Sending or receiving a sexually suggestive text or image to someone under the age of 18 is considered child pornography and can result in criminal charges.
  • Sexting is defined by the U.S. court system as “an act of sending sexually explicit materials through mobile phones.” The messages may be text, photo, or video.10. In the U.S., 8 states have enacted bills to protect minors from sexting, and an additional 14 states have proposed bills to legislation.

Someways parents can help prevent sexting is by having conversations with their teens, monitoring their electronic devices and using parent controls.

What would you do if you discovered your teen has been sexting? Would you be willing to contact the local authorities as this mother did?

Co-Rumination: Talking Too Much Can Lead To Depression And Anxiety In Adolescent Girls

4164756091_80f19ce3e2_zFor the most part, adolescent girls talk more than adolescent boys.  They just do. Little girls generally start talking sooner than boys and even as children are able to verbalize and express themselves much more efficiently. This ability to communicate has many advantages, especially in helping develop social-perspective taking skills (the understanding of other peoples thoughts, motivations, feelings and intentions).

Females are generally more gifted in the area of social-perspective skills which have great benefits including greater quality of friendships, better ability to get along with others, to show empathy and to be great caretakers. However, there is a downside to having well-developed social-perspective taking skills, including what is called co-rumination.

Co-rumination refers to extensively talking about and revisiting problems, focusing on negative feelings and speculating about problems with peers. While it is usually healthy to talk about problems, co-rumination generally focuses more on the problems themselves (especially negatively) and not on actual resolutions and therefore can be maladaptive.

Adolescent girls with good social-perspective skills are more likely to co-ruminate because they find it easier to talk to and relate to their friends about their problems and to understand their friends negative feelings about the problems. This type of understanding breeds closeness.

A  problem with co-rumination is that it exposes the person to their friends problems, worries and negative affect repeatedly which can lead to empathetic distress. Empathetic distress is feeling the perceived pain of another person. Which means not only does the youth have their own problems, they are also taking on the problems of their friends.

When I worked in the high school I would be amazed at how teenage girls would take on each others problems so much so that you would think it were their own. Some would see this as an endearing quality, but much of it was definitely dysfunctional. Sometimes the amount of enmeshment would almost seem pathological. Some teens would find it hard to concentrate because they were so worried about their friends problems even when in all reality, it had no impact on them.

I would listen to them discuss the same problems with each other over and over again offering no real resolutions, but instead harping on and internalizing them in ways that were more detrimental than helpful.

As a counselor, I would encourage problem solving and positive thinking. I would try to help them understand that their friends issue isn’t theirs as well as try to help them understand disclosure. Many teenagers today, in part thanks to social media, share way too much personal information with each other without understanding the impact it may have later.  Not understanding personal boundaries and disclosure is a crucial part of co-rumination and  both rumination and self-disclosure have been linked to increased anxiety.

Girls in friendships with a lot of co-rumination often view their friendships as high quality because there is a lot of understanding and empathizing, but there is often also a lot of internalizing of problems which leads to negatively and has been shown to increase the risk of anxiety and depression.

Boys on the other hand generally do not socialize and c0-ruminate as much as girls do. The trade off is that while they may be more protected from empathetic distress, they are also less likely to have high quality friendships. There must be a balance.

I also believe that the impact of co-rumination and empathetic distress affects people well into adulthood, especially those in enmeshed friendships or in the helping fields where we in some instances we call it secondary PTSD and burnout.

So what do we do with this information?

It’s hard to curtail co-rumination without discouraging social-perspective taking which also has very high and much needed benefits. One solution is to help the individual understand and balance their concerns for other people with their own needs. Helping an individual learn what is their problem, and what is not their problem also helps to start separating some of the negative affects of co-rumination.

Also, focusing on the positive would help a lot. Many young girls focus on and talk about their problems way too much and internalize them instead of resolving them which only makes them feel worse.

I’m not discouraging talking about problems or young girls talking to their friends about their problems, but there is certainly a healthy and unhealthy way for young girls to discuss, think about and solve their issues without ruminating and falling victim to empathetic distress.

Study Links Shows Like 16 And Pregnant To A Drop in Teenage Pregnancy

Unhappy Baby and MotherThere have been times I’ve been critical of shows like 16 and Pregnant because I thought that they glamorize teenage pregnancy by exploiting the teenage girls on the show and even making celebrities out of some of them.

Having worked in a high school in the past with a fairly high rate of teenage pregnancy, I knew that teenage pregnancy wasn’t glamorise at all. All of the girls I worked with in the high school who became pregnant eventually dropped out. Some dropped out only to have another kid a year later.

In my article Young, Poor and Pregnant I discuss some of the downsides of programming like 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom, but a new study called “Media Influences on Social Outcomes: The Impact of MTV’s 16 and Pregnant on Teen Childbearing” which was written by Melissa S. Kearny of the University of Maryland and Phillip B. Levine from Wellesley College, found that 18 months after the shows introduction, teen birth rates actually dropped 5.7 percent in 2010. According the New York Times, that 5.7 drop is an estimated 20,000 teenage births prevented.

The study also showed that using Neilson ratings, in areas where the show was highly popular, the rates of teenage pregnancies declined the fastest.

During their study, the authors found that search engine searches and tweets about  birth control and abortion grew significantly after the show was introduced. While I have written about some of the negatives of the show, I was surprised and happy to see that it had benefits that show that teenage girls aren’t as brainwashed and reality TV obsessed as some of us adults like to think. In fact, the study shows that many teenage girls can look at shows like this and not glamorize it, but recognize that they don’t want their lives to be as complicated, crazy or hard as most of the teenage moms on the shows.

One of the benefits of shows about teenage mothers is that they discuss an issue that is often shied away from and more accurately show the true effects of being a teenage mom, better than any sex education class or most lectures could. No one is totally crediting shows about teenage moms as the sole reason for the decline in teenage pregnancy. The rate of teenage pregnancy has been on the decline over the last 20 years and things such as the recession also bring the birth rate down.

However, what the show does do is make it more real so that teens can see that real teenage motherhood may not be the fairytale that they may imagine it will be (“now he will stay with me”, “I’ll feel more loved and supported”, etc.).  These shows alone aren’t enough to continue to prevent teenage pregnancy. There still needs to be good sex education and parental guidance. One potential negative of the show is that in the study there was a trend for teenage girls who watched the show heavily to perceive the teenage mothers as having easier lives and still have time to be a kid, which usually isn’t the reality. For the most part,  the one thing we can take away from this study is that teenage girls are more capable of learning from other teenagers mistakes than we may have given them credit for in the face of so much reality TV where the bad girls are celebrated and consequences seem few and far between.

How Your Teen Gets In Their Own Way And How To Help Them Stop Sabatoging Themselves

istock_stockphoto4u-1-teen-girl-hugging-knees-looking-sad-cWorking with teenagers for as long as I have, I realize that many of them come with various challenges, from emotional and educational challenges to family issues that seem to drag them down. However, in a majority of the cases I’ve worked with, the teens themselves are usually the ones who are getting in their own way of success and happiness.

They often don’t see it that way and will blame their family, their friends, their environment, any and everything, but themselves and it will take many sessions before I am able to help them realize that they themselves are indeed the cause of their problems through self-destructive and self-defeating behaviors and thus are also the answer to their problems.

Most people who have been around adolescence know that many times they get in their own way and do things that are self-defeating or self-destructive. Self-defeating behaviors are behaviors that get in the way of constructive action while self-destructive behavior generally causes some type of harm to the person.

In early adolescence for example, teens often start focusing more on friends, fighting with their parents and other adults as they try to discover their own identity and may end up struggling in school in response to paying more attention to friends than to their grades.

During this time of conflict, (ages 9-13), it is common for certain self-injurious behaviors to start occurring, such as cutting as a way to deal with much of the psychological conflict and pain, especially with teenager girls while teenage boys may do things such as punching walls, getting into fights or destroying property even if it’s their own.

During mid adolescence, ages 13-15, friends are generally ultra important and so is being accepted by your peers. This is the age that teens are going to high school for the first time and can be overwhelmed by the pressure to fit in.

When a teenagers faces feelings of inadequacy about their self-image they may shy away from their peers and develop anxiety issues and/or depression or even self-destructive behaviors such as eating disorders and suicidal thoughts.

During late adolescence, ages 15-18, teenagers may engage in self-defeating behaviors that include more risk taking such as drugs, alcohol, and sex simply for the excitement of it and not considering the dangers that can happen.

This is the age that I worked with the most to either help them stop drinking or using drugs, or to help them with issues surrounding sex including pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and even rape.

As someone who has worked with teens for a long time, it can be very frustrating to see a young lady with endless potential, waste it because she wants to be liked by her friends or a boy or she doesn’t like herself. The same rings true for many of the young men I worked with who were more concerned about having a  “tough guy” image, than actually doing something positive with their lives.

Parents indeed find this self-defeating and self-destructive behavior frustrating, but what can they do? Often times teenagers are too defensive to actually take and listen to advice from their parents so parents often would bring their children to me and then wonder what it was about me, or what did I say that got through to their teenager that they couldn’t and I would always tell them that they had to practice objective parenting.

They had to work on not telling their teenager what to do and think or what not to do or think, to not judge, but instead simply draw conclusion between their choices and the consequences of their choices in an empathetic and objective way, and then let their teen decide to either continue the behavior or to try something different.

This is often hard for parents to do because they would like to control their teenagers choices, but they can’t. They have to allow their teenager to make their own choices, however, parents can continuously attempt to put healthier and more constructive choices in front of their teenager for them to accept or not to accept.

The more healthy options you place in front of a teen, the more likely they are to accept at least some of them. As a therapist that is what I did. I would know that I wanted a teen to stop doing a particular self-destructive or self-defeating behavior, I would share my observations about what they are doing and what they are getting (or not getting) from their actions and then attempt to continuously give them multiple alternatives in hopes that they would try at least one.

For example, one teenage girl was obsessed with trying to get pregnant simply because she wanted a baby. I tried to help her see how having a baby would hinder many of her plans and goals for the future, but she didn’t really see that. I then gave her many other things she could be doing instead of trying to get pregnant and she finally decided to try one which is playing softball. She tried out for the team, made the team and two years later graduated from high school with a scholarship to play softball and never got pregnant.

While her mother thought I had worked some type of miracle (she was sure her daughter wouldn’t finish high school without getting pregnant) all I did was give her an opportunity to try something new and that ended up being self-affirming and she basically did the rest.

As a therapist, it is easy for me to be non-judgmental, to allow teenagers to continue making mistakes and learning from them while still giving them healthy alternatives until they finally realize that what they are doing isn’t working and are ready to try something different.

For parents, it’s hard for them to have that same amount of patience because the attachment they have with their teen makes it much more painful for them to witness their teenager continuously sabotage themselves by making poor choices. It’s very difficult for them to be as objective as I try to be.

Because this is very difficult for most parents to do, seeking help from a therapist is often the best solution, especially if the behavior is self-destructive such as cutting, suicidal thoughts, eating disorders, etc.

A book I recommend for teenagers who are constantly self-sabotaging themselves is How to Get Out of Your Own Way by Tyrese Gibson.