Once thought to be amongst the “best years of life,” many adolescents are struggling with the complexities of today’s fast-moving world. Not far behind are their parents
by Melanie Taussig
Note: In this piece, “parent(s)” are often referenced. For the purpose of this article, the word “parent” should be viewed as an interchangeable and inclusive term, which can encompass guardians or anyone else who is raising a child in a blended family or amid other unique familial circumstances.
School shootings. Bullying. Social media. These are just some of the issues at the forefront of the minds of parents and teenagers in 2019. For Brooks Witter it is quite literally just another day at the office. Mr. Witter is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Parental Coach in Boulder, Colo. He attests that the challenges of today are an aberration from when he first started practicing in the mental health field more than 20 years ago. “Anxiety for young people has ratcheted up in the time since I’ve been in practice,” he says. “The young people I see have so much information about the world in ways that were just not happening twenty years ago.” Mr. Witter describes the present day as “a very difficult time to come of age.”
At the coaching practice he runs, Mr. Witter and his team work with parents to nurture the parent-child relationship. In his role as a parent coach, Mr. Witter has seen his share of tempestuous relationships between parents and their teenage children, which can be compounded by mental health issues, the prevalence of social media, and problematic behaviors. We sit down on a warm August day to discuss teenage mental health, family dynamics, and how parents can nurture the relationship with their child.
Mental health issues in adolescents and the effect on family
Adolescence is a pivotal stage in human development; the brain is continuously growing and hormonal changes are occurring rapidly. It is an extremely demanding phase of life as teens are encountering stress from many different angles; socially, academically, and personal pressures. All of this can amount to teenagers being more prone to feeling depressed, anxious and, possibly developing other mental health issues. Heightened pressure can impact self-esteem and confidence levels. In addition, relationships and family dynamics can be affected.
When an adolescent experiences a disruption in functioning the entire family unit can feel the effect, which can lead to consternation for parents. Parents can feel helpless when they are unable to effectively communicate with their children. Contrary to how they may feel, Mr. Witter indicates parents actually have a great deal of power in these situations. He poses a fundamental question parents should ask: “How do you apply information [about your teen’s changing behavior] so that you as a parent can adapt to meet the challenges of the adolescent to the young adult phase of life?” This may seem a complex question but having clear answers can be helpful for the parent-child relationship. Mr. Witter explains that parents are able to be “constructive partners” in the relationship with their teenage children. This means supporting your teen to develop autonomous trust in making their own decisions while individuating themselves and finding confidence in their newfound independence. Mr. Witter explains that constructive partnerships start with healthy communication along with parents and teens understanding each other.
In his work, Mr. Witter references Family Systems Theory; the notion that the family unit functions as a system, analogous to the way an organization might function. “When one member of the system is doing something that isn’t healthy, it can be beneficial for the system to adapt to better understand that unhealthy behavior and address it accordingly so the system can function at a more optimal level,” says Mr. Witter. When a parent seizes the opportunity to be an active participant in the relationship with their teen, he or she can feel “empowered,” which can amount to positive interactions.
The modern family in the modern era
The idea of the family unit is continuously evolving. The image of a nuclear family that was once a staple in the 1950’s has emerged into many different pictures, which are more representative of current times. Mr. Witter explains that means working with a variety of different family scenarios including parents who are divorced and re-married, blended families, grandparents, and same-sex couples all raising children. “We don’t have a moralistic mold that we are trying to fit families into where everyone is going to look a certain way. That is some version of a standard that no longer functions. I don’t think it ever functioned,” says Mr. Witter.
Another aspect that has irrefutably changed with the times is technology. Advances in tech have greatly impacted the way people interact with each other. “For better or worse, everyone is connected to their gadgets,” Mr. Witter says. Technology has changed the way people receive and store information as well as how people are communicating. Navigating adolescence in a social-media obsessed world can be a challenge. Mr. Witter has observed the preponderance of social media to be overwhelming for teenagers. Contending with a culture consumed by tweets, likes, and photo editing, parents are interminably trying to keep up and learn how to effectively parent in this brave, new world. Contemporaneous to social media permeating society, there has also been an upsurge in mental health issues amongst teens. “Social media compounds issues of anxiety and that creates feelings of being trapped and hopeless,” says Mr. Witter.
The Internet has exposed children and teenagers to an adult world, which can have serious and potentially perilous consequences. As people are bombarded with information that is designed to captivate their complete attention, it can be particularly difficult for teens to digest the plethora of material. “The pace of information accumulation is quickening and we need to process much more information than ever before,” says Mr. Witter. There is no blueprint for how to process and disconnect from the abundance of online content that people are exposed to on a daily basis. The answer may lie in the notion of moderation.
Mr. Witter acknowledges there are “very valid and real” reasons for parents to be distrustful of the Internet but on the converse, he points out there can also be positive aspects of engaging with online social networks in a safe manner. Mr. Witter explains that it is possible to foster a sense of community within the confines of the Internet and there is opportunity to capitalize on some of the skills people use to traverse the online world. Online gaming is a prime example. While many parents may consider video games to be negative and monopolize valuable time, Mr. Witter says it is important to ask, “What is the function this behavior is serving [to the teen]? He explains that being part of an online gaming community can have value and may allow an individual to build positive attributes such as “collaboration, creativity, competence, and mastery.” Mr. Witter maintains that these talents “can connect with so many other things in life. You can use that context to promote the developmental skills that are necessary to grow into a young adult.”
Parental nourishment during stressful times
When Mr. Witter and I met at his office, located in the shadow of the Flatirons in Boulder, we obviously have no idea that the following day the United States would see yet another mass shooting, this time in El Paso, Texas. It is these very types of incidents that contribute to a great deal of fear and anxiety for people, particularly for parents. In a post-Columbine world, it is almost impossible for anyone, let alone a parent, to not consider the possibility of violence occurring at school. The conversation turns to the topic of school violence and Mr. Witter exhales, the weight of this subject very apparent. In addition to his role as a Mental Health Provider, Mr. Witter is a father and understands firsthand the immensity of talking about violence at school. It is a convoluted issue that has grave impact on both parents and children.
Mr. Witter acknowledges the apprehension that news of another mass shooting can evoke. He indicates the active shooter drills that children undergo at school can elicit feelings of anxiety and worry. Mr. Witter speaks about the importance of recognizing and being accepting of emotions from others. “Kids need a sense of their own safety in order to really maximize the opportunity of their development. Otherwise it can lead to severe anxiety, which over the long term creates traumatic responses. There is a lot to be said in the need to receive a kid’s anxiety,” says Mr. Witter. A parent taking on their child’s worry can elicit feelings of discomfort. While people tend to avoid such feelings, resisting authentic emotion [from another person] can be interpreted as invalidating. On the inverse, listening and acknowledging emotions from others can garner empathy. “How you respond in that moment [is of utmost importance]” says Mr. Witter. “Can you welcome that your kid is scared?” he asks. Receipt of emotion conveys acceptance and trust during moments of extreme insecurity.
Mr. Witter offers a course for parents, 7 Key Principles of parenting for a successful young adult launch. His course teaches effective methods to parent and meet the developmental needs of teenagers. Among the key principles in this course is use of the phrase, “Be a farmer not a carpenter.” The idea behind this adage is that a farmer cultivates a nurturing environment for crops; doing the best he or she can to foster and support growth. The carpenter, on the other hand, always has the final result in mind and works strategically to achieve an envisioned outcome. Mr. Witter cannot emphasize enough the importance of supporting your child to succeed in the way that he or she is naturally inclined toward, similar to a farmer nurturing crops. “Kids can flourish if they discover how to put into practice their passion and their talents,” says Mr. Witter.
Teenagers coming into their own
It is, indisputably, a vexing point in time to grow up and yet; millions of teens are doing just that. They are approaching adulthood in a world that is becoming ever harder to navigate. Teens are witnessing a great deal of discord amongst adults where little is getting accomplished. “It’s not solution talk, just problem talk,” Mr. Witter says. The schisms and division can be overwhelming for anyone, especially for young people who haven’t fully grasped their own self-identity. Many of the intractable problems of today may feel insurmountable to an impressionable teenager. “It can feel like the planet is careening towards a wall and nobody is at the wheel. The idea of becoming an adult in this world is not terrible appealing. [Teens today] have very few models for effective, positive, authentic leadership,” says Mr. Witter. “Adulting” is modern day term that has been used to describe an adult doing something that generally would be expected of a grown person. It is a term that has become popular with Millennials, perhaps because the notion of adulthood does not have the allure that it once did. Parents who have often raised children to be safeguarded from hardships at all costs may have aided this generational mindset adopted by Millennials.
Protecting children is probably one of the most innate desires parents have. However, explains Mr. Witter, allowing children and teens to make mistakes and to fail is vital. Experiencing consequences and learning how to take accountability amounts to building character and grit. When parents rush to solve their child’s problem(s) because they observe the child to be experiencing extreme frustration, it deprives that child of developing the confidence to transcend challenges on their own. A parent stepping in to solve the problem can send a message of distrust to the child. These messages, albeit generally well-intentioned, can implicitly convey disappointment. Delivery matters when it comes to communication. Mr. Witter explains that elements such as tone, tenor, and body language can impact communication and be the source of misconstrued messages. He works with parents to express clear and authentic messaging with teens.
Communication is a critical aspect of healthy relationships. Mr. Witter encourages parents to look at the expectations they have of their children and how their own internal thoughts and messages are being transmitted. He explains the importance of positive reinforcement and suggests that parents try to highlight what their children are doing well. “I’m not saying that you can never be disappointed in your kid,” says Mr. Witter, “but if the majority of the relationship and communication [with your child] is defined by what your kid is not doing then you run the risk of programming a deep voice in your kid’s head that says ‘I’m never living up to the standards’ [of my parents].” Over time, that voice can have an insidious effect on a child’s self-esteem. Mr. Witter explains how crucial it is for parents to “check themselves and their own expectations and the hopes that they have for their kids. It’s important those expectations are clear and transparent to the parents as well as to their kids.”
The fact is that parents are going to make mistakes because it is human to do so. Rather than thinking of a parental slip up as failure, Mr. Witter says it can actually be an opportunity for children and teens to build resiliency. As challenging as it can be to “let go” when it comes to raising children in a precarious world, doing so is an integral part of healthy development. Mr. Witter understands this strife all too well but he aspires to foster a healthy emergence for his own kids where they can make mistakes, exercise their talents, and discover their fervors. “If you want your kid to flourish,” Mr. Witter says, “you really need to see them for who they are and understand they have interests, talents, and proclivities, that are unique to their own being.”
Parental Coach and Licensed Professional Counselor, Brooks Witter. Photo courtesy of Mr. Witter.