Posted by Marlie Standen on March 12, 2020
Written by Marlie Standen, MSW, RSW.
My appreciation for the importance of counselling during adolescence ironically stems from my experiences working with adults struggling with addictions and mental health.
As I work with people through the recovery process, I notice that many adults have a common experience which I’ve come to understand as grieving for their younger selves. During recovery, adults often discover some long-held negative and harmful beliefs about themselves, others, and the world that have caused them suffering and that has negatively impacted their wellbeing and quality of life. This grief often emerges when exploring concepts such as self-compassion, healthy boundaries in relationships, or nourishing self-care practices.
While people feel hope for their futures as they learn these important concepts, they also feel sadness as they realize they’ve spent so much of their lives not knowing these foundational coping skills and self-care practices that promote wellbeing.
It is through being with people during this experience that I came to clearly see the proactive and protective value of therapy during some of the most formative years of one’s life- adolescence.
In fact, 70% of mental health problems onset during childhood and adolescence, and those between the ages of 15 to 24 are more likely than any other age group to experience mental illness and/or substance use concerns (Government of Canada, 2006). When not responded to with adequate support and care, emerging mental health problems in adolescents can become more complex and having lasting negative consequences over the life course (Mental Health Foundation, 2020).
There is so much hope in knowing that the earlier we respond to warning signs of mental health problems, the more positive the outcomes. Therapy and counselling can lay the foundation for resiliency in teens and help to prevent more serious, lasting problems from developing. Beyond preventing mental illness and responding to problems in adolescence, teen counselling more generally can promote healthy development and mental, social, and emotional wellbeing throughout the lifetime.
This time is characterized by rapid physical, cognitive, emotional, sexual, and social changes. While it can certainly be confusing, overwhelming, and even tumultuous, it can also be exciting and full of potential and positive change.
Dr. Dan Siegel summarizes the ESSENCE of Adolescence with four key aspects of the developmental period:
The Emotional Spark,
Novelty-seeking emerging, and
The ESSENCE of Adolescence manifests as heightened emotions that put rational thinking to the test. There is a burning curiosity and a deep exploration of their self-identity, their relationships, and their world. As they seek independence from their parents/caregivers, they learn to navigate their relational world in new ways that can foster healthy social connection to others. Teens are beginning to truly explore and form who they are, how they make sense of the world, and how they choose to participate in their lives.
The changes in the teen brain are largely responsible for what we now know as the ESSENCE of Adolescence. Additionally, research on the adolescent brain helps us to understand just how impactful and beneficial counselling during this time can be. Dr. Dan Siegel, author of Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, identifies two major changes happening in the teen brain.
The first important thing happening is that the different regions of the teen brain begin communicating with one another much faster and more efficiently. This allows the brain to be more integrated and organized (Siegel, 2018).
The second change happening is that the brain begins specializing through a “Use It or Lose It” principle. This means that if we do something (let’s say, playing an instrument), it creates a pathway/circuit in the brain. If we do that thing over and over and over again (Use It), the brain becomes increasingly skilled at that thing. Likewise, if we don’t do something (speak a second language), the brain becomes less skilled, and perhaps even loses the capacity to do that thing. (Siegel, 2014).
We know that the adolescent brain develops in response to their experiences, and thus therapeutic counselling can positively affect the way that their brains develop. How teens learn to focus their attention, to respond and manage their emotions, and to relate to themselves and to others during adolescence can set the foundation for the rest of their lives.
I believe that teen counselling is about embracing the ESSENCE of adolescence and channelling their passion and curiosity to promote positive, healthy development.
Establish belief in one’s inherent self-worth, and develop positive ways of relating to oneself with kindness, compassion, and acceptance
Develop strategies for understanding, accepting, and regulating their emotions
Learn to establish positive and nurturing relationships with others that reflect healthy boundaries and mutual respect
Cultivate resilience: the belief that one can cope with stress and adversity and having the strategies and resources to do so
Smetanin et al. (2011). The life and economic impact of major mental illnesses in Canada: 2011-2041. Prepared for the Mental Health Commission of Canada. Toronto: RiskAnalytica
Government of Canada (2006). The human face of mental health and mental illness in Canada. Ottawa: Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada.
Pearson, Janz and Ali (2013).Health at a glance: Mental and substance use disorders in Canada. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 82-624
Siegel, Dan. (2014).Pruning, Myelination, and the Remodeling Adolescent Brain. Retrieved from https://www.drdansiegel.com/blog/2014/02/18/pruning-myelination-and-the-remodeling-adolescent-brain/.
Siegel, Dan. (2018).Integration: A Central Process in the Journey to Thriving. Garrison Institute. Retrieved from https://www.garrisoninstitute.org/blog/integration-a-central-process-in-the-journey-to-thriving/.
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