A health article by Dr. John Spitzer, pediatrician at Bronson Primary Care Partners.
With the stresses of everyday life and the lingering uncertainty in the world, it’s no surprise that teens feel disinterested and just want to ignore it all. But is it possible to invite them to discover other ways to relax and release certain tensions?
The laughter coming from the backyard catches my attention as I gaze out our kitchen window and watch the sun peeking through the clouds and blue sky. I can see the play structure while my son is standing in the tower talking to his friend Trevor, who is sitting at the bottom of the slide. Richie swings quite high after being pushed by Lauren, and Joe chases after Billy with a water gun as they circle the fortress (names have been changed to protect their privacy). It’s Saturday mid-afternoon and they’ve chosen to escape their ‘teenage’ world and dive into the playground, reminiscing and enjoying their days when they were much younger and n didn’t have to worry about the challenges of being in high school.
Teenagers face many challenges as they transition from middle school to high school. Not only do they wish for more independence as they seek out more activity, but more responsibility is also thrust upon them – both from parents and teachers. How well they handle the stresses of life can depend on many factors, including their temperament and personality; their past life experiences and the resilience they may have developed through those experiences; what activities they participate in and how busy they feel; their friendships and whether or not they feel supported by those relationships; and their family life and family support. Add to that that they begin to experience growth spurts, hormonal changes, and romantic feelings, and life can seem complicated.
Mental health problems
Anxiety can easily show up in teens as they try to navigate their teenage years. About 1 in 3 teenagers can be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder with symptoms that become significant enough to disrupt their daily lives. High expectations are one of the main factors that often lead to anxiety and mental health issues in teens. This can include the expectation to perform well, or to act, look, or “be” in a specific way. These expectations can be self-imposed, caused by parental pressure, or simply our American culture to succeed and be the best.
COVID-19 and uncertain future
Mental health has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has led to virtual learning and major uncertainty about their future (as highlighted in a recent New York Times article, titled 12 teens on what adults don’t understand in their lives). Additionally, a recent Washington Post article mentions the CDC’s concern about deteriorating adolescent mental health. In “A cry for help: ‘CDC warns of steep decline in mental healthMoriah Balingit said that “more than 4 out of 10 teenagers [report] they feel “constantly sad or hopeless,” and 1 in 5 [say] they contemplated suicide.
Social issues, war and violence
Additionally, our world continues to be complicated on social issues, which always seem to bombard our psyches. Poverty, homelessness and hunger affect not only developing countries, but also our own country. Other areas of concern include climate change, civil rights and discrimination, gender inequality and gender dysphoria, and immigration challenges. Today’s generation of children and teenagers are very socially conscious and want to make an impact in our world.
The war in Ukraine has affected us all. It is natural to feel empathy and sadness, especially for those who have family there. Schools continue to have closures and drills to deal with shootings, potentially causing emotional stresses perhaps not too dissimilar to the war in Ukraine. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to restrict our activities and regularly wear masks. It’s no wonder that going out in public can create a degree of stress and anxiety, even for us adults – so again, no wonder our teenagers feel this too.
Social media and the need to “fit in”
being connected to social media has its positive effects, but can also create huge negative energy. Teenagers today are highly connected and aware of what is going on, not only in the lives of their friends, but also in the lives of everyone around them and so many larger world events. Imperfections are all erased and “edited only for perfection”, the unattainable standard is crisp and clear. Appearances carry a lot of weight, to the point that it can be very distressing when the messages are negative or offensive to others, or a teenager is led to believe that everyone’s life is perfect.
With all these daily stresses and looming uncertainties, it’s no surprise that sometimes teens want to go to their rooms and work things out. They find safety in their chats and in posting how they feel. But is it possible to invite them to discover other ways to relax and release certain tensions?
More likely than not, there will be some resistance, as venturing into another activity can rock their boat. But with a little love, a little humor and teasing, maybe using words to stretch their imaginations, we can convince them to go on an adventure with us and enjoy nature, even if it’s only for a few hours on a Saturday afternoon. We may not have to travel far to experience wildlife here in our own home in southwestern Michigan. One of our nurses used to keep in our office a book about the different birds in our area so the kids could identify them when the birds passed our exam rooms and the kids could see them through the windows. . Try grabbing your camera or phone and capturing some of the birds perched on a branch or chasing each other as if they were flying and playing in their own backyard. Maybe go on a nature scavenger hunt with phone cameras.
What can we do? Where can we go?
- Kalamazoo Nature Center shares its mission statement, “A non-profit organization whose mission is to create relationships and experiences that welcome and inspire people to discover, enjoy, value and care for nature. KNC envisions a resilient community where all people have strong interconnections with the natural world.
- asylum lake is a 274-acre parcel owned by Western Michigan University, located between Drake Road and Parkview Avenue. It is home to several habitat types including oak savannah, grassland, forest, wet grassland, emergent marsh, shrubland, and two lakes. Birds fly around from time to time, so it’s good to have your camera ready.
- Kleinstuck Reserve is also a 48-acre nature preserve owned by Western Michigan University. As stated on their webpage, “This unique ecosystem includes upland forest, swamp forest, shrublands and marshes that are home to a wide variety of plants and animals. Some of Kleinstuck’s special features include a beautiful display of native wildflowers in the spring and a very diverse bird population. The property is open to the public for passive recreation and is used by WMU and other educational institutions for research and education.
- Celery dishes in Portage, as stated on their website, “is truly a ‘park within a park.’ A key part of Portage Creek Bicentennial Park, Celery Flats has two distinct settings.On the north side of Garden Lane, the Celery Flats Pavilion offers a lovely outdoor seating area, picnic tables, restrooms and an air station.The historic area of Celery Flats, with several relocated and restored buildings, is located south of Garden Lane.The historic area is the site of many community events and many of the buildings may be set aside for group use private.
- The Kal Haven Trail is, as stated on their website, “33.5 miles between Kalamazoo and South Haven in southwestern Michigan. The trail rests on an abandoned railroad bed built in 1871. The converted railroad trail winds through beautiful scenery including wooded areas, farmland, streams and rivers.
Consider getting the All Trails: hiking, biking and running app as a guide outside. I’ve found a number of other apps on my phone that help me find out what’s in my “own backyard.”
As the spring rolls approach and we find ways to get out and experience life, this could be an opportunity to bond with your teen and spend them in nature. A few hours away from home and disconnected from social media could release dopamine from that “feel-good” brain center. And who knows, this might just be the break the doctor ordered to help our kids regain their confidence, release tension and stress, and tackle that school project they wanted to complete.