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Should We Be Worried About Our Teenagers?

The stats around adolescent mental health point to a crisis, but are things really that bad?

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On a quiet January evening, David spotted the signs. His son, Ethan, a high school sophomore, sat at the kitchen table, his eyes glued to the light of his phone screen. Light flickered across his face, casting long shadows that seemed to echo the dark emotions hidden beneath his calm exterior. David’s worry deepened as he noticed Ethan’s furrowed brow and the slight tremble of his fingers as they scrolled.

Across America, similar scenes unfolded, largely unnoticed by those not directly affected. An alarming trend was emerging, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, indicating that 57% of U.S. teen girls and 29% of teen boys were grappling with pervasive feelings of violence, sadness, and hopelessness.

Ethan had become a living testament to this emergency, suffering in the digital shadows.

The Awakening

David, a 45-year-old project manager, had grown up in an era not dominated by online interactions but by face-to-face experiences—some harsh, but mostly benign. He remained unaware of cyberbullying until he noticed subtle changes in Ethan. His once talkative and energetic son was withdrawing, his moments of joy fading as the school year progressed.

The tipping point came one evening when David, trying to maintain a semblance of normalcy, asked Ethan about his day at school. Instead of the usual grunt or a casual “fine,” Ethan met the question with silence, his eyes welling up with tears that refused to fall. It was a quiet call for help that David could no longer ignore.

Determined to help his son, David revisited Dr. John Gottman’s research on emotion coaching. He realized it was time to shift from a dismissive attitude—a common but harmful response that downplays so-called negative emotions—to a more supportive parenting style.

Transformation into an Emotion Coach

Learning about emotion coaching, which focuses on understanding and validating a child’s feelings before engaging them in problem-solving and setting appropriate limits, David adapted his parenting approach. Their familiar kitchen table became the gathering spot for weekly emotional check-ins. These sessions focused on listening, guiding Ethan to solve problems, and setting clear boundaries as needed.

One evening, during one of their sessions, Ethan confessed something that shook David to his core. He’d been having thoughts of self-harm, a desperate escape from relentless cyberbullying. This revelation was a chilling echo of the statistics that now included his son: nearly 1 in 3 teen girls and a significant portion of boys like Ethan had seriously considered suicide.

This was a decisive moment. David intensified his efforts, studying adolescent psychology, brain development, and social dynamics to reconnect with Ethan. Dinner conversations evolved to include discussions about everyone’s emotional highs and lows, not just Ethan’s, making vulnerability and support a family affair.

Turning the Tide

Over months, the clear changes became evident. Ethan began to engage more with his family and showed signs of recovery from his emotional wounds. He was laughing more, his moments of darkness becoming less frequent and less intense. David’s commitment to understanding and validating his son’s emotions transformed their relationship and, importantly, Ethan’s outlook on life.

The story of Ethan and David, based on true events but with anonymized characters, is a microcosm of the broader challenges facing American families today. It underscores a painful truth: our adolescents are navigating an unprecedented mental health crisis, fueled by societal pressures and the online environment that we are only beginning to understand.

Yet, it also illuminates a pathway to resilience and recovery. Through genuine emotional engagement and a willingness to learn and adapt, parents can become powerful allies in their children’s mental health struggles.

In the digital age, where shadows lurk behind glowing screens, understanding and empathy can be the light that guides our youth. David’s journey from ignorance to advocacy is more than a personal victory; it is a clarion call to parents everywhere. Our children’s emotional health demands our attention, and our commitment can begin right at our own kitchen tables.

For parents feeling overwhelmed by the challenges their teens face, remember: start simple. Weekly check-ins, open dialogues about emotions, and validating your child’s feelings are small steps that can lead to profound changes. Begin by dedicating time each week to talk openly about feelings and experiences, and use resources like the Emotion Coaching by Dr. John Gottman or Gottman Parenting Teen products to guide your interactions. Your role as an emotion coach might just be the most crucial one you’ll ever play.



Fact Box: Adolescent Mental Health Crisis

Surgeon General’s Advisory: On May 23rd, 2023, the U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory highlighting the detrimental impact of social media on the mental health of American youth. The advisory notes that bullying on social media platforms has reached epidemic proportions.

CDC Report: In 2023, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported alarming mental health statistics among U.S. teenagers:

Teen Girls: 57% are experiencing high levels of violence, sadness, and hopelessness, significantly increasing their risk for suicide.

Nearly 1 in 3 (30%) teen girls seriously considered attempting suicide, marking a 60% increase from a decade ago.

1 in 5 (20%) experienced sexual violence in the past year, up 20% since 2017.

More than 1 in 10 (14%) were forced to have sex, up 27% since 2019.

Teen Boys: 29% reported extreme sadness and hopelessness, noting a worrying increase from statistics dating back to 2011.

LGBTQ+ Adolescents: Continue to face extremely high levels of violence and mental health challenges, surpassing other demographic groups.

Implications for Parents:

The U.S. Surgeon General and CDC data illustrate a growing epidemic of adolescent mental health issues among American teens. Parents are encouraged to become “emotion coaches,” helping adolescents navigate their emotional landscapes more effectively. This involves shifting away from the emotion-dismissing cultural norms and embracing a more empathetic and understanding approach to parenting.

Recommended Actions for Parents: 

Engage in regular emotional check-ins with adolescents.

Make family dinner time a daily routine, where each member shares their emotional experiences of the day.

Discuss and explore emotions openly to foster a supportive environment that encourages emotional growth and resilience.

Understanding Adolescents:

Adolescence is characterized by heightened emotional intensity and rapid mood swings.

Healthy adolescent development mental health involves exploring identity, relationships, and emotional boundaries.

By understanding these facts and implementing supportive strategies, parents can significantly mitigate the mental health risks faced by their adolescent children.

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Alexander Elguren wrote this article as part of Gottman Inc’s Editorial Team. The team is composed of staff members who contribute to Gottman Inc’s overall message. It is our mission to reach out to individuals, couples, and families in order to help create and maintain greater love and health in relationships.

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