Depression in Teens: The Warning Signs and How to Help Them Through

Depression in Teens The Warning Signs and How to Help Them Through

One of the things that can make depression so difficult to recognise is that the symptoms can be things we all struggle with from time to time – sadness, hopelessness, lethargy, lack of engagement. When these very normal human experiences happen in a combination, duration or intensity that start to interfere with day-to-day life (school, relationships), it’s possible that depression might be waving a heavy hand over your teen.

During adolescence, the rates of depression skyrocket. According to the World Health Organisation, depression is the number one cause of illness and disability in adolescents. But there’s something else. Research shows that in half of all adults who have problems with their mental health, their symptoms showed up before age 14. Three-quarters had symptoms by age 24. This puts flashing lights around the importance of noticing when our teens are struggling and making sure they get the support they need. The earlier symptoms are caught, the easier it will be to stop those symptoms expanding into something bigger and more difficult to shift.

What are the symptoms of depression in teens to watch out for?

For a diagnosis of depression, a particular cluster of symptoms needs to have been there for at least for two weeks. These symptoms must include at least one of either a depressed mood, or a loss of interest or pleasure in things that were once enjoyable. Many times these will just be a normal part of adolescence and nothing at all to worry about, but if depression is happening, there will be other telltale signs. Here are some to watch out for:

  1. Happiness, anger, indifference – the many faces of depression.

    Depression doesn’t always look like sadness or withdrawal. Some of depression’s classic disguises are:

    •  Anger or irritability.

    Depression often comes with lethargy, pain and/or hopelessness. Understandably, this can make people angrier, more irritable or more impatient than usual.

    •  Happy, but reluctant to spend time with friends or family.

    It’s takes a huge amount of strength to move through the day with depression hanging on. If your teen has depression they might use this strength to put on a happy face, but where there is depression, there is also likely to be increasing withdrawal. It’s very normal for teens to withdraw from family activities – it’s part of them experimenting with their growing independence. The thing to watch out for is if they withdraw more from friends and spend more time on their own than usual.

•  Indifference.
Depression doesn’t just steal happy feelings. Sometimes it can steal all feelings, which can make people seem flat or indifferent. In teens, it can be difficult to tell whether their indifference is just a normal part of adolescence or whether it’s something more. It’s not at all unusual for teens to seem more indifferent and there’s a good reason for this. Dopamine is the chemical that creates the feel-good when we get something we want, and in teens the baseline levels in the brain are lower than they are in adults or children, creating a sense of flatness. There is a way though, to tell the difference between normal adolescence and depression. Watch out for what happens when your teen does something that feels good or when they get something they want. When adolescents do something that feels good, the dopamine levels are higher than they are in adults, so the feel-good feels better. In depression, this doesn’t happen. There is a constant sense that nothing makes a difference, and the flatness or indifference doesn’t shift even when they are doing something that they would normally have enjoyed.

  1. Pulling back from people and activities that were once enjoyable.

    Depression takes away the sense of enjoyment from things that were once enjoyable. Watch out for your teen cancelling plans or making excuses to avoid the things they once wouldn’t have missed. 

  2. Tiredness, lethargy, exhaustion.

    Depression is exhausting and can make people more tired than usual, even if they seem to spend more time sleeping.

  3. Depression hurts, literally.

    Depression is a physical illness, so sometimes the symptoms will show up physically. Watch out for unexplained headaches and migraine, stomach aches, back pain, joint aches and pains. Mood and pain share the same pathways in the brain and they are regulated by the same brain chemicals (serotonin and norepinephrine). When the balance of these neurochemicals is out, pain and mood might both be affected. 

  1. Giving up on things that are important.

    The hopelessness, helplessness and lowered self-esteem that come with depression might see depressed teens giving up on school, friendships, or other things that are important to them.

  2. Change in physical movements and speech.

    Depression can speed up movement (restlessness, agitation, fidgeting, pacing, leg shaking or hand-wringing), or it can slow down movement and speech.

  1. Fuzzy thinking, difficulty concentrating and remembering.

    As well as draining physical and emotional energy, depression can also take a swipe at mental energy. Teens with depression might have difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions. Slowed thinking might mean they take longer to collect their thoughts, which can show itself as slowed speech.

  1. Isolating from others.

    There’s nothing wrong with wanting some alone time, but when there’s a noticeable withdrawal, it might be a problem. This might be because being with people no longer brings joy (because nothing brings joy), or because fatigue, or having to put on a happy face when there is no ‘happy’ to hold it up feels too hard. Depression also has a way of convincing even the strongest of minds that they are a burden to those around them and that they are best keeping themselves to themselves.

  2. Change in sleeping habits.

    About 40% of young adults with depression have hypersomnia, which is excessive sleeping. Depression can make people oversleep, or wake earlier than usual and have trouble going back to sleep.

  1. Change in eating habits.

    Depression can create an emptiness that feels unbearable, and people might turn to food to try to fill the void. Eating habits can also change in the other direction, with people eating less.

  2. Change in grades.

    Depression brings fuzzy thinking, low energy and difficulty concentrating. All of this can make studying, listening and learning more difficult. The clue that this is happening will be a change in grades.

  3. Taking more, using more, doing more.

    Depression is more than sadness. It’s an inability to feel joy. This is confusing and frightening for anyone to feel, and as a way to find relief from that, or to distract themselves from their pain, teens might turn to all sorts of risky or addictive behaviour. They might be driven to do more of what has felt good before, or anything that helps them to feel – something. This might look like drinking, drugs, skipping school, gaming excessively, eating excessively or self-harm. 

  4. Self-injury.

    All of us can only push down big feelings for a certain amount of time before they start to push for attention. Physical pain and emotional pain share the same pathways in the brain. When emotional pain feels too big or when it stops making sense, self-harming can be a way to find short but needed relief from the heaviness that comes with depression. Teens don’t do this to manipulate or to control the people around them – they wish they could stop too. They do it to make the pain go away.

If you suspect your teen is depressed …

Depression is such a persuasive beast, and it can convince anyone it’s holding onto that nothing will make a difference. This hopelessness is a classic symptom of depression, and the very thing that gets in the way of healing from it. If you suspect your teen might have depression, the first step is getting a diagnosis so everyone knows what they’re dealing with. A doctor or mental health professional can help with this. Depression doesn’t always need medication, but it might. Having the support of a loving adult will be important for any teen who is trying to find their way through depression. If that supportive and loving adult is you, here are some things you can do to help your teen strengthen and heal:

  • Help them find ways to connect with other teens.

    Healthy friendships can be comfort and protection against the messy times that can come with adolescence. The problem can be finding these friends. School isn’t the only source of friendship. In fact, sometimes school friendships can be a huge source of sadness, fear and hurt. If your teen is struggling with friendships at school, it’s easy for them to be drawn into believing that it will be like this everywhere, but it won’t. Explain that school comes with different pressures and different problems that won’t be found in other environments. There will be people out there who would love to know your teen. Their tribe is out there, but sometimes they might have to look beyond the school ground to find them. Encourage your teen to try activities or join groups to expose themselves to people who share a more similar view of the world than the people at school. Some ways to do this are through sport, drama, music, part-time jobs, art classes, cooking classes. This might not be easy – depression drains energy for everything. Point out to your teen that it’s not necessarily about the activity, but about expanding their opportunity to find the people who will love being with them – and for certain those people are out there.

  • Meditation and exercise.

    Recent research has found that depression can be reduced by up to 40% in two weeks through a combination of thirty minutes of mindful meditation and thirty minutes of exercise (treadmill or static bike), twice a week. Encourage your teen to try anything that will get his or her heart pumping. If they’re depressed, they might not be jumping at the opportunity to exercise. It’s part of what depression does, so you might need to be a bit creative – let one of their chores be to take the dog for a walk, take a sibling to the park to kick a ball, or to walk with you at night-time to keep you company. For the meditation part, the Smiling Mind app is a free app that has guided meditations for teens. It’s an easy and no-hassle way to get started with mindfulness, which has been proven by a mountain of research to be helpful with depression.

  • And while we’re on apps …

    A collection of 13 apps developed by researchers from Northwestern University has been found to reduce depression and anxiety by up to 50%. 

  • Keep it real.

    Push against the ridiculous ideas of how they ‘should’ look by helping them to develop a healthy idea of what ‘beautiful’ means. The concept of beauty isn’t the problem, the definition is. Our teens are barraged with unrealistic and very narrow versions of what ‘body beautiful’ means. Help them to expand this, and to nurture a healthy body image by pointing out the many different versions of body beautiful that you see. This important for teen boys too.

  • When they feel heard they feel cared for.

    Teens, particularly girls, will connect listening with caring. They might not always listen to you, and that’s okay, but if they feel as though you aren’t listening to them, they might feel as though you don’t care. It’s easy to dismiss their worries or mood swings as part of the normal ups and downs of adolescence – and it absolutely might be – but it’s still important to let them know that you hear them, that you notice them, and that you’re there for them.

  • Reduce gaming time – let them game with friends.

    True, it might feel easier to catch a falling star in a glass jar, but anything you do can make a difference. Research has found that teens who spend more than four hours a day gaming can be vulnerable to depression, but there is a way to turn that risk around – let them game with friends. Boys who spend time gaming with friends, or those who are connected to friends either online or in real life appear to be protected from the depressive effects of heavy gaming. Girls who spend a lot of time gaming and who are socially active online are less lonely and less socially anxious, but they also show lower self-esteem. The reason behind your teen’s gaming is important. Researchers suggest that if it seems to be an attempt to ward of loneliness or to cope with the world, it might be time to step in to reduce the time spent at the console. Otherwise, if it’s a way to socialise or to connect with others, either in person or online in interactive games, there’s less likely to be a need for concern.

  • Every day say something positive, and find something positive in everything.

    Even when teens mess up there’s gold in there somewhere, but they (you) might have to work hard to find it. Whether it’s about the way they come to you for advice or to download, whether it’s the way they learn from their experience, or that they didn’t pick a worse choice – there will be something. Try to say something positive every day, even if they don’t seem to take it in. Depression gives teens plenty of reasons to feel ‘less than’, so it’s important to protect them by pushing back against it whenever you can. 

  • Be available, but not intrusive.

    As little people, children turn to their parents for comfort and protection when they scrape against the hard edges of the world. As teens though, they are driven by the very important developmental goal of separating from parents and family. There can often be pressure (from inside of themselves or outside), to deal with things on their own, or at the very least without their parents. This can be tough for everyone. Finding the balance between holding them close and respecting their need for autonomy and independence isn’t easy, but it’s so important. Let your teen know they can talk to you about anything at all. When they do, listen and absorb whatever they tell you, even if it’s shocking. The more they can feel you as a strong, steady presence through their turmoil, the more they’ll trust that you can be there for them, even when things are messy.

  • All of their feelings are okay.

    Feelings that don’t get felt or expressed cause breakage. All feelings are valid and they are all okay to be there. It’s never feelings that cause trouble, it’s the way they are dealt with – or not dealt with. When feelings are pushed down or ignored, they’ll sprout little roots and they’ll grow. If teens don’t feel safe enough to feel anything they’re feeling – angry, confused, scared, guilty, jealous – the risk is they’ll cut themselves off from one feeling, then another and another. When they cut themselves off from bad feelings, it becomes easier to also cut themselves off from the good ones. 

  • Be available on their terms.

    Depression can be relentless, convincing people that they aren’t worthy of love or worthy of the fight. Your teen might crave company and someone to talk to, but at the same time push everyone away. Anything you can to do let them know that you’re there for them on their terms will be important. Some ways to gently do this are by sitting with them and watching whatever they’re watching on tv, or popping into their room just before they fall asleep – it’s often a time when they’re feeling safe and bundled away from the world, and when they might give you a little window into theirs. 

  • Know their ‘normal’.

    There are so many different versions of normal. Your teen’s version of ‘normal’ will change during adolescence, but the more you can get a handle on whatever their ‘normal’ is – feelings, behaviour, habits – the quicker you’ll get a feel for when something is off. This can be particularly difficult during adolescence because they’re changing so much, but trust your instincts. If you’re in doubt, ask. ‘I notice you’re sleeping a lot lately. Do you feel as though you are?’ If they say it’s fine, trust it for a while. If it feels like things aren’t fine, be open to the possibility that you’re absolutely right. Trust your intuition and continue to be gently curious.

  • You don’t have to fix them.

    See them and notice them but remember that you don’t have to fix them. None of us like feeling as though we’re a problem that needs fixing, which is how it can feel when people jump into problem-solving mode, even when it’s done with the most loving intent. Instead, listen with an open heart and an open mind and without judgement. Create opportunities for your teen, but express them incidentally and without expectation. Rather than, ‘You know if you exercised you’d probably feel better,’try, ‘I’m taking the dogs for a walk a little bit later if you want to come.’

And finally …

Adolescence is a time of massive change, which can be confusing for teens and the people who love them. Adding to the confusion, ‘normal’ teenage behaviour and signs of a mental health struggle can look the same. Changes in sleep and eating patterns, moodiness, pulling away from family, irritability – these can all be a very normal part of adolescence, or they can be symptoms of depression. It’s important to let your teen pull away when they need to. The push for independence from family and parents is a really important part of adolescence, but it’s also important to stay gently curious, vigilant and available. The more we notice when those we love are struggling, or the more we listen to the heart whispers when something isn’t right, the more empowered we are to respond in a way that can heal and strengthen.

63 Comments

Jackie

Hi,
My 14 year old son was acting strangely after the first lockdown and was saying he was with a friend and was out a lot. I was suspicious and looked at his photos on his iCloud and discovered he had been smoking grass and hanging out with an older bunch of kids. When I confronted him he got upset and said he was depressed. He had been googling depression on his laptop…
I called the doctor who spoke to him and she said he was suffering from depression. I contacted a counselor and he went once but said it didn’t help. He has a girlfriend now and seems to need to see or speak to her all the time. We are now in the second lockdown and he is struggling to focus on school work too.
I am not sure if he’s depressed again or this is normal teenage behaviour? He’s been very strange about eating and been ‘sick’ a few times lately after dinner.

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Angie

I feel for you. Over the past month, my 15 year old son has changed a lot. Answers questions with one word, behaves robotically, isn’t interested in video games, when they were previously his main source of fun. Not sure how to address it. He keeps his thoughts and feelings very gaurded.

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Naomi G

My son is 18 and should be gratuating from HS in may. He seems to have no interest in school. I mean he is not even trying. He played football…which is his dream. He has recently changed his diet. He has gone from 225lbs to 180. He does not seem to be focused and he foregets a lot. When he was 14 he was diagnosed with depression, anxiety and OCD. Although since then he has gotten better, I am concerned now because he seems so withdrawn. I plan to find him a therapist to speak with. This should be one of the happiest times of his life.

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Faith

My 17 year old son has been having problems without us noticing. He started using drugs and alcohol and we never noticed. He dropped his grades and stopped all the sports he loved. He was once diagnosed with peptic ulcer at the age of 14 and he is always in and out of hospital. If the hand is not broken it’s the legs and he complains of headaches. The whole family thinks he wants attention and the father thinks beating him is the best. He was seeing a psychologist who never bothered to give me a call but gave him different types of medication. Now my son is in hospital because of alcohol abuse and is missing out on school. I am the only one visiting and talking to him. My husband says he will chase him away. He says he really want to change that’s why he went to sick for help. How can l help my son. Please help me.

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April W

Leave the sack of shit father who is beating him. You should love your son and want more for him than to have anyone physically abuse him. Get him out of that situation and into counseling. Normally, spouses that beat their kids beat their wives. Find a safe place to go and start over. Stick up for your son and go.

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Kristin

Please get his father away from him. Physical abuse is not the answer to any problem. It sounds like your family needs to be more understanding and supportive of your son. Your son is reaching out for help and your family sees it as attention getting. If his Doctor is not helping, get a new one right away. Please allow your son to open up to you about his feelings by being attentive and nonjudgmental. He needs love and support from you.

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Eli R

My best friend told me that his daughter has been sleeping more than usual since she started high school. I’m glad that you noted that teens who appeal to oversleep suffer from hypersomnia. I will advise my friend to consider going to a Counselor as soon as possible.

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yes

try to talk to him as much as you can by bringing up some conversation. try go out for walk together as family and bring some casual talks then slowly which can mention you guys love him and care about him no matter what.tell him to play games where you all sit most(if posiible shift his desk to common room where everyone can see him tell him that you guys will miss him when he goes to college so its better to be stay cozy).Junior year is stressful for every high school student give him confidence that you all trust him he will try his best whatever result he gets its fine.

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D

I was googling any article about teenage depression and found this. Good article. My son 17 yrs old started showing a few symptoms last year. He stopped swimming ( was in the swim team for 10 yrs) and triathlon. I never thought more about depression until last year it got worse. Recently refused to go to school. Was on therapy for 1 yr, no help. Changed him to different therapist and signed him up for group therapy. The new therapist recommended me to take him to psychiatrist – thinking my son falls in the category of depression. Psychiatrist presribed him for Prozac 10mg. So far okay with med. BTW he is also on Vyvanse for his ADHD. I also started giving him melatonin.My husband does not believe all of the symptoms. He thinks my son is manipulating us. I, myself so confused. My son does not look like sad, more like unfriendly and no interest in having conversation with family. He plays game on iPad literally for hours and hours. He looks normal and happy when he plays games.
Does not want to go out the house at all, other than school and therapy. Just with iPad in the room the entire time. He looks much calmer with med and Melatonin. Refuses even to do homeworks or study. He is junior year and make me so nervous to deal with this, especially with my husband who consistently saying our son is normal, just trying to manipulate. My siblings said the same thing, if he does not want to go to school, tell him to work or do something else. I can’t force him to do that. I truly believe he struggles with something. Feeling hard for no support from surrounding how to handle him. Every one against my thought. My husband and sibings try to convince me, he got depressed because of too much time on device. My argument is he burries himself in device because of the depression. What else can I do to help him come out from this situation?

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Helz

Hiya i believe in you what you are saying my 17 year old son went to school if was a happy child since hes left secondary he passed few exams got himself a place at college doing computin which hes very good at he wasnt there long month if that he hated it because this twat was taking the micky out my son for bein so tall and skinny he got very upset about it all i went crazy with the school and that boy anyway my son will never go back hes got know interest in anything only his ps4 and online connection with his friends he sees them once in a blue moon he locks himself away in his room with his tv gaming stuff and only comes out for bit of food and a drink brings that uo to this room so i dont know what to do with him i feel for you really im in same boat how old is your son ?

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Mbuvi

I would love to hear how this progresses. My son is now 22 and from what the counsellor told me developed depression a few years ago. All of us in the family didn’t understand the problem. We thought he was merely unhappy over his college grades and wanted to drink for fun.

What puzzled me until I took him to a psychiatrist was that he would get drunk, even on stuff he had stolen from home, but on being confronted he would own up to having stolen for the purpose of getting high.

He has asked to be taken for a 3 month rehab course. I am hoping it will help him. He seems so distraught and unhappy, yet he used to be bright and happy in high school.

Your son’s issue resembles his so much.

I am a Kenyan based in Nairobi. I have three other children, all girls and doing alright.

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Melanie R

My almost 16 year old grandson has been exactly like this for at least 2 years….
It truly breaks my heart. I am soooo concerned for this dear boy. If you get any constructive answers Please forward to me. He lives across the country so we only get to see him a couple Times a year. He does want to fly to our home and visit for 10 days this summer so this does make me hopeful.
Thank you so much. PS. He is in counseling….. butNO medicine, which I think would be so helpful.

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Valerie

I hope you managed to get some help with your son. My 16 year old son is exactly the same. He’s currently waiting for therapy through CAMHS but due to Covid, this has all been delayed. He spends every day on an iPad, he can’t bare to be in the same room as any of the family which consists of me, his dad and his 22 year old brother. He has moments of guilt for the way he is but he’s very difficult to be around most of the time. He’s a sensitive, caring boy deep down. The only person he responds to is his grandma, she can be intolerant of his behaviour at times though but still he adores her and loves spending time with her. My 22 year old also surffers with mental health and is currently on 100mg of antidepressants and has counselling. He hasn’t worked for 2 years but he’s a lot more sociable and outgoing so it doesn’t affect him the same way as his brother. I long to live in a normal happy household but I don’t ever see that for our future. I feel like I constantly walk on eggshells around everyone in the house trying to keep the peace. I feel for all the parents on this forum, it’s really tough dealing with mental health and all the judgemental people who don’t understand. I really do hope there is a light at the end of this dark tunnel for the parents and the troubled teens. Best wishes to you all

Reply
John

Karen,
Thank you. Lots that resonates and constructive strategies for supporting my daughter and how to connect with her.

Reply

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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