Adolescence is one of the most unsettling periods of development. Some young people appear highly susceptible to the pressures of growing up and yet others seem more resilient and largely unaffected. Over the past few years the relationship between psychological health and social support has come into sharper focus as more and more young people report symptoms of anxiety, depression and other psychological problems.
Social support is to do with the emotional and practical support a person feels they have available to them. This is not necessarily the same as having a lot of people around telling the person what to think and do. It is more to do with the quality of the contact the person has, whether there is a positive emotional connection and whether the support offered is good in terms of the coping strategies.
Quite a lot of research suggests that social support has an important protective role in stress and may in fact decrease the chances of illness resulting form stress. For adolescents this is important. Adolescents are highly susceptible to depressed moods with depression itself appearing to stem from a perceived lack of problem-solving skills, the thought processes of the individual and the perceived lack of social support.
Adolescent behavior is frequently associated with anti-social activities, yet more social behavior can be linked to peer acceptance and perceived social support. Emotional distress, aggressive and delinquent behavior, have all been linked to low self esteem and perceived low levels of social support. Perceived low levels of social support have also been associated with poor mental health, peer victimization and increased risk of suicide.
When asked, young people nearly always report having worries. In fact adolescents are great worriers and the content of what they worry about is varied. Concerns over school performance, making mistakes, criticism, dying and health just scratch the surface but are frequently cited. Girls fret more about body shape and weight and generally seem to worry more than boys, who themselves worry a great deal. In a study of 622 American adolescents, Kaufman (1993) uncovered concerns about self-esteem, parents’ health, dating, sexual relations and terrorism. In other studies, worry about drugs, alcohol and being bullied have been reported equally by boys and girls.
Children and adolescents rely on others to help regulate their emotional states. Ideally this comes from parents, but the sad fact seems to be that many parents and other adults are prone to teaching children rather poor coping strategies. Anxious adolescents lack the knowledge and skills required for effective coping strategies such as problem-solving. Adolescence is a time for development but it is also a time for sometimes excessive amounts of introspection, self-doubt and worry.
So it’s worth bearing in mind that the sometimes sulky, arrogant, dismissive and abrasive characteristics of young people is often little more than a thin veneer of defence, covering a lot of confusion and doubt; and (although they may deny it) a great need for predictability, stability and support.
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.