Is Counseling In Your "Back-To-School" Supply List?

As a teen and family therapist, the number of clients I see increases during times of transition into school. August/September and December/January are the months when people tend to call in to schedule appointments for their teenager. Here are the top three reasons why. 

ANXIETY By far, the predominant reason why teens come into my counseling office is for help with anxiety. Anxiety can present itself in many forms, from panic attacks to social difficulties to school refusal, and sometimes extreme anger outbursts which can be mistaken as defiance. Most parents who bring their children in understand the difficulties of anxiety on an intellectual level and want to help their children cope with their emotions. So, what is anxiety about? Anxiety is a pervasive and intense belief that something fearful is going to happen. People struggling with anxiety may know that their fears are irrational, but they are stuck in ruminating thoughts and the emotions that come with them because they are so all-encompassing. Most people, when faced with irrational fears, believe that they should try to logic them away. However, neuropsychological research shows that this actually intensifies the anxiety, as it works against the way the anxiety centers in our brains function. When intellectualizing against the intensely stressful thoughts fails to work, avoidance then comes into play. Unfortunately, avoiding the feared situation only perpetuates the anxiety cycle. Counseling helps clients face the difficult and painful emotions through teaching them healthy coping techniques to cope with the anxiety. The goal of counseling is to empower clients to face difficult feelings and work through them, rather than to completely eradicate. Once they learn how to effectively coexist with the anxiety, the next step is to work through the internal narratives, or beliefs, that feed into the anxiety. This is a two-fold process that combines both compassionate understanding as well as reality and problem-solving skills. All these building blocks of therapy help clients move past avoidance into courageous living. 

DEPRESSION Another demographic I often see is clients struggling with depression. Depression often manifests with a constant desire to sleep and be alone, along with an overall sadness and lethargy. In some cases, there are thoughts of suicide. Depression causes a person to feel an overwhelming sense of worthlessness and hopelessness. It’s been said that depression is anger turned inward, but it actually stems from a subconscious attempt to numb out any strong emotion that feels painful. What ends up happening is that all the other emotions, such as joy and happiness and excitement, get numbed out as well. Times of transition tend to be triggering events for anxiety and depression in teens because of the natural flood of emotions that come with change and uncertainty, coupled with the rapid brain change in growth and hormones of adolescence. In a society that tends to gear towards “pulling one up by their bootstraps” and fixing things, emotions can be seen as hindrances to rather than indicators toward growth. Therefore, much of the beginning process of depression counseling, centers around understanding a client’s personal experience with their spectrum of emotions, as well as understanding the overall purpose and nature (i.e. non-permanence) of them. The rest of the steps are similar to anxiety counseling and emphasize compassionate understanding of unhealthy internal thought processes alongside empowerment to work towards a realistic and healthy belief system. The counseling process works toward helping clients build resilience and ability to experience pain, and, therefore, experience joy again as well. 

BEHAVIORAL ISSUES Most of the behavioral issues that bring teens into the counseling office actually stem from anxiety and depression. The most common that I see are self-harm, drug and alcohol abuse, and eating disorders. The common thread with all these, however, is that there is an addictive quality to them. Although they may start out as unhealthy ways of coping with a mental health illness, the behaviors themselves become maladaptive and perpetuate a negative cycle. Because of this, the addictive nature of the behavior needs to be addressed first, before working through internal narratives or before the addition of healthy coping mechanisms can be effectively implemented and understood. This is a key example of how beneficial it is to have a collaborative partnership with other practitioners who are better suited to work with particular demographics. 

Here at Watershed Initiative, we have highly skilled and personable counselors who are trained in a variety of specialties. If you find yourself or your child struggling, don’t lose hope. We are here to help. 

Written by: Jenny Wang, MABC, LPC-S

Here are a few links to help you if your child is currently working through anxiety, depression or behavioral issues:

A checklist of how to partner with your school to best support your child: 

A Back to School Toolkit to help you identify mental health struggles in your teen before it gets to crisis mode: 

Photo Credit: Element5 Digital