Today's guest blogger is Lauren Napolitano, Psy.D., a licensed psychologist on staff at Bryn Mawr Hospital and in private practice in Bryn Mawr.
Let me preface this article by stating that I'm writing this from the vantage point of being a psychologist and a parent. This is a complex question, and there is no simple yes or no answer.
In the inpatient psychiatry unit at the hospital, I frequently work with teenagers who are depressed and suicidal. I see teenagers who have taken overdoses, cut their wrists or necks, or attempted to hang themselves. Their pain is visible, severe, and palpable. If I weren't a parent myself, I might be tempted to fully blame the parents of these kids for their suffering.
As a parent of two daughters, however, I realize that there is a complex interplay between nature and nurture. My two daughters are wonderful and completely different from each other in many ways. Even superficially, one daughter has dark hair and dark eyes and the other has light hair and blue eyes. One daughter is happy go lucky, always laughing, and is the life of the party. She makes my job as a parent easy. My other daughter is gifted in ways that she can't quite yet understand. She is precocious, insightful, introverted and thoughtful. She is, like her mother, an over-thinker by nature. She is a worrier, a planner, and a perfectionist.
Based on their temperaments alone, it is clear that one of my children is prone to depression and anxiety and the other simply is not. Is it my fault that my children are different? Absolutely not. That's the genetic lottery system. But I do believe that it's my responsibility to understand their temperaments and parent them differently based on this.
If I parented my more sensitive, over-thinking daughter like her fun-loving sister, I would likely be pushing her into social situations that she would not enjoy. And if I treated my fun-loving daughter like her academically-gifted sister, she would never do her homework.
In my opinion, there are generally two types of temperaments in kids. There is the 'over-thinker' and there is what I call the 'zen thinker.'
Over-thinker: From a very early age this child is always thinking. At any given time, this type of kid is thinking about what they'd like to eat for dinner, how to get their homework done, how to get tickets to the Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards, and the recent YouTube video that made them laugh. Their mind is like a CNN newsroom – wired with one hundred TV screens with each screen portraying a different idea that is whirring through their brain. This kind of child is sensitive and caring, but tends to have a thin skin when it comes to interactions with others. For example, if an over-thinker isn't invited to a friend's party, this type of child will dwell on the rejection and feel that he/she isn't very likeable. This teenager, by virtue of the speed of their thoughts, is prone to depression and anxiety.
Zen thinker: This child's mind is calmer than the over-thinker's mind. This child's mind is wired with only one screen that is only plugged into the present moment. This child has the capacity to be fully engaged in the present moment without worrying about the future or obsessing about the past. This child has a thicker skin than the over-thinker. As such, if this child is not invited to a friend's party, he or she will feel hurt and sad, but he or she will be able to move on from the event without dwelling on the rejection. In many ways, the zen thinker is, from birth, a more resilient child.
Parenting a zen thinker is relatively easy. They are relaxed, fun-loving, and generally content. The challenge of parenting a teenage over-thinker is helping them to navigate a thorny social and academic environment without obsessing about their mistakes and failures. Being an over-thinker can lead to great creativity, professional success, and gratifying relationships in adulthood, but it can be the source of great anguish in adolescence.
In my professional opinion, if you identify your teenager as an over-thinker, the best thing you can do for this child is to put him or her in psychotherapy. I can hear your reaction: 'Isn't it shaming to put your kid in therapy?' My answer is 'absolutely not.' A therapist can teach an over-thinker coping skills to deal with anxiety and racing thoughts while instilling confidence and a sense of mastery.
Here are some helpful resources:
Teenage anxiety from www.Worrywisekids.org
Teen depression from Helpguide.org
Finding a therapist in your area from Psychology Today