Teens today face many strifes from the world around them that previous generations had not. Because of issues such as global warming, COVID-19, sharp political divide in America, and more dire conditions of the world’s current status, teens are caught in the crossfire. Mental health issues now affect 1 in 4 teens. Many teens and, more specifically, students do not know of proper ways to protect their brain health. The brain is a muscle like any other - it requires exercise and rest which is particularly important for teens during a critical period of brain development. Schools, organizations, and parents alike can support their teens' brain health and development without any understanding of neuroscience by promoting resiliency, creating enriching, trauma-informed environments, and encouraging health social interaction.
Difficult situations arise for people of all ages. Youth are not often taught how to overcome difficulties or adversity, which means that teens can find the hardships of getting older to be entirely overwhelming and impossible to get through. Teaching resilience is beneficial to youth of all ages, as there will come a moment in everyone’s life where it may be more difficult to carry on to the other side. Trauma in early adolescence and adverse childhood experiences make it harder on teens to “bounce back” from tough times, which makes it all the more important to help promote resiliency, or the ability to keep “getting back up”.
To encourage resilience, it is important to remind youth their worthiness is not measured by successes and failures. Reminding youth that they are always good enough and boosting their self-esteem can actually change their brain. People with lower self-esteem often have less gray matter volume in the brain regions that impact our emotion and stress responses - meaning their brains are less equipped to effectively manage these responses. With that, it is important to be empathetic, encouraging, and reassuring to teens no matter their struggles.
Creating Enriching & Trauma-Informed Environments
Enriching education is critical to healthy brain development, however, many teens lack the opportunity to explore deeply enriching subjects and experiences due to curriculum constraints. A young person’s brain health cannot truly flourish unless properly enriched. Enrichment comes from exploring other topics and forms of learning such as extracurriculars, field trips, hands-on projects, and the arts. These forms of education use parts of the brain not touched by traditional lecture-style teaching, which actively promotes healthier development.
Additionally, it is safe to assume every teacher and school will encounter some students who have experienced trauma and/or adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). 55% of youth ages 12-17 have experienced an ACE, with about 1 in 5 having experienced two or more. By creating a purposefully welcoming and safe environment, schools have an opportunity to provide a safe-haven for students who struggle with the stress of these events. Creating a trauma-informed environment can include promoting discussion and destigmatization of mental health, being culturally competent and understanding of different backgrounds, and using person-first, inclusive language. Providing support for struggling teens to access on their own can also help protect their brain health.
Encouraging Healthy Social Interactions
Teens today are experiencing a loneliness epidemic. Despite an increase in perceived connection due to social media, teens feel lonelier than ever all over the world. This feeling can negatively impact their physical, mental, and cognitive health, leading to physical pain, difficulty concentrating, and mental health issues to name a few. During adolescence, the areas of the brain which control social processes undergo major change. Teaching teens healthy relationship skills like communication, boundary-setting, and responsible social media use can help them to utilize this time of change to foster meaningful, supportive relationships. Resiliency also helps social development, as more resilient teens may be less prone to social comparison or unhealthy relationships.
The issue of teen brain health is one that will continue to be prevalent for years to come, especially in the age of social media. This responsibility can feel insurmountable to the adults in their lives, but there are resources to help both teens and adults through this process. Neolth is a digital stress and mental health support program for students and educators. We’re on a mission to help you stress less, build resilience, and become a part of our compassionate community. Our app helps you when you’re feeling overwhelmed with self-guided content, personalized for your mental health journey, including content to help develop healthy relationships, positive self-esteem, resiliency, and lower stress. You can learn more at neolth.com or sign up today at cloud.neolth.com.
About the authors:
Gavin Schmidt (he/him) is a sophomore at the University of Central Florida studying Digital Media with a concentration in Game Design. After seeing how mental health can affect the people he cares about, he began to have a passion for understanding and taking care of the mind. He believes that understanding this can greatly increase anyone's quality of life, and assisting people in their journey is greatly rewarding. Outside of school, Gavin is an active student leader in UCF's Marching Knights Marching Band, and enjoys playing board and video games with his friends and family.
Khrystina Warnstadt (she/her) is the Outreach & Engagement Specialist at Neolth and an MSW student at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. While earning her BA and CGS from the University at Albany, SUNY, she discovered a passion for mental health, equity, and accessibility. Her passions led her to her work at Neolth, as well as with organizations such as Planned Parenthood, the NY Birth Control Access Project, and NAMI. She works with Neolth to bring mental health support to students worldwide and empower students to share their stories and eradicate the stigma around mental health.