Too much pressure on young people to be happy

Issue: Volume 97, Number 22

Posted: 6 December 2018
Reference #: 1H9pWW

The messages young people see and hear about happiness can affect their mental health. The author of Stuff That Sucks says it is okay to experience emotions that are sometimes difficult and we can learn ways to help ourselves through.

Bombarded by social media, advertising, and other environmental pressures, teenagers can feel that they are being told that they should always be happy and never feel sad – but this relentless pressure to feel great is causing more harm than good.

Clinical psychologist and author of Stuff That Sucks Ben Sedley(external link) says that Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) may help balance out the messages teenagers are getting.

“So many teenagers I meet are just made to feel wrong for having feelings and having negative thoughts. The message they get given all the time is ‘you’re not supposed to have these feelings’.

“But all teenagers are having those doubts, having those mean thoughts, having sad days and worried days, and all these thoughts and feelings are part of the full spectrum of the human experience.” 

Instead, Ben says it’s important for teenagers to learn that it’s okay to have negative feelings, and that they don’t have to think positively all the time.  

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

ACT is an emerging form of counselling. First developed in 1982, it focuses on teaching psychological skills that can be used to deal with painful thoughts and feelings, reducing the impact and influence on a person.  

ACT places a special emphasis on relaxing a person’s efforts to fight negativity as a way to foster positivity. The purpose of ACT is not the elimination of negative feelings, but instead learning to live with them. 

“I’ve been using ACT for years, and it seems to make sense to many of the young people I work with. I like the way ACT doesn’t pathologise suffering but rather views sadness and anger and other emotions as part of the normal human experience.

“There’s a lot of pressure on teenagers these days, and it can make everything really scary. It’s important for them to learn – and accept – that it’s fine to make mistakes and to fail and to not know the answers all the time.”

Stuff That Sucks

Following his success using ACT and noticing similar themes affecting a lot of young people, Ben decided to incorporate some of his techniques into a book.

“One day I just sat down and imagined some of the young people I was working with and the conversations we’re having, and the pages just came out.

“I wanted to capture the idea that actually, negative thoughts, negative feelings, they’re part of the human experience, and it’s okay to have them – and here’s what you can do when you have them, and how you can still use your energy towards the stuff that matters, working towards the people, the ideas, the things that you care about.”

While the language and illustrations used in Stuff That Sucks mostly targets teens, it was written for a varied audience. 

But Ben also cautions that it wasn’t written for people who are facing intense struggles, saying, “Some people are going to need more specialist specific help, [because] a book written for everybody can’t be written for anybody specifically.”

Changing the messages

While specialist help may be the answer for some individuals, Ben says one of the most important things we can do is change the messages we’re sending young people.

“We can’t give everyone individual therapy – but even if we could, if they’re going back into a school system or community system that tells them that they’re wrong for having their negative feelings or thoughts, or there’s no place to take a breath and think about what really matters to them, then the individual therapy is going to be 10 times harder anyway.”

Instead of individual help, Ben recommends interventions in bigger groups and populations. 

“Schools are going to have a role in helping young people learn to think about what they care about, and helping young people make space for some of their thoughts and feelings.”

Teachers and other community members can help by not “freaking out when young people have feelings”, and instead listening to them and showing that you genuinely care. 

“We’ll see what happens with the Mental Health Inquiry – it’s great they’re asking the questions, but we’re going to need bigger solutions than just more accessibility to individual therapy.”

Five tips for helping teens to share their feelings

Just listen – if they’re feeling worried or sad, don’t tell them to “get over it” or “it’s not a big deal”, just listen to what they’re feeling.

Don’t give advice – let them share how they feel, and maybe help them name what they’re feeling by saying things like “hey, that sounds really sad”. 

Make space for communication – think about the times you have the best conversations with your young people, and make sure those times happen. If the only conversations you have are
“have you done your homework?” they’re not going to come and talk to you about the other stuff.

Don’t expect them to learn from your mistakes – everybody needs to learn from their own experiences. 

Don’t be freaked out by teenagers having feelings – showing that you don’t freak out can help them realise that what they’re experiencing is normal.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 11:36 am, 6 December 2018

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