Adolescent Challenges: The Dangers of Pathologising Natural Emotions
Adolescence is a period marked by profound change, many demands, and a rollercoaster of emotions. Teenagers have to deal with family and friendship issues, the stress of exams, bullying, the pressures of social media, struggles with self-worth, and the lingering effects of the pandemic. This blog post is a response to a recent NHS report, that stated “One in five children and young people had a probable mental disorder in 2023”.
Adolescence is an important phase in human development, representing the transition from childhood to adulthood. Between approximately 10 to 19 years old, adolescence is characterised by rapid and intense physical, emotional, and psychological changes. It’s a time when adolescents are navigating their way through various developmental milestones, including identity formation, autonomy, and the establishment of meaningful relationships.
It is crucial to understand that the emotions and reactions teenagers experience during this phase are, for the most part, entirely natural responses to the challenges they face. Below are 7 of these challenges and why they should not be pathologised and labelled as mental disorders:
1. Pressures of social media: The constant comparison with highly unrealistic posts and validation-seeking on social media can take a toll on teenagers’ self-esteem. Addressing this issue requires media literacy education, not pathologising natural insecurities.
2. Exams: Academic stress and anxiety are common among teenagers, labelling them as disorders may undermine their ability to cope. Medicalising and pathologising this experience can create unrealistic expectations that one should never feel stressed or worried.
3. Family Issues: Adolescents often experience conflicts within their families. These conflicts are not indicative of mental disorders but rather a part of the process of individuation and separation from parents.
4. Bullying: Being a victim of bullying can have severe emotional consequences. Rather than pathologising the effects, we should focus on supporting the individual and creating safe, kind and respectful environments.
5. Self-Worth: Struggles with self-worth are a fundamental part of identity formation during adolescence. Labelling these struggles as disorders can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy.
6. Effects of the Pandemic: The pandemic has disrupted lives and routines, leaving emotional scars. It’s essential to provide a supportive environment for healing, rather than pathologising pandemic-related trauma. And, yes, the effects of the pandemic on adolescent development have been immense!
7. Cost of Living: The financial pressures that teenagers may perceive in their family are genuine concerns. Feeling anxious or worried about finances is a rational response, not a mental illness.
Pathologising these natural emotions and reactions can have severe consequences. It may lead to overdiagnosis and unnecessary medicalisation of adolescence, creating a generation of young individuals who believe there is something inherently wrong with them. This can stigmatise seeking help and impair their ability to develop healthy coping mechanisms. A mental health diagnosis should only ever be given by a qualified professional, after considering many different aspects, such as diagnostic criteria, individual circumstances, potential harms and benefits of giving or not giving a diagnosis. The reasons for giving or not giving a diagnosis should be discussed with the individual. The diagnostician should ensure that the meaning of the diagnosis is thoroughly explained to and understood by the individual.
As a society we should strive to create a nurturing environment that promotes emotional intelligence, resilience, and adaptive coping strategies. We should encourage open communication, active listening, kind and respectful interactions, both in families and in schools, as well as provide access to mental health resources to help teenagers and families to navigate the challenges of this important developmental phase.
We must recognise that the emotions and reactions teenagers experience in response to many situations and events are natural and developmentally appropriate. Jumping to conclusions and labelling these responses as ‘mental disorders’ is not only pathologising but also harmful to their well-being. Adolescence is a time of transformation, and it is our duty to provide support and understanding for these young individuals so that they can emerge from this phase as resilient, confident, and emotionally healthy adults.
If you would like to discuss any of the above further, please contact me.
Lukas Dressler Psychotherapy.plus
Lukas Dressler (he/him)
Counselling Psychologist (MSc.)
HCPC Registered No. PYL041915
Integrative Psychotherapist (MBACP)