I hate the thought…

Of an unhappy teen. I mean, really, I hate the thought of an unhappy anyone. 

I veer dangerously close to being that mom that immediately hands my kid the cookie she wants, or the shiny new toy in the store, as soon as those puppy dog eyes emerge and tears start flowing. 

UGH take my money you absolutely adorable ball of sadness and desire. Here is the cookie. Have ten toys. Whatever you want I adore you to no end.

Parent of the year over here (that is, if parent of the year is all about not having boundaries and enabling poor behavior in the future). 

Sigh. Sometimes kids need to be sad. Sometimes kids don’t get everything they want. Sometimes kids feel unhappy. 

That is normal and even healthy. 

But what if your kid is chronically unhappy? I’m not talking full blown depression, or immense sadness and crying all the time. I’m talking discontentment. They are doing okay. They are functioning. But their zest for life, their spirit, has flown out the window. They just aren’t the same, you know? 

Where did that kid go and how do you get them back?
Read on. 

In the past few weeks we gave some examples of reasons why your kid might be struggling and feeling unhappy: 

They might be missing prom this year due to the pandemic
They might not be able to walk by their crush’s locker due to lockdowns
They miss their friends and have zoom fatigue
They don’t really know how to make sense of themselves as they develop, because they aren’t around peers to test things out and see reactions – they don’t know where they stand
They are being shuffled to school and back out of school, and they are tired. Academics aren’t stimulating. It was the social parts of high school that made each class bearable. 
They aren’t going on dates or being asked out.

These little – but actually big – things really make an impact on your teen’s burgeoning sense of self.

And as a result, they just feel unhappy. 

They don’t really know what to look forward to. High school didn’t pan out the way they had envisioned. And it’s a big loss. It sucks big time. 

These are supposed to be the “happiest days of their life” (I mean, barf – we all know that isn’t true – but they still believe it). And as a result they believe they are really missing out on something grand. 

So maybe they aren’t sleeping all day. Maybe the still smile and laugh. Things aren’t awful for them. But they are unhappy. They are less content than they really want to be – and could be – and should be. And it’s having an effect on them. 

Here’s the thing; long term discontent can actually have pretty significant impacts on wellbeing, both mentally and emotionally, but also in terms of physical health. 

Aches, pains, headaches are just the beginning. Long term discontent also elevates the stress hormone cortisol in the body. And having cortisol running through your body without relief has been linked to increased risk of actual clinical depression, not to mention a host of other physical illnesses and symptoms. 

Yuck. 

Is the key to jump up and down making silly faces to try to make your kid happy again?

I mean….possibly, yes. Please do try that and let me know how it goes. If you do it long enough, the eye roll and expression of horror will eventually turn into a laugh and a laugh does decrease that pesky stress hormone and it does add joy into your kid’s (and your) day. That is one component of happiness. And if you can get enough of those moments to add up, you can start to feel a bit better overall. 

But if that doesn’t work, the solution isn’t always to make your kid happy, it may just be to sit in the muck with them. Just acknowledge that things are pretty crap right now…but that there is hope on the horizon. 

Acknowledging what they are going through helps them believe you when you say it does get better. If you deny their feelings and tell them to cheer up, they will be suspicious of any suggestions that the future looks brighter. They will think that’s just another platitude to cover up the misery. 

So, please acknowledge the pain. It helps them keep holding out hope for joy. 

TRY THIS: Ask them what they are looking forward to. Ask them to list off the exciting big and small things that are yet to come for them. Help them see beyond the current muck. 

Having something to look forward to can also help re-focus the brain and thus decrease cortisol. 

By now you are likely thinking, “Dude, it’s not just my kid! I am feeling all these things!! I am discontent. I have been feeling this for a long long time. Life is simply not what I expected, and on top of that this pandemic turned me into a mental health worker which I did not sign up for and I am not trained for and I am exhausted. I am donneeeeeeeeeee. Hand me a glass of wine, or juice (my personal drink of choice is apple juice because I never grew up and it is objectively delicious), run me a bath and just let me turn into a prune for the next 3 years. Done. Done. Done. “

Well well welcome to the club. 

You have cortisol taking over your veins. Let me guess, you are tired beyond all reason and yet you cannot sleep? 

Check. 

Have headaches the coffee can’t cure?

Check. 

And a lingering sense that at any second someone at the drive through is gonna ask how you are and your eyes are going to well up as if you just watched one of those sentimental Tim Horton’s olympic hockey commercials (why do those make us cry? WHY?) and you simply won’t be able to explain to the person handing you your large double double why your face is so wet.

Checcckkkkkk!

We are DONE

Wait, wasn’t this letter supposed to be about our kids?

Yup. And let me ask you – can you be there for your kid right now when you can barely cope yourself? How are you going to help them through this muck when you are knee dip in it too?

I didn’t twist this on you as a trick. But if you want to find out where that happy kid went, it’s going to involve you understanding where that happy parent went too. 

It’s hard to stay optimistic for them, when you are feeling hopeless yourself. No shame. No blame. 

I suggest, when you do that activity with your kid – the one where you find hope again – that you do it with yourself too. Sit in the muck. Acknowledge that it’s horrible muck. Then think of all the things you are still looking forward to. The big and small. The dinner you are excited to eat tomorrow night, and the vacation you can take someday as a family when the world opens up again.