For many young people, the transition from childhood to adulthood can be a confusing and overwhelming time. It’s a time of physical, emotional, psychological and social change that can have lasting effects. Alongside all of these changes brought about through puberty, there are also growing concerns around the impact it may be having on our young people’s mental health and wellbeing.
Puberty is the most significant development one’s brain will undertake since infancy. As our brains develop, the ‘thinking brain’ is the last part to form. This is the part responsible for developing the ability to think rationally, to reason and manage emotions. It controls our impulses yet doesn’t fully finish forming until around age 25.
During puberty young people’s bodies are filled with more hormones preparing their bodies for maturity. Their bodies begin to change, their emotions broaden and they don’t yet have all the resources they need within them to regulate and manage how they’re feeling. It’s understandable then, why this time can be so hard for young people and also those around them. In this time they become more sensitive to their environment and the stressors within it, they will begin to look different and act in new ways, they will also find they are experiencing some feelings for the first time. There will be days their feelings seem to be dictating their life and they feel a sense of loss of control within themselves. But all young people will have their own experience of puberty and so all need support in different ways.
What impact does puberty have on mental health?
It’s important to say that not all young people will develop mental health issues as they go through puberty. Some find it is a time in life when they thrive and yet, for some this season of life can be particularly difficult and their mental health may struggle as a result.
For some young people, their self-esteem develops through increased autonomy and independence, for others it is through interdependence, external validation and other people’s perception of them. As then, a young person goes through puberty, the changes to their body and emotions can cause them to become more self-conscious, more aware of themselves and how they are coming across to others. If they don’t feel validated by others, or doubt other’s opinions of them, they can develop low self-esteem. Low self-esteem has also been linked with low mood, or increased anxiety.
One of the most obvious changes a young person goes through during puberty is a physical one. Their bodies begin to develop in ways they may or may not like, or in ways that draw unwanted attention. Influences like social media, family and peers can also cause young people to feel unhappy in their body. This may lead to unhappiness with their bodies leading to extreme or obsessive behaviours such as over or under eating and excessive exercise.
Some of the changes that occur during puberty can leave young people open to being more susceptible to stress. The hormonal changes they are going through affect things like sleep regulation, irritability, decreased concentration and mood changes. In this state a young person could find they are more sensitive to stressors in their environment. The effects of stress can be seen in increased irritability, anxiety or complete withdrawal.
A young person’s brain is still developing the part which handles rational thinking and controls impulses. This can mean they are more vulnerable to taking risks without thinking about the consequences. Often during adolescence young people begin to push boundaries, or experiment with new things. The need to fit in or the pressure of peers can cause them to do things they aren’t fully comfortable with and this can in turn cause mental distress.
Whilst no child is immune to the mental effects of puberty, it’s important to mention some groups of young people who may be more at risk. Those with existing mental health problems, may find that puberty exacerbates them. Research also suggests that those who experience early puberty, when puberty begins at an earlier age, can be more likely to experience mental health issues, particularly girls. Because girls usually start puberty earlier and they mature quicker they can often feel isolated and on their own. They can be treated differently by others if they look more mature than they are for example being treated as someone ready for sexual experiences when they aren’t. Developing earlier can also make them more conscious of themselves or at the receiving end of negative and unwanted attention.
What Can I Do?
Whether you’re a teacher, guardian or friend, there are lots of ways you can be supporting your young person through this transition:
1) Look out for the signs they might need more support
There are few signs you can look out for that might indicate a child is struggling with their mental health. Here are some questions to ask:
- Has their mood or behaviour persistently changed?
- Have they become disengaged from their usual hobbies or interests?
- Have they developed obsessive or extreme behaviours?
- How are their eating, sleeping and exercise habits?
- Have they become withdrawn or isolated from others?
- Are they engaging in risky behaviours or self harm?
If you’d like more advice on this, why not read What are the Signs My Child Needs Counselling
2) Invite conversation
Young people can struggle to communicate what they are experiencing but inviting them into a conversation gives them permission to talk about how they’re feeling. Ask how they’re doing, what things they’re finding hard and what help they’d like. Listen to their experience and take their concerns seriously. Invite them to express their feelings in whatever way they find helpful. Having an outlet is really important for managing and regulating emotion whether that's talking, writing, exercising or more creative means. Part of inviting conversation also means being ok with disagreement. Sometimes there will be things they feel differently about, as they begin to form their own opinions. Encourage them to share how they’re feeling knowing you can accept it. If you feel they would benefit from speaking to someone else, we have lots of counsellors at Mable who would love to help.
3) Help them to challenge themselves
One of the most difficult parts of puberty is the experience of feeling ruled by your emotions or feelings. One of the ways you can help a young person is to equip them with the skills to challenge irrational thinking and emotions. Just because they are feeling something doesn’t always mean it is reliable or true. Help them to think of questions to ask themselves if their emotions don’t feel rational or how to involve others in making decisions where they may not be thinking most clearly. Encourage them that it’s okay to challenge and question how they’re feeling to determine what is rational and true. Maybe there’s a friend they can ask for a second opinion or someone within the family.
4) Encourage balance
For any young person, a healthy and balanced lifestyle will lead to better physical and mental health. Help them to develop good habits within their week that encourage eating well, getting enough sleep and exercise. Also find ways to motivate them in their interests and passions. Give them opportunities to develop their problem solving skills and interpersonal skills such as making decisions and meeting up with friends and family at the weekend. Habits that encourage balance will endure them through puberty and set them up for adulthood too.
5) Be their stability and calm
Finally, the best thing you can do for a young person who might be struggling through puberty is to provide them with some stability and calm. Whilst their experience can be very up and down, ever-changing, you can be a constant for them. They may push your buttons and boundaries through this time but by providing them with safety and comfort they will know you are reliable and dependable when their emotions may not be. No matter what they are experiencing, having people in their life who endure with them through seasons of change is the greatest support you can give a young person.