Positive Psychology and Teens – Event Coverage

I was excited when I learned that the Gladney Center for Adoption was hosting a talk entitled Positive Psychology and Teens through Gladney University. Before I became a writer in 2006, I was earning my Master’s degree in Social Work. Although the circumstances of my life dictated a career change, I continue to be passionate about mental health and helping others. 

I’m excited to share everything I learned from the presentation with you. I think parents and anyone who works with teenagers in any capacity can benefit from and implement this information. 

About the Presenter

Todd Treat is the Director of Clinical Services at the MHMR Youth Center, overseeing all therapeutic and psychiatric services for youths aged 6-17. He is a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and a TBRI practitioner. Todd has over 25 years of experience working with youth in a variety of nonprofit settings. He is married and is a Gladney adoptive parent to three teenagers. 

What Challenges Do Today’s Teenagers Face?

Todd acknowledges that today’s teenagers have had to face a very unique and challenging time this past year with the pandemic. He asserts that it has been a very difficult time for adults to navigate; he cannot imagine how much more overwhelming it is for teens to navigate this. 

Todd says that many teens are feeling isolated. In fact, according to one poll, three in four youths say they feel isolated. I remember the beginning of the pandemic and recall that things happened quite quickly–we were all ordered to stay at home shortly after COVID-19 began to spread in the United States. Todd says that we went from living our normal lives to becoming shut-ins within a matter of hours. 

While I have worked from home for several years, I even had a difficult time with the stay-at-home order that lasted for several weeks in Colorado. Not seeing friends or even socializing with neighbors in my apartment building left me feeling pretty isolated and alone. My cats always keep me in good company, but I really missed being able to connect with other human beings in person. 

Todd says that being stuck at home with their families was incredibly difficult for many teens, even if their families are healthy ones. School provides kids with a break from their families. Being stuck in such proximity to one’s family for long periods of time often creates challenges of its own. 

Social media use increased by 61% during the pandemic. Social media use can actually lead to increased levels of anxiety and depression in teens. Todd says that teens often find social media difficult because they compare themselves to a sort of fake reality.

In another survey, 50% of parents indicated their teen’s mental health had decreased over the past year. Additionally, a Harvard study found that 51% of teens feel more down, depressed, and hopeless. 

Given the incredible challenges teens in today’s world are currently facing, how can parents, teachers, counselors, psychiatrists, doctors, clergy, and others who work with this population help them cope and reframe their experiences? 

What is Positive Psychology?

Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman was the president of the American Psychological Association in 1998. Seligman was one of the first proponents of positive psychology. He noticed that in the field of psychology, mental health professionals seemed to focus solely on figuring out what was wrong with people so that they could help them “fix it.” Seligman thought we should also recognize people’s strengths and draw on those to help them cope with situations and solve problems.

The Benefits of Happiness

We are trained to focus on the negative. What would happen if we chose to focus more on the positives in life? 

Research has shown that happy people are smarter and more creative, have happier and more stable marriages, make more money, and are healthier and live longer. 

There are some myths about happiness we need to debunk. 

The first myth is that happiness must be found. We tend to think things like, “When I make more money, I’ll be happy,” or, “I’ll be happy if I get a good evaluation from my boss.” What we need to realize is that happiness is internal. 

Another happiness myth is that if we are positive, nothing bad will happen to us. We need to recognize that this simply isn’t true–good and bad things happen to everyone every day. A positive mindset can allow us to deal with the bad things that happen to us in a better way. 

A third happiness myth is that either you have it or you don’t. In other words, happy people are just born that way. Research has shown that 50% of happiness is a predisposition we are born with, 10% of happiness has to do with our life’s circumstances, and 40% of happiness is something we can control. We can help teens learn how to identify their strengths and build upon them to help them have a more positive mindset. 

Happiness Challenges

We can teach teens how to think more positively. This can help them become more resilient and acknowledge negative things when they happen but not ruminate on them. Positive thinking can help teens move forward from negative or stressful situations more quickly. 

Todd asserts that it is important to have teens practice these activities in non-stressful situations first. When practiced over and over again in non-stressful situations, these techniques become the new default when a teen does face a negative or stressful event. 

Breathing

When you are stressed, your body becomes tense, and your breathing becomes shallow and rapid. Breathing is an easy way to relax your body and mind. 

Instruct the teen to find a comfortable position and to close their eyes. Have them focus on their breath going in and out of their body. Have the teen inhale to the count of four and then exhale to the count of four. 

You can expand upon this breathing exercise. Have the teen picture the best vacation they have ever been on or imagine what their dream vacation would look like. Have the teen choose one moment during the vacation where they felt happy and at peace. Have the teen focus on this moment, experiencing all the sights, sounds, and smells in that particular moment. Ask the teen to describe the environment to you. What do they see, smell, and hear? Why do they feel happy and at peace in this moment? This imagery exercise helps the teen get into a different frame of mind when they are feeling stressed.

Miracle Question

Ask the teen, “If you woke up tomorrow, and a miracle happened while you were sleeping and you were completely happy, what would that look like?” Try to get the teen to define happiness in tangible ways, such as eating pizza, spending time with friends, or playing a sport. Then, you can talk to the teen about how they can achieve these tangible forms of happiness. 

Strengths-Based Approach

Have the teen identify three or four strengths they have. Ask the teen to tell you a story that illustrates each strength they identify. Many teens have trouble identifying their strengths, so you may need to help them find their strengths. To do this, ask the teen to tell you about things they feel they did well. As the teen tells you examples of things they have done well, you can help them identify the strengths they used in these situations. 

When the teen faces a difficult situation in the future, you can remind them of their strengths and help them figure out how they can use these strengths to deal with the situation. 

Social Support

Social support is vital to all of us. Not being able to connect with others in person has made this past year especially difficult. 

Have the teen take out their cell phone and have them find a person in their contact list that they haven’t talked to in a while but who is an important person in the teen’s life. If the teen is comfortable doing so, have them send that person a text saying something like, “Thinking about you. I hope you are well.” 

The idea behind sending a simple text message is to help the teen feel more connected to that person. When the teen focuses on that important person in their life, they will also focus on the joy that the person brings to them. 

Gratitude Journal

Gratitude helps change our mindset by focusing our minds on the positive rather than the negative. Ask the teen to sit down and write down two or three things they are thankful for each day before going to bed. Tell the teen that they cannot repeat items from one day to the next, so if they write down that they are thankful for friends one day, they cannot write down friends the next day. Having the teen find new things to be thankful for each day makes them continually look for the positive things happening in their lives. Have the teen keep the lists in a notebook or journal to easily go back and look at the positive things that have happened to them over time. 

Gratitude Letter

Have the teen identify one person in their life that they are grateful for, and have them write that person a letter telling them why they are thankful for them. Encourage the teen to go to that person and read them the letter. 

Control Square

We tend to focus on the things we cannot control, but a lot of depression and anxiety come from focusing on these things. 

Give the teen two minutes to write down everything annoying, angering, stressing, frustrating, and saddening them. Next, ask the teen two questions about every item on their list. First, ask if the item is important. Second, ask if the teen can or cannot control the item. 

Take another piece of paper and divide it into four squares. Label the four squares, “Important Can Control,” “Important Cannot Control,” “Not Important Can Control,” and “Not Important Cannot Control.” Have the teen place each item on their list into one of the four squares based on whether or not they can control it and whether or not the item is important. 

There will inevitably be some items on the list that will fit into more than one category. Have the teen place those items into the boxes they feel are best. For instance, perhaps one of the teen’s items is that their best friend is angry with them. While the teen cannot control their best friend’s anger, they can control their reaction to that anger. So, the teen may choose to place their reaction to the angry best friend into the “Important Can Control” box. 

Next, have the teen draw an X through the “Not Important Can Control,” “Not Important Cannot Control,” and “Important Cannot Control” boxes. The teen doesn’t need to worry about things that are not important, and they cannot change the things they cannot control. 

Have the teen circle the items in the “Important Can Control” box. These are the only items that matter because they are important, and the teen can do something about them. 

Finally, have the teen identify one thing they can do about each item in the “Important Can Control” box within the next 24 hours. 

This exercise helps teens focus on things they can actually control. Coming up with a task to do about each thing on the “Important Can Control” list helps teens focus on what they can control. Having a teen do something about each item on this list makes them active participants in making positive changes in their lives. 

Happy Box

Have the teen make a list of five to ten things they can do in 15 minutes or less that bring them happiness. These might include going for a walk, listening to a favorite song, petting a cat or dog, reading a book, and watching a funny YouTube video. Cut the list into strips, and have the teen keep them in a hat or container at home. Instruct the teen to draw a piece of paper when they are feeling bad and immediately do that activity. The caveat is that the teen must do the activity they draw, so make sure the teen writes only things they really enjoy doing. This helps the teen reframe their mindset so they don’t remain stuck on their negative feelings. 

Cell Phone Pictures

I have actually used this one myself in the past, and it does help. I always have a ton of photos of my kitties on my phone. When I’m facing a stressful situation when I’m not home, I’ll take out my cell phone and look at photos of my kitties to help put my mind in a better place. 

Have the teen use their cell phone to take a few photos of things they find beautiful or that bring them happiness in the environment. Help the teen create a little album or gallery on their cell phone of these photos that they can spend some time looking at when they are feeling stressed out, anxious, or depressed. 

If you are a therapist, this may make a good homework assignment for teens you work with. If you are the parent of a teen, this activity could be a fun one for you and your teen to do together. 

Random Acts of Kindness

Research shows that doing a random act of kindness for someone else changes the way you feel. It doesn’t need to be anything big, either. I find even holding the door for someone behind me makes me feel better. Doing something for someone else takes you out of your own head. 

Encourage the teen to do something kind for someone else. Brainstorm acts of kindness they can easily do, such as holding the door for someone, letting someone go ahead of them in a line, buying someone else’s drink or snack, offering a friend a ride, doing an extra chore at home for their parents, or helping a sibling with homework. Ask the teen how doing something kind for someone else made them feel and how it changed their mindset. 

In today’s world, it’s easy to get stuck on the negative things that happen in life. We can help ourselves and the teens we work with be happier using positive psychology. Experiment with these techniques. You’ll find that some work best for one teen while others may work better for another. Teaching teens to focus more on the positives in life will set them up to be more resilient and handle negative or stressful feelings more effectively.

Are you ready to take the next steps on your adoption journey? Visit The Gladney Center for Adoption to learn more.