A Stake Presidency Member stands in a room filled with teens and asks, “How many of you are overwhelmed with life right now?” Hands darted up in the air and heads shook so fervently that they almost fell out of their chairs. There was not a hand left down. The surprise on the President's face could not be missed. He thought to himself, “Why are so many of our teens struggling emotionally? What can we do for them?”
This may not come as such a shock to others, but times really are getting more difficult emotionally for our teens. Anxiety and stress seem to be common occurrences and become even more debilitating when they leave the home. This overwhelm can be marked by change in sleep patterns,change of appetite, increased irritability, loss of interest in things and/or social isolation. In extreme cases, can lead to hopelessness, thoughts of suicide, depression and substance use.
What is causing the increase of overwhelm in our teens?
As a Mental Health Therapist, I see many teens in my office with the above symptoms. This is a common occurrence and is increasing with time. I have seen a pattern of reasons that I believe is creating this overwhelm. This is not an exhaustive list, but certainly are the top reasons I see consistently.
Fear of failure.
I see teens mentally practicing failure over and over again in their minds. They are creating the worst case scenario situations in their minds to hopefully gain solutions to all the things that could go wrong in their life. They are playing the “What if things don’t work out as I hoped?” question on repeat. This thought process can be defeating at the least. If this becomes the norm of thought process, hope becomes a fleeting thought and can feel like life will never go right.
Teens like to use comparison to see where they measure up. They may use this, with good intention, as a tool to make sure they are on the right track. However, comparing is really measuring strengths to weaknesses. This is not an accurate representation of whether one might be on the right track. This can lead to feelings of not measuring up or over focusing on weaknesses and can cause feelings of hopelessness and emotional distress.
Trying to control what cannot be controlled.
When teens thoughts are spinning uncontrollably, the culprit can be trying to find a way to control something out of their control. The past, the agency of others, or the personality of other people are outside of a person’s ability to change or control. This is an impossible task, just as controlling the weather would be. Trying to control these types of situations can cause overwhelm, stress and burnout since there will never be a suitable solution.
Boredom with current routine.
Teens have access to devices that create instant gratification and excitement at the push of a button. However, life is not meant to be deeply meaningful and exciting each day. Sometimes, even though teens may be extremely busy, routines can become boring. Thus leading teens to create some sort of drama, intensity or conflict to deal with the boredom. Constantly trying to find deep meaning or excitement in the mundane of life can create an overwhelming task.
Feeling discouraged when we don’t accomplish everything perfectly the first time, needing to please everyone or be everything to everyone at all time is perfectionism. Perfectionism is often misunderstood in the scriptures. Teens especially, think that God is asking them to be perfect and never make mistakes. This type of thought process is a set up for failure and never achievable. Then leading to a stressful overwhelmed state.
What is God really asking when he says, “Therefore I would that ye should be perfect even as I, or your Father who is in heaven is perfect.” (3 Nephi 12:48)? He is asking us to be whole and united with our Godhead. To utilize The Holy Ghost to guide us, understand His divine will for us and to access the enabling and healing power of the Atonement from the Savior. When we use the Godhead in this way we are “whole” therefore are Perfect.
Problems mean something is wrong or I am bad
Chasing a time in life when there will not be any problems or trials is a lost cause. Also, feeling like there is something personally wrong when life doesn't go as planned can be defeating.
“Problems will come into all of our lives; it’s part of just being here upon this earth. And some people think that religion or having faith in God will protect you from bad things. I don’t think that’s the point. I think the point is that if our faith is strong, that when bad things happen, which they will, we’ll be able to deal with them.” (Christopherson)
When Does Overwhelm Becomes a Bigger Problem?
Negative emotions and negative experiences are part of Heavenly Father’s plan. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were “in a state of innocence, having no joy, for they knew no misery.” (2 Nep 2:23) Negative feelings aren’t bad. We are to “taste the bitter, that [we] may know to prize the good” (Moses 6:55), we all have to experience loneliness and sadness at times so we can better appreciate the happy moments of life.
Mild or moderate levels of anxiety can be helpful. Like feeling nervous before giving a talk in church, giving a presentation, taking a test at school. Some anxiety can be a good thing and can create momentum to get going.
Higher levels of anxiety can impair performance or functioning ability. For example, studying for a test well and knowing the material, but then anxiety is too high to think clearly. This can also cause difficulty in discerning the spirit, having good relationships and performing like initially hoped for. When anxiety, depression or any emotional distress starts affecting the ability to function day to day, that is when help needs to be sought out. That can come in the form of leaders, parents or school officials.
How to Deal With Overwhelm
The goal is to become emotionally self-reliant. To be able to meet emotional needs and cope with everyday ups and downs. Being emotionally self-reliant is knowing when we can handle emotional pressures by ourselves and knowing when we need to reach out for help and support from others.
Some of the ways we can learn to become emotionally self-reliant are the same answers given in primary; however, these primary answers have a “twist”.
Elder Owen said, “The adversary will try to persuade you that spiritual nourishment isn’t necessary or, more cunningly, that it can wait. He is the master of distraction and author of procrastination. He will bring things to your attention that seem urgent but in reality aren’t that important. He would have you become so “troubled about many things” that you neglect the “one thing [that] is needful.”
Say Your Prayers with Different Language
When we are overwhelmed we often want Heavenly Father to hurry up and take the overwhelm away. So we end up praying for Heavenly Father to fix the problem for us. Instead of praying for Him to fix our problems, pray for Heavenly Father to guide us to learn to deal with the situation in our lives. So instead of saying “Please, Heavenly Father, fix this situation” try changing language to “Please, Heavenly Father, show me what I need to learn and do myself to fix this situation.”
Study Your Scriptures for an Antidote
The scriptures are the word of God and contain the words God wants us to hear. One way to find the words God has specific for your situation is to first find a word that describes what you are struggling with. Then, find the opposite of that word to study. The opposite word to what you are struggling with is the antidote to the struggle. Study the antidote and learn about how to implement and become that word.
Attend Church with a purpose
Showing up to church is a definite first step in receiving peace in life. The next step to increase that peace is to attend church with the Savior at the center of the purpose for attending. One way to do this is to write down your intention or hope for that time at church. For Example: “Learn to be more charitable”. Then as you attend, take notes on what you hear about that subject. You will get more strength, healing and wisdom out of church attendance when attending with a purpose.
Give Service in your thoughts
Service is a great way to get our minds off of our own struggles, but already being overwhelmed, service can seem daunting. Instead, practice praying for thoughts of charity to come to your mind throughout the day. Pray to see the needs of others and see your own needs clearly and know how to act on them. Thoughts of simple tasks such as smiling at someone, offering to carry something for them or to simply give a compliment will come to your mind. Act on these promptings and the spirit will fill the soul with peace, comfort and energy.
Be Grateful with a Thank You Note
Being grateful in our prayers is a given necessity; however, our prayers of gratitude can sometimes become remote. Prior to saying a prayer, write down each day where you saw the hand of the Lord in your life that day. This can become a personal thank you note to our Father in Heaven.
How Can Parents Help Overwhelmed Teenagers?
As parents, seeing teens overwhelmed can be heart wrenching. Not knowing what to do to help can be even worse. President Nelson is creating an environment to help teens thrive.
Elder Owen testified, “The Lord knows about our challenges, and through the leadership of President Nelson, He is preparing us to meet them. I believe that the prophet’s recent call for a home-centered church, supported by what we do in our buildings, is designed to help us survive—even thrive—in this day of spiritual malnutrition.”
President Nelson said, “The new home-centered, Church-supported, integrated curriculum has the potential to unleash the power of families, as each family follows through conscientiously and carefully to transform their home into a sanctuary of faith. I promise that as you diligently work to remodel your home into a center of gospel learning, over time your Sabbath days will truly be a delight. Your children will be excited to learn and to live the Savior’s teachings, and the influence of the adversary in your life and in your home will decrease. Changes in your family will be dramatic and sustaining.”
The new “home-centered, church supported, integrated curriculum is the antidote to overwhelm for teens. Our families have “Power” if we build a sanctuary of faith in them.
Christopherson, D. T. The Joy of the Saints. Ensign, October (2019).
Nelson, R.M. Becoming Exemplary Latter Day Saints. Ensign, October (2018).
Owen, S. W. Be Faithful, Not Faithless. Ensign, October (2019).