The BEST Mental-Health Strategies for Pre-Teens and Teens | Dr. Karen Villa

Karen Villa: The tasks of adolescence is for a child to come to own their own body in their own mind and it really is a time that we’re moving into with them where you know, we don’t have as much say anymore and that’s really a biologically driven process. So discipline has to move more in the direction of compromise.

Sr. John Dominic: Welcome to Mind & Heart. Dr. Karen Villa is with me today and we’re going to continue our discussion on the balance strategies for ages ten to fifteen  

Karen Villa: I broke it up that way because we split adolescence into early middle and late adolescence, and this is the early phase. So, this is when puberty arrives and it’s a natural state of dysregulation. This is a time when you will see your children out of the river of integration quite a bit.  Parents don’t know that they can think that their children need intervention, or something is wrong with them when it’s really embedded into their development.  So, when that hormone cascade comes, their bodies are changing, their minds are changing, they have feelings and thoughts they never have wanted to have, they feel like it’s happening to them and, “I didn’t ask for this,” “I’m not ready for this.” So it’s a time of disorganization and all of these tools that we’ve talked about up to this point still become really  important in this time of natural regression and natural disorganization and, to the extent you do that work now, there’s less disorganization at the next regressive phase which is when children are transitioning out of high school and into college.

Sr. John Dominic: So, one comment I want to make is, in a school setting, you’re going to have children from kindergarten to eighth grade and everyone’s reactions are going to be a little bit different.  So they may understand the virtues and are going to show you what it looks like, sounds like, and then they start getting into this age range, ten to fifteen, and you can see a little bit of resistance – I mean, they may say, “Oh, we’ve got that.”  It’s kind of like, “We’ve read this story; it’s this again.”  But what’s important and where I want to encourage educators and even parents, is that that’s okay, because they may be rebelling a little bit but it’ll come out later on – so I guess my point in that is let’s persevere, stick with the language, don’t change the script.  And I think that’s exactly what you’re saying here …

Karen Villa: For children in this phase. It’s kind of like emotions. If you don’t tell them that they’re going to run their course, they can feel like they’re going to be stuck in that emotion forever. And I think the same is true of this early phase of adolescence that if you don’t put a structure around it, they can feel like “This is how it’s going to be forever” because they do get overwhelmed and they don’t understand what’s happening to them. So, one of my first strategies for helping to achieve that balance at this stage is to really put a structure around this time in their life.  You know, you didn’t ask to arrive at puberty, it just happened to you.  And when it first happens, it really feels out of control, but it’s not always going to be that way. I promise you, by the time you’re fourteen or fifteen, you’re going to feel more in charge of it and it’s not going to feel so overwhelming.  Until we get to that time, we’re just going to love you through this as best we can.  So, it’s kind of a messy, complicated time that way, but if you put that structure around it, it doesn’t feel so bad. 

Their bodies are growing up; they have thoughts and feelings and experiences that they’ve never had before and I think it’s important to tell them too, that just because you’re having those thoughts and feelings doesn’t mean, again, that you have to act on them. You’re not going to be mature to act on those things until you’re much older –

Sr. John Dominic: And I think I would add too, the screen time again, to limit that is so important because you think if they’re already having this then you put on this extra layer because the mind is already going to be taking this  in.

Karen Villa:  There’s all this internal stimulation from the hormone cascade and then you add a lot of external stimulation and it’s frightening and overwhelming.  So I am recommending that parents not introduce smartphones until the end of this time because they’re really doing a lot of work and there’s a lot of brain work that is happening as this hormone cascade comes online and they can really short circuit a lot of developmental tasks – which again are about achieving balance in the midst of this change, growing up into a more adult body.  

So, like a freshman in high school, is probably the best example, I have parents tell me that there are seven year olds on their phones at school and it’s just our acceptance of this is getting a little out of hand.

Sr. John Dominic: It’s really interesting because you know, we would always, you know, take them up during the day or whatever not let it interfere but there’s a lot of schools that are like tech-free they don’t even bring it in. So, we see the importance of it, so hopefully it’ll start moving out.

Karen Villa:  I know when kids go to the hospital for a psychiatric problem. That’s the first thing they do, is take away their phones because they find that they just get so much more dysregulated when they have them.  So we have to kind of turn up the volume on that and take that seriously – this ten to fifteen year old time is a time of intense growth and it just interferes with it, if there’s too much screen time.

Sr. John Dominic: That’s the best way you can help them is to limit that.  So what’s the second part of this?

Karen Villa:  Well, the second one, it goes back to this peer relationships, I think with this grade, because it is a time of separation and individuation. So, they’re separating from the adults in their life and they’re taking that energy and that love and they’re kind of devoting it now to their peer group; and that’s important that they do that.  They’re learning, you know, complex thinking and relational skills; but sometimes it’s too much and it’s not balanced with family time. So, time to still relate to and connect with family. You want to support that but you don’t want it to be a substitute for parenting and family time.

Sr. John Dominic:  And we talked about how they really do isolate themselves in an island.

Karen Villa:  And that’s what happens. Yeah, they have these devices and they’re connecting to their peer group too much and that together puts them in this realm where there’s a very unvirtuous set of rules operating and they’re very vulnerable because as of it.  And I tell parents you have to find a way to get on the island and sometimes that’s showing up at school and just checking on them or sometimes it’s doing a phone check if they have phones already or it’s removing them to go do family activities because they’re not developed enough to be on an island by themselves yet.

The other thing I would say about this time, and you probably see this with a middle schoolers: they can be very self-conscious because they don’t know what’s happening to them and they don’t want attention focused on them because they can barely figure it out themselves.  So direct conversations about emotional and relational issues can be very off-putting to them. So, this is where it becomes important to have kind of indirect conversations. So, when they’re driving in the car or you know, as you’re talking about how somebody else is dealing with an issue rather than them directly they’ll be able to benefit from it more than if it’s more direct

Sr. John Dominic:  And I noticed when I taught Junior High, I loved teaching it because every day was different.  You never knew who’s going to come in that day and I loved the excitement.  If I was clear about a classroom rules and even how even down to how you grade the paper, how you treated one person, because they have a strong sense of justice – if I was clear and I’ve followed the rules and the game plan, it was great, I mean I had a great rapport with them and I loved it and I loved teaching. 

Karen Villa:  Andthat’s a creative time. So interesting for them to see them blossom into the region person or begin to do that.  And bodily boundaries become very important. So, where you might have, you know hugged and scooped your child up in those earlier years, because they are struggling to understand their bodily changes, it’s not as easy to you know, just reach in and grab a hug or tell them what to wear … Now, they do have to learn modesty, but you want to teach modesty, but you also want to give them choices so that they feel like they are learning how to get in charge of their body and mind.

Sr. John Dominic:  When you mentioned modesty, because that also is related here because we’re kind of framing everything with virtue temperance, and is so important with this virtue, that it isn’t just kind of centered around dress. It’s you know, it’s also in speech and action. And so that’s something you can really start teaching them at a young age.

Karen Villa:  And especially at this age where they’re so impulsive because they get dysregulated. They have this thought and they just blurt out everything and it may not be modest or kind.

Sr. John Dominic:  I think if they if you have that understanding of who you are and who you are as a child of God, you don’t have to do things to draw the attention to yourself or dress in a way to draw that negative attention or what you’re thinking, you know, it’s going to cause attention but it could just be who you are and I think that can start when they’re really young.

Karen Villa:  That’s how they arrived at this stage with a sense of security kids who feel secure in their family relationships and in that they’re loved aren’t going to be seeking out that negative attention or that unvirtuous attention.

Sr. John Dominic:  Well, this is a complex age, but I think you’ve done a great job giving some strategies on that one’s what about the second part?

Karen Villa:  Well, I think we can move on from there. But the task of adolescence is for a child to come to own their own body and their own mind and it really is a time that we’re moving into with them where you know, we don’t have as much say any more and that’s really a biologically driven process. And so discipline has to move more in the direction of compromise and if parents come down really hard during this time, they can really exasperate their children; that scripture from Ephesians, “Fathers don’t exasperate your children.”  Don’t get into power battles over enforcing a rule. It really has to be more, “Let’s try and find a way to compromise,” “Let’s find a way to work this out.”   Still in the midst of structure but if you get really harsh and hard about enforcing rules rather than learning compromise, you will see a lot of dysregulation in this age group.  And that can be very unfortunate because then children start to separate and individuate through rebelliousness rather than through, “I’m focused on goals and I’m trying to take these sexual and aggressive instincts to build a good life for myself; tame them for building a good life.”  You don’t want it to be rebellion.

Sr. John Dominic:  It’s just so fascinating just how all of this is so integrated and of course, we know God it’s all part of his design …

Karen Villa:  This time becomes more important for teenagers. This is why you find them in their rooms a lot and they are really turning inward to figure out what all these changes, these internal changes, mean so they need more privacy. But there’s balance that’s needed there. You want them to have that privacy so they can come to know themselves as the separation and individuation, but too much of it can disconnect them from reality, can disconnect them from virtue and the world and you know, what the limits …

Sr. John Dominic:  And so it’s interesting with the time in part too so they can do something, you know, like journaling; probably girls would be more inclined to do that. What would you recommend for young men or boys to do?

Karen Villa:  Boys, I find what regulates them more is physical time in those teen years that they get a better control over their impulses if they’re very physical and that gives them that time in and it gives them that physical time to help tame and kind of the overwhelm of those instincts

Sr. John Dominic:  And then again, like to encourage them to find something to be able to reflect right there.

Karen Villa:  And you know that really comes from a value system and knowing that reflection is going to be so important in mastering their inner world and figuring out who they are and then having successful separation, which is what that stage is all about.

Sr. John Dominic:  Well Karen, thank you so much. Hopefully those that are listening to us can take some of these tips and strategies and bring it into their lives as a family; and the exciting thing is, we still have to talk about resilience, to talk about insight, and then empathy; which again will tie in the other cardinal/moral virtues of fortitude, prudence, and justice.  We’ll pick those up on a future podcast of Mind & Heart.

So if you enjoyed this, we encourage you to continue to follow us!

Karen thank you once again for giving your time to be with us in sharing the wonderful gifts that God has given to you. Thank you.


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