A recent study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association highlights some extremely alarming current trends. This 15 year study, which recorded emergency room visits from 66 hospitals around the country has found that the number of teenage girls admitted for nonfatal self-harm has risen since 2008. Curiously, before 2008 rates were stable, so it is important to examine why this rise is taking place. Although suicide rates are on the rise for both boys and girls in the US, the rise in self-harming behaviours is limited to girls.
Self-harming behaviours including cutting, poisoning and overdosing on drugs are strong indicators of suicidal intentions or co-occurring mental illness such as anxiety or depression. Amongst the self-harming behaviours recorded, ingesting pills or poison was the most common method.
Self-harming is more common than many people may be aware. Prevalence rates are estimated to lie around the 10% mark and is not limited to young people.
It is also worth noting that the data discussed as part of this study involves admissions to emergency rooms only. It does not include injuries that were treated in doctors’ offices or that were never treated at all. As a result, the worrying findings highlighted by this study may not even reflect the full scope of the problem.
Why is This Happening?
One theory which has been put forward by researchers is that teens are spending too much time on their smartphones. It has been found that teens who spend five hours a day or more on their smartphone are 71% more likely to be at risk of suicide than those who spend an hour or less.
Although smartphone use may not be the actual cause of self-harm, it may put already vulnerable teenagers at further risk as it leads to increased social isolation (spending time alone scrolling through social media) and detracting from healthier behaviours such as exercise.
A more sinister reason that smartphone use may have a role to play in the rise of self-harm amongst girls is the growing online culture where teenagers encourage each other to self-harm and share photos and videos of the practice.
Social media may be normalising a behaviour that is extremely dangerous. It would be remiss to attribute all the blame to social media platforms, but it is certainly likely to be a factor, and with numbers rising it may be pertinent for parents and educators to speak openly to teenagers about self-harming behaviour.
Signs of Self-Harming
It can be hard to tell if someone has been self-harming, but often family members or friends will have a sense that something is not right. If you are worried someone you know may be self-harming then look out for any of the following signs:
Why Do People Self-Harm?
Self-harm is an extremely complicated behaviour which may be rooted in a myriad of issues. Often the individual who is self-harming may be experience emotional issues for which they require an outlet. It would be impossible to list all the possibilities but the following are some of the more common causes:
Social Problems: This encapsulates all the interpersonal difficulties an individual may be having. This could be being bullied at school, difficulties with co-workers or coming to terms with their sexuality.
Psychological problems: There is a link between self-harming and borderline personality disorder. Sometimes, those who self-harm have heard voices telling them to do so or have been disassociating (losing touch with their surroundings).
Trauma: Individuals who self-harm may often (but not always) have a history of trauma. This could be a bereavement, a history of physical or sexual abuse or any incidence which causes a high level of distress.
These issues, whether alone or combined, can lead to a build-up of negative emotions such as anger or self-hatred. The individual will often feel like they cannot speak openly of these feelings or turn for help, and so self-harm becomes an alternative method through which to express this.
What Can You Do if You Suspect That Your Child or Someone You Know is Self-Harming?
It is important not to respond in a negative manner to suspected self-harm. Don’t react in anger or disgust, or minimize the behaviour as “attention seeking”.
Ask what is going on in their life generally, and try to ascertain whether there is anything which may make him/her want to self-harm. Let them know that you are there to listen or to give any help that they may need right now.
Although it is difficult, it does not help to “confiscate” any tools that are being used to self-harm without prior agreement. The individual will find a way around this, ultimately eroding the trust you are trying to build.
It’s also important to express to them that this is a worry for you and something which needs a plan of action.
The first point of contact will often be your GP who can put you in touch with the relevant services. Schools may also have a child protection officer, or someone qualified who you may speak to.
Treatments include individual, group and family treatments and the family often have an important role to play in recovery.
The following resources may be helpful when a family member or friend is self-harming.
It is also important to remember to look after yourself when dealing with a loved one who is self-harming. This will ultimately be distressing for you too and make sure to speak to someone you trust or seek help when needed.
Mercado, M. C., Holland, K., Leemis, R. W., Stone, D. M., & Wang, J. (2017). Trends in Emergency Department Visits for Nonfatal Self-inflicted Injuries Among Youth Aged 10 to 24 Years in the United States, 2001-2015. Jama, 318(19), 1931-1933.
NHS Choices. (2015, June 04). Self-harm. Retrieved December 07, 2017, from https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/self-harm/
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is one of the world’s most common childhood disorders, with an estimated prevalence of 5.29%. It is also a highly misunderstood neurodevelopmental condition.
Whilst many associate it with hyperactivity and overmedication, particularly in young boys, ADHD encompasses a wide range of symptoms. ADHD is also being increasingly diagnosed in adults and girls.
ADHD is diagnosed three times more frequently in boys than girls. Not long ago, however, this figure was closer to 10 to 1. Although the margins are narrowing, by adulthood the level of diagnoses across the sexes is roughly the same - so to what can we attribute the lower rates identified in childhood?
One potential explanation is that the symptoms observed in girls and boys can be quite different. Boys tend to exhibit the more “obvious” signs of ADHD such as hyperactivity and conduct disorder, whereas the difficulties experienced by girls tend to be attentional such as daydreaming in class.
For this reason, ADHD in girls may not be as obvious in an educational setting and therefore fall under the radar.
The hyperactive symptoms more commonly displayed by boys are more likely to be problematic in the home or classroom, and may therefore more quickly draw the attention of teachers, special needs officers etc.
Girls on the other hand, tend to experience the difficulties of ADHD in a more internal manner. It has also been argued that as girls are socialised by society to behave in a more reserved manner that they are better than boys at covering up symptoms.
There is also limited public knowledge in terms of the different ways ADHD may express itself among the sexes.
So in what ways may ADHD look different in girls than boys?
An interesting paper by Rucklidge (2010) explored gender differences in ADHD. In a review of previous studies, she found a number of differences in a variety of areas.
This is potentially the most widely recognised symptom of ADHD and is the main symptom that boys tend to exhibit more than their female counterparts. Children with ADHD may find it difficult to sit still and may also exhibit impulsivity for example non- stop talking, making inappropriate comments and being impatient.
Although many children may be high-energy, in order to meet the clinical criteria for these facet of ADHD the hyperactivity and impulsivity demonstrated must be impacting the child’s life and have been doing so for six months or more.
Inattentive ADHD is that which leads to trouble focusing and being easily distracted. Children with ADHD are daydreamers who get bored easily. Whilst this could easily be said of many children, in the case of those with inattentive ADHD this leads to trouble completing schoolwork and avoiding tasks requiring focus. Children with ADHD may also be highly disorganised with messy rooms.
Again, whilst many of these are common childhood traits, those with ADHD will suffer both at home and at school due to the severity of these symptoms.
Girls display attentional ADHD more so than boys.
Tactile Defensiveness (TD) refers to both behaviours and emotional responses which are out of proportion to tactile (relating to sense of touch) stimuli. Children with TD may be overwhelmed by sensory overload and in extreme cases may find everyday activities such as having hair brushed or eating cold food intolerable.
TD is commonly associated with ADHD and is exhibited more frequently by females.
Social and Psychological Functioning:
Studies have also found some marked differences in these areas between girls and boys. Boys have been found to be more aggressive, particularly with peers. Interestingly, it has been found that girls suffer from lower self-esteem and demonstrate poorer coping strategies than boys.
This could be due to the more internalised nature of female ADHD but could also be the result of later diagnosis.
Effects of late diagnosis
Early identification and intervention are obviously important in terms of determining future outcomes. Children who receive support at home and at school are much more likely to manage their condition into the future.
Unfortunately, at present ADHD tends to be diagnosed later in girls than in boys. Until recently, the American Psychiatric Association diagnosis manual specified 7 as the cut- off age for symptoms to be evident. Although this has recently been increased to 12, it is quite possible that the narrow age- range previously provided prevented some diagnoses from being made.
Some studies estimate that as many as 50- 75 percent of girls with ADHD are not diagnosed.
Studies have found that both men and women diagnosed as adults struggle in a wide array of domains and have lower self- esteem, poorer coping strategies and higher levels of depression. In addition adults identified with ADHD later in life tend to have negative attributions about themselves.
The lack of a diagnosis may lead individuals to having their difficulties attributed to laziness or lack of ability both by themselves and others.
As of yet however, no study has compared those diagnosed during adulthood with those diagnosed during childhood.
So what should you look out for in order to spot the signs of ADHD in girls?
The following signs may indicate that ADHD is going unnoticed:
If this sounds familiar it may be worth speaking to a GP or therapist in order to further investigate the basis of these problems. Given the lack of awareness regarding girls with ADHD, and the detrimental impact of later diagnosis, it is important not to let girls with ADHD continue to fall under the radar.
By Dr. Syras Derksen
Hamed, A. M., Kauer, A. J., & Stevens, H. E. (2015). Why the diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder matters. Frontiers in psychiatry , 6 .
Rucklidge, J. J. (2010). Gender differences in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Psychiatric Clinics of North America , 33 (2), 357-373.
“I hated high school. I don’t trust anybody who looks back on the years from 14 to 18 with any enjoyment. If you liked being a teenager, there’s something wrong with you.” ― Stephen King
The teenage years are tumultuous to say the least. It can be easy to forget how miserable and self- doubting the teenage self can be, as a wave of drastic change and hormones sweeps over your developing mind and body. With this uncertainty comes a predictable amount of moodiness, fluctuations in confidence, and conflict with parents.
Sometimes however, these common teenage symptoms go beyond what is normal for this life stage. When depression manifests itself in teenagers it can often be attributed to hormones etc. when it is in fact a real and pervasive psychological problem. Conversely, some parents may mistake their teens natural growing-up stage for depression when it is completely harmless.
An Underestimated Problem
The important thing to note is that undetected depression in the early years can have lifelong consequences. The average age of depression onset in lifelong sufferers is 14 years old, so those that experience lifelong depressive episodes will most likely start as teens.
The Association for Young People’s Health report that the number of young people aged 15- 16 with depression has almost doubled between the 1980s and now. They also estimate that 1 in 10 young people suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder. These are statistics that are replicable in most developed countries around the world.
Untreated depression in the early years can lead to eating disorders, academic difficulties, and substance abuse. There is no shame in seeking the help of mental health experts and, in fact, early positive experiences with these services can set your child up for a lifetime of positive mental health.
So how do you tell when your teenager is suffering from depression and needs a little help? Listed below are some common signs of teenage depression. Although many of these occur during the teenage years, the presence of most or all of them over the space of several weeks indicates your teen may have depression.
Please bear in mind that this list is not exhaustive, but merely a guide to identifying when your teen may have a problem. In order to be diagnosed the help of a trained mental health professional is required.
Signs to Look Out For
Mood: This is one of the hardest ones to disentangle, but if your child is consistently sad, cranky, and irritable then you may need to explore why this is so pervasive. This, combined with a belief that life is meaningless is a warning sign for depression.
Appetite: If your teen is eating a lot more or a lot less than usual and has experienced significant weight loss/ gain then this may be a depressive symptom. It is common for weight to fluctuate during adolescence but if this is combined with several of the other symptoms listed here then it may be a warning sign.
Loss of interest: Sometimes teens move away from things they used to enjoy as children. This is perfectly normal, but if your teen completely withdraws from things they truly love such as a particular sport, instrument or even friends then this is not to be ignored. A loss of interest in enjoyable pursuits is particularly worrying as the lack of activity and fun will only exacerbate any pre-existing depression.
Sleep: An excessive amount of sleep is not normal, nor are highly irregular sleeping patterns. Parents should look out for ongoing fatigue and/ or exhaustion.
Physical complaints: If your child regularly reports headaches, nausea and other without any seeming explanation or cause then this may be a sign of deeper issues.
School performance: A sudden worsening in school performance, frequent absences and seeming disinterest in school life may hint at depression.
Difficulty concentrating: Difficulty concentrating at home and at school should be taken note if. Your child may seem restless or agitated and be unable to relax.
Tearfulness: Teens who become easily tearful or cry frequently may be experiencing deeper unhappiness.
What to Do if You Think Your Child May Have Depression?
Again, this list should not be used to diagnose your child but should merely be used as a guide if you already have concerns. Most of these behaviours will be evident at some stage or another throughout the teenage years. If however, these behaviours are ongoing and pervasive then you should consider your options.
Parents of depressed teenagers should do their best to listen to their teenagers concerns. Try to schedule some time to really listen to how they are feeling. Do not judge or lecture as tempting as this can be. Statements such as “when I was a teen” or “you’ll grow out of it” are not helpful.
Structure and self- care are extremely important when it comes to alleviating depression. Encourage your child to get enough sleep and make sure they are getting the nutrients they need. Simple things like these can make a difference.
Whether as a teenager or an adult it is vital to talk through your depression. There are many mental health experts who are trained to work with depressed teens. Most schools have a counsellor or psychologist and there are a range of valuable community services.
Don’t feel as though “fixing” depression is your parenting duty. If you suspect that your teen is depressed, get in touch with these services and ensure that the correct support they need is obtained.
Sometimes the best example to set is that it is okay to ask for help!
By Dr. Syras Derksen
Machoian, L. (2006). The disappearing girl: Learning the language of teenage depression. Penguin.
Mental Health Foundation (2006). Truth hurts: report of the National Inquiry into self-harm among young people. London: Mental Health Foundation
Oster, G. D., & Montgomery, S. S. (1995). Helping your depressed teenager: A guide for parents and caregivers. John Wiley.
Going to university or college is a big accomplishment for a young person, especially for someone who has struggled with learning in elementary and high school. Universities continue to develop services for students with learning disabilities to accommodate challenges. They may offer alternate exam spaces with extended times, or to have someone take notes for you. Often, students with learning disabilities find they have to study and work much longer on assignments than their fellow students. Students with a math learning disability find they spend a lot of time on their math assignments, but deficits seem to persist, leading to failing grades or dropping out.
Researchers at Florida State University (Prevatt et al., 2010) wanted to better understand the nature of math difficulties for students with learning disabilities. They specifically looked at the effects of memory and anxiety on math performance. Past research has found that individuals with math disabilities have difficulty storing math facts in memory, as well as accessing previously learned facts. Since past research has also shown that greater anxiety reduces memory capacity and ability, Prevatt and her colleagues set to clarify what roles academic anxiety and memory play in math performance.
Long and Short-term Memory is Affected
The initial results were consistent with past research: long-term and short-term memory skills impacted math performance, as did academic anxiety. When they investigated further, the researchers found that math and memory was linked for students with low anxiety, but that students with high anxiety math performance did not change with respect to memory. Basically, when anxiety was present, it impacted math performance more than problems with memory. What happens is that when we are worried about something (in this case, how we are doing on math problems) we start to focus on our worry rather than giving our full attention to the task we are trying to complete. So, when students are feeling stressed about their math performance, it becomes even more challenging to recall facts they have studied and very difficult to use any memory strategies they have learned.
If anxiety is not a problem for a student with a math disability, working on memory strategies will be an important way to help with math performance. But, if a student has high anxiety when it comes to doing math, it’s especially important to work on reducing anxiety before or in addition to improving memory skills.
Prevatt, F., Welles, T., Li, H., & Proctor, B. (2010). The Contribution of Memory and Anxiety to the Math Performance of College Students with Learning Disabilities. Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 25(1), 39-47.
Adolescence is a scary age for parents. At no other age do kids change more rapidly, in all aspects of their lives. Some of these changes can be summarized as follows:
But over and above each of these different realms, the change that can be most difficult for parents to handle is how adolescents develop emotionally.
The emotional life of a teenager or pre-teen adolescent is often characterized by dramatic emotional highs and lows, with what can feel like a constant fluctuation. Sometimes the seeming paradoxes can be too much for parents to handle: Adolescents crave the freedom and independence to make their own decisions, and can become angry and frustrated when they feel controlled. Yet at the same time, they also crave approval and validation, and can become hurt and resentful when they feel abandoned.
Meanwhile, in most cases, the dominant desire of parents is simply to see their child safe, healthy, and (if at all possible!) happy. While most parents want to give their adolescent children the independence they crave, parents also want to ensure that they are making the right decisions.
New Research Helps Identify Teens at Risk
In essence, one of the main tensions that parents of adolescent children face is between allowing their child to experiment and discover the world independently, while constantly fearing that this experimentation could end up leading to serious dangers like unprotected sexual activity or substance abuse.
Psychology researchers have stepped into this admittedly difficult situation and identified some patterns that parents can watch out for in their adolescent children.
Research performed by Dr. Patricia Conrod, of the University of Montreal, supports the idea that the majority of adolescents who experiment with drugs and alcohol do not become addicted, and among those who do, a test on four different personality traits can identify around 90% of those who had the highest risk.
One 2013 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association – Psychiatry included over two thousand secondary school students in more than a dozen British schools, randomly selected to either participate in a preventative program or not.
Using the knowledge gained from the personality testing, the researchers were able to reduce binge drinking among high-risk students by 43%, which in turn had a whole suite of positive after-effects on the other students in the schools.
The work performed by Dr. Conrod in validating the personality assessment techniques and demonstrating its effectiveness in actual trial programs has since been replicated by other experimenters. It serves as a valuable contribution to our general understanding of how substance abuse, mental illness, and other issues can develop at the adolescent level.
Four Traits for Parents to Watch For
Over and above this general contribution, the practical takeaway for parents of the research above is that it identifies four character traits that can potentially serve as indicators for the future development of substance abuse or mental illness. A desire for experimentation and independence are completely normal: an abnormal presence of any of these four traits might not be. The four traits that parents should be aware of in their adolescent children are as follows:
Sensation-seeking means a constant search for feelings or experiences that elicit strong emotions, e.g. a “rush.” Individuals high on this trait are willing to take serious risks in order to feel something new and intense. While sensation-seeking is not necessarily comorbid with any given mental illness, it does increase the likelihood that individuals will seek out experiences with drugs.
Impulsiveness differs from sensation-seeking in that it is less about the end goal and more about the process. An impulsive decision need not have serious consequences, necessarily, but it is nonetheless marked by a lack of awareness for the consequences of an action. Impulsiveness has often been found to be comorbid with a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.
Anxiety sensitivity refers to an unusual and maladaptive awareness of the physical signs of anxiety. For example, an individual with anxiety sensitivity might become hyper-aware of the experience of shortness of breath or increased heart rate associated with feelings of anxiety, which in turn worsens the experience. Anxiety sensitivity is often linked to a later diagnosis of a panic disorder.
Hopelessness is defined generally as a feeling that things are bad, that they will not improve in the future, and that the individual is to blame for this turn of events. It is often linked to helplessness, a feeling of low self-esteem or incompetence, or a more general feeling of meaninglessness. It can potentially serve as a precursor to a diagnosis of major depression.
It’s very important to keep this research in perspective. The purpose of the research was to develop a means of objectively assessing the potential risk that adolescents will develop substance abuse or mental health issues using rigorous psychological assessment techniques. Parents should not conflate this with the idea that a subjective judgment that any of these four traits is present should signal immediate danger.
To jump to this conclusion would be exactly contrary to the overall goal of the research, which is to support the idea that unless certain underlying personality traits are present, there is little risk that the experimentation that characterizes normal adolescent behavior will result in any dangerous or harmful long-term consequences.
Most parents are neither psychology researchers nor clinicians, and should make sure not to allow their own healthy fear for the safety of their children to spill over into the realm of clinical diagnoses. A myriad of other factors over and above personality are also responsible for the development of substance abuse issues or mental illness.
For many adolescents, simply having parents who love and care enough about them to worry puts them at much lower levels of risk already.
By Dr. Syras Derksen
Castellanos‐Ryan, N., O'Leary‐Barrett, M., Sully, L., & Conrod, P. (2013). Sensitivity and specificity of a brief personality screening instrument in predicting future substance use, emotional, and behavioral problems: 18‐month predictive validity of the substance use risk profile scale. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 37(s1), E281-E290.
Conrod, P. J., O’Leary-Barrett, M., Newton, N., Topper, L., Castellanos-Ryan, N., Mackie, C., & Girard, A. (2013). Effectiveness of a selective, personality-targeted prevention program for adolescent alcohol use and misuse: a cluster randomized controlled trial. JAMA psychiatry, 70(3), 334-342.
Jurk, S., Kuitunen‐Paul, S., Kroemer, N. B., Artiges, E., Banaschewski, T., Bokde, A. L., ... & Frouin, V. (2015). Personality and substance use: psychometric evaluation and validation of the Substance Use Risk Profile Scale (SURPS) in English, Irish, French, and German adolescents. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 39(11), 2234-2248.
Woicik, P. A., Stewart, S. H., Pihl, R. O., & Conrod, P. J. (2009). The substance use risk profile scale: A scale measuring traits linked to reinforcement-specific substance use profiles. Addictive behaviors, 34(12), 1042-1055.
Never before has technology been so important in the lives of teenagers. For the current generation, Instagram and other social platforms are ubiquitous and an integral part of their social lives. For many, social media presence is an important part of self-identity and a way to interact with and expand upon one’s social network.
For parents, the use of social media can be completely baffling. Not only must you get to grips with the wide range available (think Facebook, YikYak, Snapchat) but you also must contend with fears surrounding its use and how to place limits on what your child has access to.
Many also harbour concerns about the sheer amount of time spent on social media. With smartphones widespread and easy to use discreetly it is impossible to know how much time is actually being spent on such sites. Anonymous studies hint at very high use amongst adolescents. In one study, conducted using a large sample in Ontario; 36% of students reported using social media for 2-4 hours daily, whilst 11% placed their usage at a staggering 4 hours plus. This has vastly overtaken other forms of technology such as watching television or playing videogames.
Research on Social Media and Mental Health
So what does current research tell us about social media, and what implications can it have for mental health? Quite simply, should we be worried? Judging by some recent studies the answer may unfortunately be yes.
Studies are consistently linking social media use with poorer mental health outcomes. For example, high social media use may make adolescents three times more likely to develop depression (Lin et al., 2016). Another study, which focused primarily on Facebook, explored whether Facebook influenced subjective well-being over time.
This novel study measured subjective wellbeing by texting the young participants five times per day for two-weeks. It assessed how the subjects felt throughout the day and how generally satisfied they are with their lives. Facebook negatively affected both these measures. The more people had used Facebook at a certain time, the worse they felt. It is often argued that Facebook can provide a sense of social support, however, the researchers did not find that their findings were moderated by the size of social network, supportiveness or perceived positive effects.
Social media feeds what sociologists call “relative deprivation” . This refers to the dissatisfaction individuals feel when they compare their lives to others. More often than not, we fixate on what we are lacking compared to others. This leads to a sense of inferiority and unhappiness. Of particular relevance to today’s generations is the ability to compare our lives not only to those around us, but to the rich and famous. When young people compare themselves to airbrushed and unattainable lifestyles, it is no wonder they feel deprived and dissatisfied.
Social media may also prevent teenagers from engaging in behaviour that is beneficial to their mental health. Studies are increasingly noting a link between lack of sleep and social media use (O’Keefe & Clarke- Pearson, 2011). The light of a smartphone screen disrupts adolescent’s brain activity, making it difficult for them to “switch off” when they go to sleep. Teenagers can also find it hard to relax and out their phones away, as they may be afraid of missing out on something new in their feed.
It is common sense that spending more time on smartphones may also detract from physical exercise. More time spent on technology can mean a more sedentary lifestyle as teenagers become increasingly dependent on social media . The opposite, however, can also be true. Sites such as Instagram are filled with fitness and health tips. Whilst many of these are intended to promote healthier lifestyles they can also promote negative body image. Pages encouraging the development of muscle mass can convince both people of both genders that they need to up their fitness game and change body type. Similarly, images depicting consistently slim models can encourage unhealthy diets and lower self-esteem.
Social Media and Eating
The rise in eating disorders has been well documented throughout the past couple of decades, and it has also been cemented by psychological research. As early as 1997, Harrison and Cantor predicted a rise in eating disorders due to media consumption. Whilst this media consumption referred to television and print, media is even more ubiquitous now in the form of social media. Subsequently, researchers have found consistent links between body image, social media and eating disorders (Derren & Beresin 2006).
Social Media and Anxiety
Anxiety may also be linked to social media use. Feeling left out actually activates the amygdala, which is the brain – centre for all of our most basic requirements. A sense of being outside of one’s social circle activates the amygdala. In an attempt to avoid this we can increase our efforts to avoid missing out by compulsively checking social media. This creates a cycle of anxiety.
Social media use is not an entirely bad thing and in fact, can have some really positive uses. However, the research available to us at the moment does indicate that teenagers should not be spending an excessive amount of time on social media. Try speaking to your teen about their usage, and maybe discuss a phone free time in the home (maybe over dinner). Whilst you cannot prevent access to media, you can help your child create boundaries.
By Dr. Syras Derksen
Derenne, J. L., & Beresin, E. V. (2006). Body image, media, and eating disorders. Academic psychiatry, 30(3), 257-261.
Harrison, K., & Cantor, J. (1997). The relationship between media consumption and eating disorders. Journal of communication, 47(1), 40-67.
Kross, E., Verduyn, P., Demiralp, E., Park, J., Lee, D. S., Lin, N., ... & Ybarra, O. (2013). Facebook use predicts declines in subjective well-being in young adults. PloS one, 8(8), e69841.
O'Keeffe, G. S., & Clarke-Pearson, K. (2011). The impact of social media on childre
Sidani, J. E., Shensa, A., Radovic, A., Miller, E., Colditz, J. B., Hoffman, B. L., ... & Primack, B. A. (2016). Association between social media use and depression among US young adults. Depression and anxiety, 33(4), 323-331.
Romantic relationships are a fundamental part of life, and healthy, loving relationships can lead to some of the greatest joys available in the human experience.
Recent scholarship utilizing a conceptual framework called Self-Determination Theory has identified several core components of successful romantic relationships. Here we will examine the theory and some of its contributions to our understanding of romantic relationships.
What Is Self-Determination Theory?
Self-determination theory is a fundamental theory of human behavior that serves to organize the different tendencies and needs of human beings in order to explain the motivation for their behavior and the personalities they develop. It is a theoretical framework which is useful for exploring and explaining certain human experiences.
The fundamental concept of Self-Determination Theory, as is apparent by the name, is the idea that human beings, when they are operating as a true self, are performing actions that are self-motivated and self-determined. This is to say that an individual’s behavior is not so much determined by their surroundings, their context, or the external influences acting upon them, but rather by their own conscious ability to choose what is best and to act upon their desires.
This theory is in contrast to other theoretical frameworks, such as several frameworks that fall under the heading “Behaviorism,” which maintain that human behavior contains almost no element of true agency, and that individual actions are determined – in part or in full – by influences that are outside of the individual’s control.
Self-Determination Theory posits that three processes are responsible for a human being’s ability to act: first, there is present a mindful, reflective awareness of what the individual needs and what tendencies they desire to act upon. Second, an acknowledgment that the environment of the individual is sufficient to support the actions that it intends to take. And third, that the actions of an individual are enfolded, by various degrees, into that individual’s personality: That the individual “owns” their actions, so to speak.
Recent research utilizing a framework of Self-Determination Theory reviewed what the theory has to say on the topic of romantic relationships.
What Self-Determination Theory Says about Romantic Relationships
In a 2015 study entitled “Self-Determination Theory and Romantic Relationship Processes,” published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review, the authors took a close look at past research involving Self-Determination Theory and romantic relationships, and attempted to synthesize the findings and present patterns found in the literature.
For the purposes of the study, the authors took an interest in how a true self acts in a romantic relationship, and what consequences there are to those actions. By true self, the authors referred to the self as defined by Self-Determination Theory, namely a self that has been fully internalized, fully adopted, and fully endorsed by an individual as part of their identity.
Thus, a true self in relationships is one who fully endorses one’s own involvement in a relationship, and does not blame that involvement on any other external factors such as manipulation, coercion, guilt, or lack of knowledge. The researchers were interested in examining the patterns of romantic relationships when the individuals involved are truly, wholly committed at the level of their identity.
The first useful takeaway that becomes immediately apparent from this conceptual framework is the simple idea that not all actions are performed by a true self. A very powerful feeling of awakening can arise inside a relationship when one or both parties realize that they are not truly acting according to their own needs or according to the interests of their true self, but rather simply preserving and going through the motions of what they believe they must do, or what role has been thrust upon them.
A second major takeaway of considering romantic relationships using the framework of Self-Determination Theory is the idea that the more one invests one’s identity in one’s activities, the more satisfying and fulfilling they become. This includes relationships. When the true self is acting in a relationship, there is a resounding sense of affirmation: The individual is in the relationship because they want to be, and because it is important to them. This authenticity spills over into a host of other relational benefits, including partners feeling affirmed and becoming more honest and aware of the other’s needs.
One final takeaway we will mention here among the many cited in the article is the Self-Determination Theory perspective on goals. There is a big difference in romantic relationships on the function of goals, depending on whether the individual adopts more of a victim mentality or if they act as a true self. Research has demonstrated that people who are able to pursue their own intrinsic goals autonomously inside a relationship have greater overall well-being. When both partners in a relationship are aware of what they want and can verbalize those desires so as to actively pursue them together, growth takes place and mutual satisfaction often follows.
Why This Theory Matters
In the end, Self-Determination Theory is just that – a theory. A “theory,” in the scientific sense of the word, defines a coherent and cohesive set of concepts and ideas that together form a framework of hypotheses. These hypotheses have dual value: to provide a working explanation of the phenomena of the world around us, as well as to generate specific questions that can be tested.
With this conception of Self-Determination Theory, it is apparent why there is value in considering romantic relationships from this perspective. If, using this theory, an individual is able to consider what their romantic relationships would look like if they were acting as a true self, according to the theory, they have the opportunity to learn a lot about who they are, what they want, what their relationships are like, and any number of other questions.
This is not to say that Self-Determination Theory is “true,” necessarily. Competing theories that more highly emphasize the role of the environment and of the situation in motivating human action also contain an element of truth.
Nonetheless, by interacting with these various different theories and understanding what they say about human action, an individual has the opportunity to develop their self-understanding. And with more self-understanding, particularly in the realm of intimacy and romantic awareness, comes a greater ability to experience the great joys that life has to offer.
For more information, feel free to read the above-mentioned research article, to check out any number of books on Self-Determination Theory, or to consult with a psychologist or trained mental health professional with experience in this theory.
Knee, C. R., Hadden, B. W., Porter, B., & Rodriguez, L. M. (2013). Self-Determination Theory and Romantic Relationship Processes. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 17(4), 307-324.
Can love alone bring dating couples into the realms of married life?
While love can play a role in keeping a relationship glued together, there are other factors that make up a healthy and happy marriage. After all, marriage is no longer just about planning surprises, bringing roses and going on a date as often as you feel like it. It involves piles of laundry to put in the washing machine, loads of dishes to wash, dirty floors to clean and big decisions to make.
So, before saying “I do,” a couple must know whether or not they are compatible enough to live together for the rest of their lives. One way to do this is to assess what type of relationship they do have.
A new study (Ogolsky, B., Surra, C. & Monk, J. , 2015) has found four types of relationship pattern that can determine whether or not couples will end up getting married. Unlike previous research that looked into the individual aspects of a romantic relationship, this study conducted by researchers from the University of Illinois took the relationships of their participants as a whole.
376 unmarried couples who are in their mid-20s participated in the nine-month long research. Over the course of the research, the participants assessed how committed they were to tying the knots with their current romantic partner and why they would want to marry. Additionally, the researchers interviewed them about the reasons behind the change-of-mind regarding the commitment to get married in the future. Results showed four categories of relationship.
The “Dramatic Couples”
27-30% Ended Their Relationship During the Study
The characteristics of this group were ups and downs in commitment. These couples often thought about their relationship in negative terms. These couples would often have separate friends and acquaintances that would not interact. Finally, they were often less interdependent than the other couples.
Dramatic couples face a lot of challenges in their relationship that their commitment changes so wildly. This makes them the most vulnerable to breaking up among all types. Lead author Ogolsky said that they would make decisions based on the negative events or discouraging things that are happening in their relationship. Moreover, these couples tend to spend less time together because of their intense desire of hanging on to their individuality, choosing friends and family over their partners.
The “Conflict-Ridden Couples”
14-20% Ended Their Relationship During the Study
As can be guessed from the title, these couples were high in conflict. Like the dramatic couples, the commitment in these couples would also fluctuate, however they did not fluctuate as much.
This type of relationship may be exhausting for both partners. Couples are the either both ends of the spectrum in any given situation. They tend to have drops in their long-term commitment in the middle of a misunderstanding or argument without breaking up. However, they are super-passionate when everything is well between them.
Ogolsky noted (Picklesimer, P., 2016), “These couples operate in a tension between conflict that pushes them apart and passionate attraction that pulls them back together. This kind of love may not be sustainable in the long term—you’d go crazy if you had 30 to 50 years of mind-bending passion.”
He clarified, though, that conflict-driven partners may switch to another type of relationship in the future.
The “Socially-Involved Couples”
7-21% Ended Their Relationship During the Study
These couples were very concerned about their social network and their involvement in this social network. They did not have as many downturns in their commitment to the relationship as the dramatic or conflict couples.
The socially-involved couples feel stability in their relationship. They share the same group of friends and tend to rely on them when it comes to decisions regarding how they committed they are with each other. Having mutual social network is a big deal for this type of couples; it makes them feel closer to each other and get their relationship stronger than ever. The question remains, though: do they want to base their relationship based on other people’s opinions? For some, such may be crossing the line of friendship.
The “Partner-Focused Couples”
12-15% Ended Their Relationship During the Study
These couples were more interdependent and felt that their partner was more important when understanding why they were committed to the relationship. These couples weren’t as socially focused.
In the study, the findings showed that partner-focused relationships have the highest chance of lasting longer having more happy times. The couples in this category very much care about the relationship and the individual who makes it possible for the relationship itself to exist. They are very much involved in each other’s lives and are so involved with each other. Whatever happens in their relationship — whether good or bad — they use this to further strengthen and deepen their commitment. When they have to make choices that could affect their relationship, they spend time examining these choices and are very careful and thoughtful of their decisions.
The limiting factor of the study, is that the researchers were not able to see what happens of the relationship after nine months. Though, dramatic couples are most likely to break up within that time frame.
Ogolsky explained that these categories can help couples be more aware of the different ways of making commitment-related decisions and their effect on the relationship. Will their pattern propel the commitment forward or push the couple further apart from each other? Knowing this can help couples to determine what their relationship pattern is and then make decisions about whether they would like to either work to change that pattern or move on to another relationship.
By Dr. Syras Derksen,
Ogolsky, B. G., Surra, C. A. & Monk, J. K. (2016). Pathways of Commitment to Wed: The Development and Dissolution of Romantic Relationships. Journal of Marriage and Family, 78: 293–310. doi: 10.1111/jomf.12260
Picklesimer, P. (2016, February 9). Daters move toward (or away from) marriage in four different ways—where do you fit?. College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Science, University of Illinois. Retrieved from http://news.aces.illinois.edu/news/daters-move-toward-or-away-marriage-four-different-ways%E2%80%94where-do-you-fit
It is old news that dysfunctional or insecure relationships in childhood may lead to difficulties down the line. Whilst this has long been known, a recent study has shed further light on the reasons for this, and the specific effects poor attachments may have.
Attachments are the relationships we have with caregivers from an early age. In general, attachment styles may be divided into four categories: secure, anxious-preoccupied, dismissive-avoidant and fearful-avoidant. The type of attachment style we develop is directly linked to the quality of care we receive. For example, a neglectful parent may contribute to their child’s dismissive- avoidant attachment style (Cassidy, 1999).
Insecure attachment styles have been linked to range of adult mental health issues. These range from anxiety and depression to relationship issues and even health problems. Obviously attachment styles are an important research area, but why does the human brain react so negatively to poor parenting?
The study, published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, found that insecure childhood attachments can negatively influence our ability to deal with stress as adults (Leyh, 2016). We are all aware that there is huge variability in how individuals deal with stress. This is evident in any office in the world! Some people remain calm and proactive in the face of adversity, whilst some crumble and become extremely negative.
One of the reasons for this, according to Dr. Rainer Leyh and his team, is that our negative childhood experiences and attachment styles stay with us throughout adulthood, and rear their heads when we are faced with a stressful or anxiety provoking scenario.
In this report on the study, Dr Christine Heinsich gives the example of a car approaching a traffic light. For the driver, when they are in a neutral state, following the signal is easy and may even come automatically. For an emotional driver however, following the signal is much more difficult. They may stop late or fail to stop altogether, driving straight through the light.
What moderates our ability to stay calm under emotional strain? For those of us that had emotionally attentive parents or caregivers it can be a lot easier. The key term is “emotional regulation”. Emotional Regulation is our ability to control our emotions, and our reactions and subsequent behaviours in response to them. Attachment styles have been directly linked to emotional regulation.
In the aforementioned study, adults were recruited who had a wide range of childhood parental/ caregiver experiences. Participants were asked to perform a task which involved identifying a target letter from a series of flashing letters. The task was conducted in different conditions, some which evoked a positive emotional response, some which evoked a negative response and others which evoked neutral. The participants’ brain activity was recorded using a type of brain scanning called “EEG”.
Subjects with insecure childhood attachments had significantly more trouble performing under the negative conditions than those with secure childhood attachments. Another interesting finding was that those with insecure attachments also exhibited lower brain activity under negative conditions when attempting to identify the target letter.
The poorer the task performance, the poorer the strategies for emotional regulation. One theory put forth by the researchers, is that the more effort you have to exert on inhibiting your emotion, the less resources you have to perform on the task. Therefore, negative childhood experiences may make all those day- to- day struggles we encounter just that little bit more difficult.
Were there any potential limitations to this study? It could be argued that as the target letters were unrelated to the emotional cures, it is difficult to generalise them to everyday life. Future studies will have to find a way to make the testing environment more realistic.
Despite this, it does see clear that poor relationships with our caregivers can have long- lasting consequences.
How do I know if I have difficulties with attachment and/ or emotional regulation?
It can be difficult to know whether any of this applies to you. You may have difficulties with emotional regulation if:
Implications for relationships
Those who are negatively attached may bring these issues and insecurities into relationships. Attachment style can have massive connotations, particularly for romantic relationships, and it is important to be aware of how it can affect you.
It is easy to see the connection between a turbulent relationship, and the findings of the study we have just discussed. Being resilient and calm when faced with stressful situations, arguments and all that comes with a relationship, is often central to its success. For those with poor emotional regulation, this can be difficult.
What can you do about insecure attachment?
New research is increasingly shedding light on how our past experiences can shape our present and future. It is fascinating what we area learning, but also important to stress that your past does not necessarily dictate your future, and we all have the ability to change long- learned behaviours.
By Dr. Syras Derksen,
Cassidy, J. (1999). Handbook of attachment: Theory, research, and clinical applications. Rough Guides.
Leyh, R., Heinisch, C., Kungl, M. T., & Spangler, G. (2016). Attachment representation moderates the influence of emotional context on information processing. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 10, 278.
For many of us, the word “assessment” conjures up negative associations.
In reality, though, the fact of the matter is that even though from the outside psychological assessments might prompt a fear of judgment or an image of subjective evaluation, the exact opposite is true: Psychological professionals use assessments to gather objective information in order to find the best way to help an individual grow.
Let’s take a closer look at what psychological assessments entail, common biases to note, and the best way for you to think about psychological assessment.
What Is Psychological Assessment?
The notion of psychological assessment defines an individualized, holistic information-gathering process. It’s not something that can be summarized in a single sentence: there are as many different ways to perform a psychological assessment as there are individuals.
Although there is diversity in how assessments are performed, there is a general method that is consistent across different realms of psychology and different types of disorders. This method involves integrating the results of a variety of different psychological tests in order to create a balanced, objective view of the psychological profile of an individual
Multiple Sources of Information
A psychological professional generally integrates multiple sources of information when coming to a conclusion. This will generally include observation of the person (e.g., interview), historical information (e.g., grades), and the results from multiple tests hopefully done by multiple people. For example, when diagnosing Attention-deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) our clinic will gather information from teachers, parents, and the child. We would rule out various learning difficulties and emotional/behavioural challenges.
Is the Issue A Disorder?
Tests are norm-referenced, which means that an individual’s performance is compared against the average performance of a group of people. For example, a height measurement is a kind of test – it provides a single, discrete measurement of a physical characteristic (not a psychological characteristic). But an individual’s height is only meaningful if it is compared to others; for instance, a child’s height compared to the norms for his or her age group. This can let you know if there is an issue with the child’s growth.
Finding Important Factors that are Hard to Observe
It may be clear that a person is having difficulty managing life. However, the real issues may be harder to see. They may be difficult to see because the person is hiding it, or because they are just not aware. Children, for example, often benefit from psychological assessments because they don’t know how to describe the issues they are facing.
It’s not just children who may not be aware of their issues. For example, a client may be consuming a large amount of alcohol, which is causing anger and relationship problems. This alcohol problem is more obvious and is the issue that attracts the attention of family and friends. A psychological assessment my show that this the alcohol use is an issue, but it may also show that their level of anxiety is very high. This combination of issues may suggest that the individual is using the alcohol to manage their anxiety difficulties. A recommendation of therapy or using an anti-anxiety medication may be the result of this type of assessment. Treating the anxiety may then help the person to stop the alcohol abuse.
Multiple Tests to Rule out Other Potential Issues
Psychological assessments aren’t there to just measure one symptom. The tests chosen are also there to ensure that other issues may not be causing the problem. For example, in an ADHD diagnosis, it is important to know that the observed attention problem is not a symptom of a different disorders.
In the case of ADHD, the primary pharmacological treatment is a stimulant. However, bipolar can look like hyperacitvity and a stimulant medication can make bipolar worse. Psychological assessments are there to make an accurate diagnosis to avoid making mistakes that can lead to months or years of extra pain and confusion.
Tests Can only Be Used With Certain Groups
It’s important when interpreting the results of an individual test to notice the assumptions that the test makes about its subject population. Every individual is different, and it’s dangerous to oversimplify these differences by measuring the averages of a group of people.
Psychological tests are generally meant for specific populations. When these rules are broken, the results may not be accurate. For example, a test that was developed with North American’s may not be accurate with people who grew up in India. Although psychologists sometimes break these rules because no better test is available, clinical judgement is important in interpreting the results.
How to Approach Psychological Assessment
One helpful way to think about psychological assessment is to approach as you would a trip to the doctor’s office.
In both cases, whether it’s a medical professional running a blood test to check for signs of a physical illness, or a psychological professional performing a mental health evaluation to check for signs of a psychological disorder, the basic idea is the same. A professional with the patient’s best interest at heart is simply gathering information in order to inform themselves as to the best next steps.
This comparison also illustrates how one should prepare for the assessment: You wouldn’t study for a blood test. When you go to the doctor, the goal isn’t to present yourself as perfectly healthy and to ignore the physical ailments that are bothering you. How would that help?
Instead, the goal should be to open up lines of honest communication between you and the professional devoted to your care and well-being. With both medical and psychological assessments, you want to be as completely honest as possible, even if you feel afraid or embarrassed. The individual trained to help you is on your team, and will help as best they can.
In conclusion, psychological assessments are an information-gathering process performed by psychological professionals in a number of different contexts. While the process is open to some amount of human bias, if approached like a medical examination, the process of psychological assessment can be a helpful part of psychological care for individuals in all situations.
By Dr. Syras Derksen,
Eabon, M. F., and Abrahamson, D. (2016). Understanding psychological testing and assessment. American Psychological Association. Retrieved from www.apa.org.