Written by: Ashley Sullender (Graduate Student) and Dr. Debra Brosius, Licensed Clinical Psychologist

Integrated Psychology Associates of McLean

Does it seem like your teenager is acting like a therapist to all of his/her friends? Are you concerned about the emotional burden your child is undertaking in friendships? Teens therapizing teens is real. An article in the New York Times (July 29, 2020), illustrates this point. High schoolers across the country are seeking ‘Teenager Therapy,’ a podcast started by five teens. The intent was to create a space for teens “to feel vulnerable and to talk things through.” Yet these teen therapists have no training and there is no confidentiality, so what happens when the listeners are in crisis? Developmentally, it is appropriate for teens to seek other teens for support regarding daily stressors, advice and problem solving. However, when a teen is in emotional crisis, abusing substances, or has an active eating disorder, it is not appropriate for teenagers to be actively engaging as a pseudo-therapist. Teens by nature are self-focused, rendering them incapable of a true and helpful therapeutic interaction. While teens may think they are being a good friend or empathetic, they may be using these interactions as a way to avoid their own emotional experiences. Moreover, total self-sacrifice is not a characteristic of a healthy relationship and contributes to personal distress.

This trend of teen therapizing appears only exacerbated by social media platforms such as TikTok. Known as “mental health TikTok,” teens are using social media to flesh out psychological issues and self-diagnose. While increased visibility has its benefits, it also has a severe impact on self-esteem. First, teens have begun to turn to their screens as a way to “wind down.” However, swiping for hours does not promote healthy coping, but rather allow teens to dissociate from their distress rather than working through it. Moreover, increased screen time has a large impact on quality of sleep, another factor known to impact mental health. In the 2019-2020 school year, less than 30% of students in FCPS obtained an average of eight or more hours of sleep on a school night.

Moreover, apps like TikTok have curated algorithms for each of their users. This means that the more you engage with certain topics, the more of that content you are provided. This is important when you consider the kind of information your teens are taking in. Many teens prefer to watch videos, reels, or tiktoks about things that they idealize (e.g., being older, thinner, having a boyfriend) and the algorithm begins to feed them more of that content. While seemingly harmless, this creates a situation where your teen is consistently in-taking information about the things they wish they had, thus making them feel dissatisfied or deficient in some way.

If you are concerned, seek professional help for your child by calling our practice at 703-215-4101. All teens should have immediate access to the crisis text line in their phones (741741) as well as the suicide hotline 1-800-273-8255. Parents are also encouraged to role model appropriate help-seeking behavior.

Written by Ashley Sullender (Graduate Student) and Dr. Debra Brosius, Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Integrated Psychology Associates of McLean

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