Turning Teens Towards Success

By Dr. Elyse Dubo

The teen years are a time of establishing a sense of self, and testing competence and capability, whether it be in sport, academics, the arts, or becoming more independent. Imagine how confusing and fear-evoking this time becomes when a mood disorder or severe anxiety interrupts this developmental stage. How is a teen to develop a sense of competence and independence when the world as seen through their eyes is filled with the dark shadows of hopelessness and fear? Even once a teen recovers from a mood or anxiety episode, there may be lasting negative effects on self esteem and identity, and it may be difficult to get back on a positive trajectory in their life. This is especially true if there are complicated family issues, past traumatic experiences, or losses in their life.

For many teens, talking about their painful feelings can bring up too much shame for them to tolerate, making it difficult for them to commit to traditional models of psychotherapy. I have found that teaching teens to have a success mindset to be very effective in helping them take steps to move forward. This approach shifts them from feeling like a victim of their mental health issues and circumstances to realizing that their future success can be under their own control.

Building a success mindset is like exercise for the brain. It is a daily discipline that involves identifying and reframing limiting beliefs that are fear based and come from the past, and rewriting a new story of success to create a positive present and future. It is very empowering for a teen to realize that their day-to-day experiences are being seen through a negative lens that searches for evidence of their failings and that they can change the lens to a positive one that searches for the evidence of their success. How they view themselves and the world is something under their own control to change. 

Similarly, practicing daily gratitude can be a powerful tool to shift from a negative to a positive perspective and mood state. It is very effective in grounding a teen in the present and creating a sense of wellbeing. It is impossible to feel sad or angry and grateful at the same time. It is a great way to regain perspective of what is good in their lives. Coaching teens to practice daily random acts of kindness and positive affirmations has similar effects.

Most teens can understand that, like an athlete, they can develop a winning mindset. Feelings of weakness and shame can be replaced by feelings of strength and determination. Challenges can be reworked as life lessons that lead to important self knowledge and increased empathy for others. I have seen many teens become leaders at their schools as they emerge from their struggles with mental health issues with a resolve to help others who are going through what they went through.

If you have teens or even adults in your life who are having trouble moving forward, I highly recommend Jack Canfield’s The Success Principles and The Success Principles for Teens as excellent starting points.

DrElyseDuboDr. Elyse Dubo is a staff psychiatrist in the Youth Mood and Anxiety Disorders clinic at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre and has co-produced two films on teen depression.


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