For Teens Knee-Deep In Negativity, Reframing Thoughts Can Help


Teen Negativity art

Jenn Liv for NPR

“Why didn’t she text me back yet? She doesn’t like me anymore!”

“There’s no way I’m trying out for the team. I suck at basketball”

“It’s not fair that I have a curfew!”

Sound familiar? Parents of tweens and teens often shrug off such anxious and gloomy thinking as normal irritability and moodiness — because it is. Still, the beginning of a new school year, with all of the required adjustments, is a good time to consider just how closely the habit of negative, exaggerated “self-talk” can affect academic and social success, self-esteem and happiness.

Psychological research shows that what we think can have a powerful influence on how we feel emotionally and physically, and on how we behave. Research also shows that our harmful thinking patterns can be changed.

You may not be of much help when it comes to sharpening your son’s calculus skills. But during my 35-plus years of clinical practice it’s become clear to me that parents can play a huge role in helping their children to develop a critical life skill: the ability to take notice of their thoughts, to step back and view the bigger picture, and to decide how to act based on that more realistic perspective.

Taking heed of an alarmist or pessimistic inner voice is a universal experience. It has survival value; it often protects people from danger. And it’s often true that a worrying thought can act as a motivating force – to study, for example.

Still, the insecurities that adolescents feel as they undergo the multiple transitions necessary in growing up make them especially vulnerable to believing the worst. This tendency can lead to chronic anxiety, depression and anger, and can interfere with relationships and success in school.

Helping children grasp the importance of thinking more realistically may help protect them later when they make the huge transition to college. A 2016 survey by the American College Health Association of undergraduates at over 50 colleges and universities found that about 38 percent had felt so depressed at some time during the previous year that it was tough to function. Some 60 percent had experienced an episode of debilitating anxiety.

The power of thoughts to affect feelings and behavior is a foundational principle of cognitive behavioral therapy, which is the form of therapy that I practice. CBT teaches people how to recognize faulty negative self-talk, to notice how it makes them feel and act, and to challenge it. Parents can practice this skill themselves, and act as models as they guide their kids to question a thought by looking at the evidence for and against it.

If your child often seems withdrawn, sad or angry, you may be able to identify a problematic thinking pattern by listening closely. Here are four key styles of negative self-talk to listen for:

Catastrophizing. One common thought habit is the tendency to jump to the worst-case scenario (“What if I fail the test? I’m never going to get into college!”) Scanning constantly for disaster ahead acts as a huge contributor to anxiety. And catastrophizing often leads teens to avoid people or become reluctant to try new things.

Zooming in on the negative. Ruminating on a disappointment without taking into account the many positive and neutral aspects of one’s experience is often associated with sadness and depression. A missed soccer goal might overshadow everything else that happens one day – the lunch with friends, the good grade on a test, the hilarious TV show – and consume your high-schooler for days.

It’s not fair! Interpreting every letdown as a grave injustice – the “it’s not fair!” habit – often underlies teens’ anger and can harm friendships and family relationships.

I can’t! Reacting habitually to difficult situations or to new opportunities with “I can’t,” rather than “I can try,” leads to helplessness. Changing the thought to “I can try!” encourages problem-solving and a willingness to be proactive, to take positive action — both keys to being successful and resilient.

For parents, the idea is not to squelch the negative thought. Research has found that attempted “thought stopping” can actually make the idea stickier. Rather, you want your child to face the thought, thoroughly examine it and replace it with a more realistic and helpful perspective.

Questions that you might pose to carefully weigh the evidence include: “You had a group of friends at your old school and at camp – realistically, what are the chances you can’t make friends now? What actions can you take to reach out? What would you say to somebody else who worries about this?”

A helpful replacement thought might be: “It probably will take a few weeks to get to know people, but I’ve made friends before and there are things I can try. I can sign up for the photography or robotics club and meet people that way.”

More realistic and balanced thinking leads to positive action, which, in turn, tends to bolster confidence, enhance self-esteem and result in greater happiness.

Mary K. Alvord, Ph.D., is a psychologist and director of Alvord, Baker & Associates, LLC, in Rockville, Md. She is the co-author of Conquer Negative Thinking for Teens: A Workbook to Break the Nine Thought Habits That Are Holding You Back, as well as the audio recording Relaxation and Self-Regulation Techniques for Children and Teens.

Depression Strikes Today’s Teen Girls Especially Hard


A new study suggests that teen girls experience more bouts of depression than teen boys.

Nicole Xu for NPR

It’s tough to be a teenager. Hormones kick in, peer pressures escalate and academic expectations loom large. Kids become more aware of their environment in the teen years — down the block and online. The whole mix of changes can increase stress, anxiety and the risk of depression among all teens, research has long shown.

But a recent study published in the journal Pediatrics suggests many more teenage girls in the U.S. may be experiencing major depressive episodes at this age than boys. And the numbers of teens affected took a particularly big jump after 2011, the scientists note, suggesting that the increasing dependence on social media by this age group may be exacerbating the problem.

Psychiatrist Ramin Mojtabai and colleagues at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health wanted to know whether rates of depression among teens had increased over the past decade. They analyzed federal data from interviews with more than 172,000 adolescents. Between 2005 and 2014, the scientists found, rates of depression went up significantly — if extrapolated to all U.S. teens it would work out to about a half million more depressed teens. What’s more, three-fourths of those depressed teens in the study were girls.

The findings are just the latest in a steady stream of research showing that women of all ages experience higher rates of depression compared to men, says psychologist and author Catherine Steiner-Adair. And no wonder, she says — despite gains in employment, education and salary, women and girls are still “continually bombarded by media messages, dominant culture, humor and even political figures about how they look — no matter how smart, gifted, or passionate they are.”

Today’s constant online connections — via texting, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, — can exacerbate that harsh focus on looks and other judgments from peers, she says. The uptick in teen depression Mojtabai found after 2011 could be evidence of that.

Mojtabai says girls, in particular, “are more likely to use these new means of communication, so may be exposed to more cyberbullying or other negative effects of this latest social media.”

The effects can feel devastating, says Steiner-Adair.

“We know girls are very vulnerable to defining themselves in comparison to others,” she says. Her young female patients often tell her they get their “entire identity” from their phone, she says, constantly checking the number of “tags, likes, Instagram photos and Snapchat stories.”

Steiner-Adair urges schools to be proactive in trying to reduce teens’ feelings of being “left out” or judged. One tool, she says, might be a course in mindfulness — a form of meditation that has been shown to offer measurable health benefits and can help reduce anxiety and depression.

Such training can help teach kids that their brain “on tech” actually needs a rest, Steiner-Adair says. Mindfulness training teaches the value of solitude and can help practitioners calm the urge to constantly check the phone — a useful skill for people of all ages and gender.

Meanwhile, Mojtabai says, parents and family doctors, as well as teachers and school counselors, should be on the lookout for any behavioral changes in the teens they live and work with that might be signs of depression. Symptoms can include changes in sleep patterns, appetite or energy, or a growing inability to pay attention and concentrate.

Even just one counseling session to evaluate such symptoms, Mojtabai says, can help get teens back on the right track.

Being 12

WNYC public radio is running an outstanding program this week titled “Being 12, the year everything changes.”   The series chronicles the unique challenges that 12 year olds face; I think you will find the segments both informative and entertaining.  Here’s a link to the series:

Parents’ Harsh Words Might Make Teen Behaviors Worse


Thursday, September 05, 2013


By Nancy Shute

  • Sure you’re steamed. But teenagers tend to meet harsh words with even worse behavior, a study says. (Katherine Streeter)

  • No matter how much you shout, your teenagers don’t listen.

    — Ming-Te Wang, University of Pittsburgh

Most parents yell at their kids at some point. It often feels like the last option for getting children to pay attention and shape up.

But harsh verbal discipline may backfire. Teenagers act worse if they’re yelled at, a study finds.

Researchers asked parents of 13-year-olds in the Philadelphia area how often in the past year they’d yelled, cursed or called the kid “dumb or lazy or some other word like that” after he or she had done something wrong.

Almost half of the nearly 900 parents said they used harsh verbal punishment — 45 percent of the moms and 42 percent of the fathers.

The parents who used more harsh words when the child was 13 were more likely to see increases in their teenager’s conduct problems when asked again a year later. And the children who faced high levels of harsh verbal discipline were more likely to have symptoms of depression at age 14.

“No matter how much you shout, your teenagers don’t listen,” saysMing-Te Wang, an assistant professor of psychology and education at the University of Pittsburgh, and lead author of the study. “It makes things worse and worse, and makes the relationships more tense.”

The families in the study were largely middle class, and almost all either white and black. The harsh verbal discipline was evenly distributed across economic levels and ethnicity, Wang told Shots. The results were published online in the journal Child Development.

“It’s a reminder to ourselves that we need to stay calm,” Wang says. “When we yell, it won’t help them stop problem behaviors. Parents need to step back a little bit and calm down.”

In the study, children who had more behavior problems at age 13 were more likely to get yelled at. No surprise there. But the study couldn’t nail down if parental yelling was prompting the bad behavior, or if parents with difficult children are more likely to resort to shouting.

Harsh parenting is often part of a package of behavior and it’s hard to separate out the effects of yelling, says Alan Kazdin, director of the Yale Parenting Center, who wasn’t involved in the study. In addition, some adults are genetically more inclined to screaming and harsh behavior, Kazdin says, and it’s likely that their children will be, too, totally aside from how they’re treated.

Parents shouldn’t panic because they’ve lost it in front of the kids, Kazdin says. “Everyone is going to go off the handle at some point,” he tells Shots. “Presumably Mother Teresa got mad.”

That squares with other studies that find that 90 percent of parents say they’ve yelled at their kids. One study found that half of parents say they’ve cursed at their teenagers or called them names.

The problem with verbal or physical punishment, Kazdin says, is that they are ineffective ways to get people to improve behavior. “People like me are against it because you don’t need it to change behavior.”

The effect of harsh words has been less studied than the effect of physical punishment. Wang’s study is trying to fill in some of the gaps, especially since parents are less likely to use physical punishment with teenagers.

Aggressive physical punishment typically prompts aggression from the child, though considerable controversy exists over whether a small amount of physical punishment in younger children is acceptable.

Kazdin says that less yelling would be one step toward a less toxic family environment: less stress, exposure to violence or direct corporal punishment. Instead, he says, parents should focus on nurturing, family activities and routines.

“What are the effects of yelling to or at your child on this one day and then another one next week?” We really don’t know, Kazdin says. “But we do know that yelling, nagging, hitting, etc., does not strengthen the child to help them handle life.”

Parents can clean up their act, but teenagers can also do their part, realizing that learning how to act more appropriately around their parents can make life much happier for them, Wang says. “We should have some two-way interventions for parents and kids.”

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit

Source: NPR

When A Popular List of 100 ‘Best Ever’ Teen Books Is The ‘Whitest Ever’

A stack of books.

When NPR Books invited audience members to nominate and vote for their favorite Young Adult novels, more than 75,000 responded. The extraordinary outpouring speaks of the passion connecting the books section and its followers.

But in that response also lie the seeds of a defect, for lack of a better term, in the poll. The resulting “Your Favorites: 100 Best-Ever Teen Novels” included only two books whose protagonists are people of color, which critics called unjust. The two were Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street and Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. One of the four heroines in a third book, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, by Ann Brashares, is half Puerto Rican.


As lovely an honor as this is, it also made me sad.


– Author Laurie Halse Anderson

Even one of the selected authors reacted in dismay.

“This just might be the whitest YA list ever,” wrote Laurie Halse Anderson on her personal blog. Two of Anderson’s books, Speak and Wintergirls, made it on the list. Still, she wrote, “As lovely an honor as this is, it also made me sad. And angry and frustrated.”

Much of the criticism was directed at the four white judges, but the censure is misplaced. After speaking with editors and studying the poll, I find that the problem was not the judges, but the nature of the poll and the make-up of the audience. This is not to condemn either—let’s celebrate engagement!—but it does raise a question as to how NPR should protect its editorial integrity when publishing a popularity list that realistically will be taken as NPR’s own and have great influence in schools and sales.

As a reading and English teacher in Minneapolis identified as “Shaker Laurie” wrote:

The problem is not that amazing books about teens of color don’t exist. They do. My kids latch obsessively onto books about teens like them and read them voraciously because adolescents in all their self-involved glory enjoy reading texts that remind them of, well, themselves. Sherman Alexie and Sandra Cisneros certainly deserve their received accolades: The House on Mango Street is a beautifully poetic account of a Latina’s coming of age, and Absolutely True Diary poignantly tells the story of a boy who struggles with life on a reservation and his desire for a strong education. Judith Ortiz Cofer, Walter Dean Myers, Linda Sue Park, and Matt de la Peña’s work also comes to mind, so when NPR comes along and declares 100 books the “Best-Ever” and leaves nearly every single young adult title written about people of color off the list without caveat or mention, damage is done.


NPR’s audience skews white. The poll result was innocent, normal and natural. If still sad.


The issue with NPR’s audience is that it skews white and mature. As I detailed last year in a report on diversity in NPR, roughly 87 percent of the radio audience was white, compared to 77 of the country’s over-18 population, according to NPR’s Audience, Insight and Research Department. African-Americans and Hispanics are particularly under-represented; Asian Americans are slightly over-represented, but they are a much smaller group.

While there is no profile of the 75,000 voters themselves, they surely reflect this overall audience to a great degree. It thus seems reasonable to me to assume that many of the voters merely selected the books they knew, loved and identified with when they were teens.

The poll result, in other words, was innocent, normal and natural. If still sad.

The good news is that the proportion of non-whites in the NPR audience is growing as the proportion of African-Americans and Hispanics graduating from university in the nation grows. More than two-thirds of NPR’s listeners are college grads. The bad news is that so long as the nation, and especially the universe of college graduates, is overwhelmingly white, then a popularity poll on books is likely to skew in favor of white authors or white protagonists.

The methodology of the poll, moreover, may have further guaranteed a non-diverse result. Readers submitted more than 1,200 titles, a panel of experts narrowed the list to 235 books that they judged were actually eligible, and the audience responded a second time by voting for their top ten. By picking only 10, voters reasonably went for the books they really most loved or identified with, statistically reinforcing the bias of the audience breakdown. The small number left little room for adding books that a reader might think is also good medicine.

I can’t prove this, however. Alternatively, a small group of readers—say, Asian Americans—who all voted for the same Asian-American titles could have disproportionate impact under a top-10 system.


I am passionately committed to reaching out to diverse authors.


– NPR Books Senior Editor Ellen Silva

Of the 235 finalists, my assistant, Lori Grisham, found at least four more that had diverse heroes and heroines, which still isn’t very many. These included American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang; The First Part Last by Angela Johnson; 
Copper Sun by Sharon M. Draper; 
and Sold by Patricia McCormick.

It is understandable that some listeners blamed the panelists. The three women and a man—Pamela Paul, Diane Roback, Tasha Robinson, Ted Schelvan—are white. And as Linda Sue Park, a children’s fiction author and winner of a Newbery Medal, wrote on her blog:

I have tremendous respect for the panel that narrowed the list; I have worked with some of them personally. But if NPR had been serious about that ‘very best’ label—as opposed to ‘very best if you’re white, educated, and middle-class’—it should have attempted a vital corrective by selecting a panel that included at least one person of color.

But while we as a nation are not at a point yet where we can ignore concerns with diversity, the panelists in fact had little power over the selection. Their race didn’t much matter. As Joe Matazzoni, Senior Supervising Producer of the Arts & Life section of, explained in a considered response to me:

The panelists are all experts in the field but none this year, as far as I know, are persons of color. This will be something we will certainly remedy in future polls. I’ll caution, however, the panel’s influence on the outcome is limited.

It’s important to understand that, for the most part, the panelists are more like line umpires at a tennis match than judges of a beauty contest. Which is to say, they don’t pick the finalists or the winners. In the vast majority of cases, the books that make it to the final voting are the books that received the most nominations from the audience. The panel’s job is to rule out the titles that, in their estimation, fall outside the boundaries of the category — be it science fiction, thrillers, or, this year, young-adult fiction.

This year, as in years past, we allowed the panelists to include up to two of their own favorite books in the voting roster — as a courtesy to thank them for their service. Some of them took us up on the offer. But, to paraphrase an old saying, you can lead a reader to works of literary merit, but you can’t make her vote for them. As in years past, when the voting came around, the audience ignored the “editor’s picks”; none made the top 100.

[Matazzoni’s full response is posted below.]

The books section does, in fact, go to great lengths to cast a wide diversity net in its everyday coverage and features. Supervising Editor Ellen Silva provided these examples from books series over the past eight months:

You Must Read This:Gabrielle Zevin, Pablo Medina, Manuel Munoz, Jesmyn Ward, Roya Hakakian, Alex Gilvarry

My Guilty Pleasure:Krishnadev Calamur

Three Books: Diana Lopez, Lin Noueihed, Hosam Aboul-Ela, Lysley Tenorio, Tim Wu, Alex Gilvarry, Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa

PG-13: Risky Reads: Victor LaValle, Jesmyn Ward

In the hopper:Tahereh Mafi, Abraham Verghese, Joy Castro, Ruben Martinez, Alberto Manguel, Rajesh Parameswaran

In addition, the newspoet series on All Things Considered featured Tracy K. Smith, Kevin Young, Carmen Gimenez Smith, Paisley Rekdal, and Monica Youn. The Morning Edition poetry games series included winner Mbali Vilakazi, Monica de la Torre, Kazim Ali, and Ouyang Yu.

“I am passionately committed to reaching out to diverse authors,” Silva wrote. “It is an essential part of my leadership role at NPR Books.”

So, what should NPR do with its book poll? Matazzoni offered this consideration:

A few people have suggested that we shouldn’t call the top-100 the “best-ever” books, since a popularity contest doesn’t determine quality. It’s a fair point. We picked that title this year to suggest breathless, teen-aged enthusiasm. Also, the lists of recommended books on the NPR Books site are usually restricted to new works, so the title is meant to indicate that the novels on this list come from all periods.

And he made this invitation for even more engagement with you, the audience, to find a solution:

Our job at NPR Books is to find great books for our audience to read. Audience polls are one way of doing this – a way that complements the reviews, interviews, commentaries and other stories that we assign and which more fully express the editorial judgment of the NPR Books team. Finding ways to tap that audience wisdom while not creating an experience that makes some feel excluded will be a challenge, but it’s one we accept. I invite your readers to offer their suggestions.

NPR Books staff have also discussed simultaneously publishing two lists—the popularity poll and one selected by experts. I think that is a good idea. This offers the added fun of comparing and debating the two. No one panel, after all, can lay claim to the truth, so we can additionally fight over throwing the bums out.

But you may have better ideas. Please take up Matazzoni on his invitation. He and his staff are genuine in their request.

Assistant to the ombudsman Lori Grisham contributed to this report.