Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) for Teens: A Healthier Way to Cope

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Comedy writer Nora Ephron once said, “When your children are teenagers, it’s important to have a dog so that someone in the house is happy to see you.”

It’s true that teen mood swings are bound to happen. But being a teenager isn’t easy. Many teens face pressure at home and at school, as they struggle to find their identity and form relationships at the same time. The emotional demands and hormonal changes of adolescence can be overwhelming. Some teens express this turbulence with outbursts of anger, while others withdraw and refuse to share what they’re feeling with their loved ones.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), about 13 percent of teenagers experience a major depressive episode each year. NIMH statistics show that depression is up by 47 percent for boys and 65 percent for girls since 2013—a significant increase. The most serious complication of depression is suicide, but depression can also lead to substance abuse, eating disorders, and other serious health problems.

In these challenging times, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) for teens can help them learn to be more accepting of life’s difficulties and reframe negative thoughts and feelings.

Is It Teen Moodiness or Depression?

To protect your teen, it’s important to know the difference between typical teen moodiness and depression. For example:

  • Teen mood swings may happen frequently, including shifts to happy behavior, while teens with depression display an extreme pattern of anger, sadness, or withdrawal.
  • Teens often try to establish their own identity separate from the family and may be angry with their parents quite frequently. Teens with depression withdraw from their friends as well.
  • Many teens experience periods of intense sadness or anger after a loss or trauma. However, when these feelings last longer than two weeks or seem to come out of nowhere, they may signal depression.
  • Teens often act one way at home and another way at school or with friends. But teens with depression exhibit depressive symptoms in many different contexts, or deliberately avoid people and places where they are expected to act happy.

Depression can cause intense sadness and feelings of hopelessness, but it is treatable. For those suffering from depression or another mental health issue, ACT for teens can help them fight negativity and find the path to a happier, healthier life.

How Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Works

Developed in the 1980s by Steven Hayes, a psychology professor at the University of Nevada, ACT is a type of mindfulness-based therapy that encourages people to embrace their thoughts and feelings rather than fighting them or feeling guilty about them. ACT techniques emphasize acceptance rather than avoidance.

Medical conditions such as depression, anxiety, Obssessive-Compulsive Disorder, and substance abuse can all benefit from ACT. With ACT, teens commit to facing their problems head-on rather than avoiding their triggers and stressors. They also learn how to accept their emotions and allow themselves to feel what they feel, even if it’s negative. The findings of a 2018 study on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for health behavior change showed that ACT techniques can have a long-term positive impact in clients’ lives.

The Six Core Processes of ACT for Teens

There are six core processes of ACT that provide a framework to help teens develop psychological flexibility. The six processes are as follows:

  • Acceptance: Acceptance is the alternative to the natural instinct to avoid thinking about negative (or potentially negative) experiences. It is the active choice of allowing unpleasant experiences to exist, without trying to deny or change them.
  • Cognitive defusion: This technique is intended to change how a person reacts to their thoughts and feelings. Rather than limiting their exposure to negative thoughts and situations, ACT teaches clients how to face these experiences and feelings, and reduce their fixation on them. Therefore, they become more manageable and have less power over one’s behavior.
  • Being present: This is the practice of being aware of the present moment, without trying to predict or change the experience.
  • Self as context: An individual is not simply the sum of their experiences, thoughts, or emotions. This process offers the alternative concept that there is a self outside of the current experience. You are not only what happens to you—you are the one experiencing what happens to you.
  • Values: These are the qualities that you choose to work toward at any given moment. ACT helps teens identify the values that are most important to them.
  • Committed action: ACT techniques encourage teens to commit to actions that will help them achieve their long-term goals and live a life consistent with their values.

Silencing the Negativity

Why can’t I be happy? I’m not smart enough. No one likes me. I do everything wrong.

A teen’s inner voice of judgment and negativity can trap them in a cycle of undermining their own progress. A painful memory, self-criticism, or fear about the future can crop up and override positive emotions. Some teens cope with this by avoiding their thoughts and feelings entirely, often by using drugs or alcohol. ACT provides language and experiential exercises to help teens learn how to access their thoughts and feelings, accept them, and move on.

In summary, ACT for teens can help them reframe negativity, develop long-term coping skills, and be more fully present in their relationships and their lives.

 

Sources:

Front Psychol. 2017; 8: 2350.

Psych Record. 2018; 68: 405–418.

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