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How to Climb Mt Everest – A Teenage Quest

college photoI just returned from a college tour with my almost 18 year old. Separating and getting to school on time is her only task right now. Any amount of my saying, “Um, you’re driving too fast around the turns” was definitely unwelcome advice. Add to that, she was on her phone from morning ‘til night, including while we were in the hotel pool! As we transition to evening I rest, reset and relax but she continues on for hours, lurking about, with no sleep schedule in sight, her tiny pupils dilating for the screen, probably lighting up the Hippocampus, the seat of emotional regulation. She is posting, posing and talking when she should be dreaming of Catcher in the Rye.

Day after day I am seeing teenagers just like this, zombified like the night king, and I wonder how they can concentrate or perform ordinary tasks of young adulthood such as solving problems, driving a car or adjusting their mood? They can’t. It’s like this: if you are climbing Mt. Everest and you run out of oxygen, how can you make an important decision like whether to stop or go? Because BY DEFINITION you can’t think straight with no oxygen to the brain.

Research supports the belief that if teens don’t take care of basic health needs they cannot thrive. Slowly, insidiously they become slovenly (clean your room), insolent (I told you so), moody (I can’t go to school like this) and impulsive (I need a haircut now!). In this teen world the personal is public, sexts travel at the speed of light and vaping can be done in any school bathroom. I have helped many teens who almost didn’t graduate because they failed to go to gym and found out a week before high school was ending that they were in trouble. Time to walk the track…

When girls are upset they tend to internalize.
I’m no good.
I’m invisible.
I’m not attractive enough.
I’m a loser.
I have no energy.
No one would care if I wasn’t here.

These thoughts and feelings correlate with dysthymia, depression, PTSD, anxiety and stress.

We look to the outside to control our cravings and inside to control our triggers. Then we throw our hands up and stop living, hiding behind pixels, a perpetual persona. Teens text on average 94 times per day! If my teen is texting her boyfriend while we’re on vacation is it really a vacation? If a child is at school after a sleepless night of seeing who “liked” her selfie pose, a snapchat “streak” or watching Netflix, can she truly absorb AP Chemistry? If a young adult is not eating all day but binging on coffee or beer all weekend, how can she be stable enough to get to work on time?

One of my young clients had a very disturbing exchange with a boy. The whole high school knew about it. She started begging her mother to change her school. That not being feasible, she refused to leave the house. When teens escalate, parents grow fearful and they cannot distinguish what is a cry for help and what is normal teen angst.

Teens feel distress because of their emotional brain center, the Amygdala. If it’s flooded, reasoning goes right out the window. She or he feels loss magnified by public humiliation and withdrawal. Now it’s the perfect storm. Whereas in the old days I could cry to my mother at a payphone and then be bolstered just enough to take another step forward, the young person today is bombarded by her own emotional dysregulation (see Lisa Damour) and the public scrutiny of friends, family and strangers, with no time to hit pause.

This recipe of distress + sadness + social media exposure = shame may be what is leading twice as many teens to suggest suicide than a decade ago, according to one recent report. So how can a parent and/or therapist really know what is going on? The ability to distinguish “normal” from “crisis” is something mental health professionals are quite skilled at.

Like Mt. Everest, these adolescents can’t self-regulate or take care of themselves through breathe, body and spirit because there is little emphasis on it; they cannot find the motivation or they are too depressed to gain mastery. Some progressive colleges and companies are offering yoga, meditation, mindfulness and even sabbaticals. They recognize the importance of respite and equanimity. If you miss these milestones, how can you navigate to the next plateau?

I light a candle in my office and turn on the sound of waves. My Husky settles down by my feet (although only on his terms). In comes another kid who skipped school and feels lightheaded much of the time, who is failing Bio, who lost her best friend to an overdose, who cries herself to sleep. Can we talk about it?

How to Climb Mt Everest – A Teenage Quest

Donna C. Moss

Donna Moss was a blog contributor at Psych Central.

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APA Reference
Moss, D. (2019). How to Climb Mt Everest – A Teenage Quest. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 21, 2020, from


Last updated: 29 Apr 2019
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