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Our Struggling Teens: Five challenges almost every student will have to deal with

Adolescence is a challenging time. There’s no coherent way of disputing this. Despite claims that some generations have had it easier than others, in the grand scheme of things, adolescence can be quite difficult, and always has been. Today’s crop of teens has certainly been presented with some unique challenges, many emerging from the global pandemic. However, beyond the health scares and flood of virus information rest several hot-button issues that were there before the pandemic and will continue to present themselves after the pandemic. 

The struggle is real

Before diving into some specific issues plaguing teens, a few important items need to be discussed. First, our students are struggling. Over 30% of high school students have indicated that they experience moderate-to-serious psychological distress, while 14% say they feel serious psychological distress—often manifesting in the form of anxiety and depression. Sometimes, our students consider (14%) or attempt (2%) to take their own lives. These numbers constitute a mental health crisis—a crisis that is only compounded by chronic underfunding of mental health care and long waits for students seeking professional help. The second item that should be addressed deals with technology. Adolescent challenges are being exacerbated by social media, texting, and excessive screen time. The technological undercurrent tends to accompany the five timeless struggles that teens deal with, and that they will probably carry with them to the counsellor’s office at some point in their high school career. 

Issue #1: Peer Pressure

Teens are caught in that awkward phase between childhood and adulthood. They are trying to figure who they are and where they want to go with their studies, careers, and lives. The process is fraught with uncertainty, with peer pressure playing a key role in navigating the turbulent waters of adolescence. 

Peer pressure isn’t always a coercive act where friends push their compatriots into deviant behaviour. Instead, it can take on a much more subtle tone. There are times when all a teenager needs is to surrender to an idea like “that’s cool” or “everybody else is doing it” to participate in an activity that might not be in their best interests. However, in many cases, teens follow the lead of their peers. Take smoking as an example: according to the Canadian Lung Association, 70% of teens either have friends who smoke, or say they started smoking because of peer pressure. This trend is echoed in almost every other area: drug and alcohol use, sexual activity, bullying (either as the transgressor or the bystander), and even self-harm. If they know others are doing it, teens are likely to consider doing it. In terms of social media, peer pressure has recently been used to coax teens into dares (like the dare to kick in the front doors of strangers that emerged in London, Ontario, in December 2021). It’s incumbent upon the guidance counsellor to recognize the pervasiveness of peer pressure and bring an adult perspective to situations where a student might be inclined to engage in risky behaviour. 

Issue #2: Body Image

The statistics are clear: half of us don’t like the way we look. By gender, 80% of females and over 30% of males aren’t happy with their appearance. Certainly, the age of social media and the visual circus on the streaming platforms contributes to this perspective. According to the non-profit education platform Common Sense Media, 35% of youth are worried about being tagged as unattractive in online photos, 27% feel stressed about how they look when posting photos, and 22% feel bad when their photos are ignored. 

Alarmingly, some teens are descending the slippery slope into ‘thinspiration’ (also called ‘thinspo,’ short for ‘thin’ and ‘inspiration’), ‘pro-ana’ (pro-anorexia) and ‘pro-mia’(pro-bulimia) websites. The ‘thinspiration’ movement promotes dangerous levels of thinness. Their advocacy is contributing to the poor self-image of the 50% of teen girls and 30% of teen boys who pursue unhealthy weight control strategies like skipping meals, fasting, smoking, vomiting, and taking laxatives. Being aware of these trends puts guidance counsellors at an advantage. They can maintain vigilance when it comes to identifying body image issues affecting students and work with students and parents to maintain a realistic perspective when it comes to physical appearance. 

Issue #3: Bullying

By some estimates, one in three students are victims of bullying, most of which originates or occurs at school. In other words, if a guidance counsellor sees 100 students over the course of a week, over 30 of them could be suffering at the hands of a bully. In fact, bullying is so prevalent that incidents are said to occur every seven minutes in the playground and every 25 minutes in the classroom. Many students report being bullied in class while the teacher is in the room. This begs the question: how many students feel comfortable bringing bullying to the attention of a caring adult like a guidance counsellor? 

The effects of bullying have been widely documented. Along with feelings of humiliation and decreased self-esteem, the victim is at a higher risk of depression, suicidal ideation, self-harm, anxiety, sleep problems, lower academic scores and dropping out of school. Cyber-bullying merely compounds these issues. Victims of the many forms of bullying (physical, verbal, social, cyber, racial, religious, sexual and disability) are twice as likely to attempt suicide. 

The situation is not hopeless. The spotlight has been squarely placed on bullying, and anti-bullying programs have reduced school-related bullying by 20%. Also, education surrounding bullying has led to more interventions by bystanders. In most cases, a bullying incident will end within 10 seconds of an intervention. Guidance counsellors can help victims of bullying by listening to their concerns and then seeking immediate action through the school administration. Across Canada, school boards have enacted policies that promote zero-tolerance of bullying of any kind. 

Issue #4: Substance abuse

Many teens will experiment with drugs and alcohol over the course of their adolescence. Alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, and prescription medication seem to be the gateway substances that entice youth. Once students decide to try a drug, the cycle of dependence and craving is initiated. For some, trying something like cannabis or alcohol will cause minimal cravings. For others, the craving will become gradually or rapidly more intense, leading to more dangerous, addictive behaviour. 

Over the past decade, youth have reported using these substances at least once in the previous year: 

SUBSTANCE USE IN THE LAST YEAR
Alcohol71.5%
Marijuana25.1%
Hallucinogens4.6%
Ecstasy3.8%
Cocaine2.7%
Source: Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse

Since the start of the pandemic, many adolescents have reported that their substance use has increased. Couple this with the startling revelation that one in five teens are raiding their parent’s medicine chest looking for prescription drugs to take, and it’s easy to see that substance use and abuse is a serious problem. 

Youth turn to substance use to generate an altered state of mind that they believe will allow them to feel good, forget their worries, ease their pain, feel grown up, or to fit in with a particular group. Guidance counsellors working with students who are opting for substance use often employ a harm reduction approach. Bombarding the student with doomsday statistics generally fail to convince teens invested in substance use. Instead, marrying the pitfalls of substance use with strategies to reduce use to create less harm tend to work much more effectively.

Issue #5: Angst and Depression

Angst and depression are two different things. Teen angst is a typical emotional experience that adolescents encounter due to a combination of hormone shifts and questions about their future. When you combine the ‘who am I’ and ‘why am I here’ questions with puberty, an emotional rollercoaster is often the result. Many young people feel like they’re depressed when they are experiencing angst—an existential journey where the teen examines their life and begin to choose the direction they want to take. Angst can also express itself as anger and moodiness.

Depression can be distinguished from angst by three indicators: 

  • The intensity of the behaviour. 
  • The length of time the feeling presents itself. 
  • The presence of the feeling or mood over time in different social environments.

In the case of angst, the depressive-looking episode may be intense for a short period and then disappear when the young person is with their friends or go to school. If a teen is expressing strong feelings of despondency and dejection over a long period of time and in most areas of their life–at home, at school and with friends—then they are more likely to be depressed. 

Students who seek help in the guidance office should be triaged in a sense. The counsellor can ask questions like: How do you feel? How long does the feeling last? Does the feeling come and go or is it there all the time? These questions will help the counsellor distinguish between angst and depression. It will also help them determine what course of action to take next. It’s important to note that, since the pandemic started in March 2020, young people experiencing major depressive disorders has risen from 18 to 23%. 

Communication

It’s easy enough to identify five challenges that today’s teens face. It is quite another thing to deal with an actual student sitting in front of the counsellor expressing their troubles. Therefore, communication is essential. First, the counsellor needs to communicate with the student in as compassionate manner as possible. The counsellor’s office needs to be a stigma-free, safe space. Second, if necessary, the counsellor will need to communicate the student’s situation with the school team. This can take place either informally to a colleague (a fellow guidance counsellor) or formally to the full school team (psychologist, social worker, child youth worker, administration). If a referral needs to be made outside of the school—like to a doctor’s office or to the emergency room—the school team needs to know what’s going on and be part of the process. Third, and perhaps most importantly, communication with the parents is essential. Despite the pleading of the student to keep their parents and guardians out of the situation, guidance counsellors need to convince the student that their primary caregivers need to know what’s happening—and if they can’t convince them, tell the parents anyway. While certain minor issues can remain confidential, if a counsellor feels genuine concern for the well-being of the student, parents and caregivers need to be brought into the situation. In the end, it is better to err on the side of caution. 

Final thoughts

The five challenges identified here are certainly not the only challenges that teens face. However, they are common and guidance counsellors are likely to encounter quite a few students struggling with peer pressure, body image, bullying, substance use and angst or depression.  

For resources and strategies to help deal with the five challenges presented in this article, see the Dealing with Five Common Student Challenges article in this issue of Canadian School Counsellor

By: Sean Dolan