Five challenges almost every high school student will have to deal with
For students considering post-secondary study abroad, exploring options can be extremely stressful. Where will I go? Will I be safe? Can I make friends, and will I fit in? Having so many options to consider at a critical time in life; a time when they information they seek may not be readily accessible. Being torn in different directions based on need and emotion will affect how an individual can tolerate stress while continuing to navigate a path to the future.
The influence of family and likely more importantly their peers, is a strong factor that will determine how students react and the decisions they make. In general, however, it’s important to remember that these students are still learning and maturing; most are, by definition, teenagers despite their intellectual and academic disposition.
And 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 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 percent of high school students have indicated that they experience moderate-to-serious psychological distress, while 14 percent say they feel serious psychological distress—often manifesting in the form of anxiety and depression. Sometimes, our students consider (14 percent) or attempt (2 percent) 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 counselor’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. Sometimes 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 percent 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 December 2021 for example). It’s incumbent upon the guidance counselor 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 percent of females and over 30 percent 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 percent of youth are worried about being tagged as unattractive in online photos, 27 percent feel stressed about how they look when posting photos, and 22 percent 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 percent of teen girls and 30 percent 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 counselors 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 counselor 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 counselor?
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 percent. 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 counselors 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.
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 counselors 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 counselor 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 counselor 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 percent.
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 counselor expressing their troubles. Therefore, communication is essential. First, the counselor needs to communicate with the student in as compassionate manner as possible. The counselor’s office needs to be a stigma-free, safe space. Second, if necessary, the counselor will need to communicate the student’s situation with the school team. This can take place either informally to a colleague (a fellow guidance counselor) 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 counselors 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 counselor 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.
The five challenges identified here are certainly not the only challenges that teens face. However, they are common and guidance counselors are likely to encounter quite a few students struggling with peer pressure, body image, bullying, substance use and angst or depression. It’s important to be keep your eyes open and look for signs that the student may be struggling as a result of daily stress factors outside of the added pressure of trying to identify a destination for studies.
By: Sean Dolan