Back in the early 2000s, my teenage years were…difficult. As a transracial adoptee, living in White Suburbia, my identity formation was particularly fragmented, my urges to numb outweighed my hopes for the future, and my sense of belonging was built on self-betrayal as I attempted to fit in.
My inner teen is beside herself as I imagine my inner 14-year-old preparing for high school in the present day. The downhill spirals I found myself in appear even more slippery for teens today. I know some of you feel the same bewilderment and concern as I do.
What exactly has created a more treacherous terrain for budding adults? Most of us sense it is more than just the COVID-19 pandemic and social media access. What is going on underneath the surface?
And, perhaps more importantly, what can adults do to provide support for and instill hope in a generation that is more “connected” and more isolated than ever before?
Mental health issues in teenagers are on the rise. Suicide attempts are on the rise. Lethal substance use is all too common. So, let’s explore a few questions and commit to taking action. Right here, right now.
Like with most everything, there are likely various factors that contribute to the problems at hand. Many of us acknowledge the social disruption and existential concerns brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. We can see the negative effects brought on by excessive social media use. We know that rapid cultural shifts are affecting us all.
In addition, there is more uncertainty in the world than recent generations acknowledged. Natural disasters are more common. Puberty is earlier (especially for females). Mental health diagnoses are trendy. Illicit Drugs are more accessible via social media platforms.
The list goes on.
Almost always, we can find themes at the intersection of stressful circumstances, which can help us get to the root of what is going on.
The first theme I think about is identity distortion. Self-perception is already distorted for adolescents. Under the best of conditions, their brains already have a reputation for egocentrism (believing they are the center of others’ thoughts) and for a preoccupation with comparison to others as they strive for peer acceptance. While this is normal, social media exacerbates the potholes on the road toward healthy identity formation. I wonder if there is less access to exploring the true self as many adolescents attempt to mimic and impress 24/7. Disconnection from oneself is incredibly painful. You know what takes the edge off the pain of self-betrayal? Sex. Drugs. Artificial People Pleasing. Superficial Validation. Though it is normal for teens to experiment and stumble around, building authenticity and self-confidence appears to be an even steeper uphill battle.
The second theme I am thinking about is alienation from adult support. Again, this is a normal developmental stage for teens. However, various cultural shifts have widened the typical gap. Finding a common ground can feel impossible as political polarization, technological advancements, and other factors put a wedge between many adolescents and their adult supports.
The third theme that comes to mind is lacking hope for the future. Various factors, including inflation, climate change, and limited financial access to higher education, exacerbate anxiety, helplessness, and hopelessness. It’s already asking a lot for adolescents to make life-changing decisions before their brains are fully developed. And today, we ask them to make these decisions without a sense of hope for a better future.
We need to compensate for the factors working against teens’ healthy development, where possible. Every family and community may have their preferred approaches. Let’s look at some suggestions to get our wheels turning.
First, if you are an adult supporting teenagers, one of THE most important things you can do is work hard to develop open, respectful communication. Some ways this can be achieved is by avoiding patterns of lecturing, dismissing, invalidating, punishing, and criticizing teens, even when you feel exasperated or fearful (yes, this requires you to develop emotion regulation skills). Instead, establish trust by listening to their perspective, asking curious questions, keeping feedback short and nonjudgmental, finding non-threatening ways to teach important life lessons, and developing discipline strategies that are constructive versus punitive.
Second, with the resources available, consider ways to promote hobbies, identity exploration, and healthy relationships. For example, support teens in discovering what excites and interests them by introducing them to new activities. This can instill hope for the future and endorphin release in the present.
Third, encourage the teenagers you know to develop self-awareness (curious questions and respectful dialog help with this). If they understand their pain, they are less likely to bully others (or to be as deeply affected by being bullied) and they will have an easier time self-advocating for what they truly need, as opposed to using the emotional band-aids of drugs and other unhelpful coping strategies.
Fourth, promote self-confidence. Encourage them to set boundaries at home/school/work and to share their perspective. Respond respectfully. Teach them respectful ways to disagree with others and become more independent from external influences. Model what it looks like to stick up for others and set boundaries yourself. At the end of the day, if adults require teens to “sit down and shut up,” it will take much longer to develop self-confidence and related traits.
Fifth, advocate for teenagers to receive additional support. Requesting a 504-plan through the public school system, enrolling them in therapeutic group activities, and establishing them with an individual or family therapist may be helpful. And, consider personal therapy to weed through what is working for you as adult support and to fill in the gaps with psychoeducation, unconditional support from a therapist, and other helpful tools.
Last but not least, consider this: Hope is empty and fragile when only our words are used to express it. Hope is sustained and authenticated through our actions and habits. What are you willing to change in your own life to instill hope in the generations to come?