Being a teenager is hard, and probably always has been. It is a time when you leave the warmth, security and comfort of childhood—and the simplicity of its relationships—and are suddenly thrust into a cruel world of overwhelming expectations, unrelenting insecurity, hormonal and bodily changes, sexuality, social hierarchies, performance pressures, identity confusion, emotional rollercoasters, and increased independence and decision-making. It’s a wonder that any of us survive it.
My own teenage years were difficult, and thankfully I had a wonderful family and loving friends to help me through the worst times. I like to think that I emerged from adolescence reasonably well-adjusted. But I’m noticing disturbing trend among my teen clients: something that seems to be a whole new kind of suffering. The intensity and quality of sadness, rage, confusion, self-destruction, nihilism and despair seems to have reached record levels. Much of this is partially to fully unconscious, but manifests in typical ways: cutting and self-mutilation, eating disorders, attentional problems, psychiatric hospitalization, substance abuse, academic underperformance, and more.
From a mental health standpoint, this would make sense: the magnitude of cultural and economic problems teens face right now is far greater than that of previous generations. In this series of blog posts, I’ll examine several factors that I believe are negatively impacting the mental health of teens in the U.S. today, and what we adults (friends, family, mentors, healers) can do to help counteract them. I’ll begin with the unique Social pressures and Expectations that face teens today.
Social Pressures and Expectations
Overall, teens are benefitting—along with the rest of our society—from the widening sphere of socially permissible identities and behaviors. I am regularly astonished at how early and confidently teens are coming out of the closet, engaging in serious romantic and sexual relationships, taking time off from school to work on farms or engage in social justice causes, exploring their artistic selves, and questioning their gender identity.
While this is all wonderful in theory, it has two hidden costs: choice paralysis and overwhelm. Because adolescents are still forming their sense of themselves (their feelings, beliefs, desires, likes and dislikes, and social roles), exploring such psychologically potent territory without a fully-formed compass can leave some teens in a morass of confusion and despair.
Choice paralysis occurs when someone doesn’t have a strong enough connection to their intuition, and as such cannot discern the best among many options. This can result in depression, shutting down and opting-out of life energetically. While it is wonderful to have choices, it is equally important to have the skills to make choices effectively, drawing upon the richness of one’s interior life while meeting the demands of the external world.
Overwhelm happens when teens try on too many things at once and are not given by their peers or families the time and space to slow down and explore each choice to see how it fits for them. Psychological and emotional life becomes a soup of contradictory feelings, identities, impulses, and affiliations. This often manifests in anxiety, destructive relationships, substance abuse and self-harm, all of which can be seen as a teen’s attempt to regulate feelings that are too big and too new to consciously process on their own.
Social life is of supreme importance to teens, and that is developmentally appropriate. In order to support them in this era of unprecedented choice, however, it is more important than ever that we give them the permission, space and skills to sort through this dizzying set of social identity options. Developing emotional intelligence and self-awareness is key, and as such mindfulness practice is one of the most effective remedies for this psychological strain.
Mindfulness is best learned through therapeutic process (which teaches emotional awareness, regulation, self-knowledge and helpful coping skills), or through live teachings in a community setting. iBme is an excellent resource for teen mindfulness retreats and programs, and there are other similar organizations and group meetings throughout the Bay Area. If you are or you have a teen who would like to explore mindfulness, feel free to give me a call and I would be happy to give you up-to-date resources and information, as well as a free phone consultation to see if therapy might be appropriate.
Next time, I’ll tackle the unprecedented Academic and Economic Pressures teens face today.