Okay, so our grandparents had to walk uphill, both ways, barefoot in the snow, to get to the one-room unheated schoolhouse. And we had to sharpen actual pencils, lug textbooks home and share a single phone with the whole family. But today’s teenagers? Whoah Nelly. They’re dealing with pressures we literally couldn’t imagine.
Here’s what teens are experiencing.
» That $600 phone in their pocket? That thing is radioactive, pulsing with every bullying peer, secret crush and perfect influencer, 24/7. The teen’s whole world is contained in that four inches of tech and glass…but they can’t touch it for the 7.5 boring, stressful hours of school every day. And they can’t sleep at night because what if someone’s talking smack about them on Snapchat and they don’t see it? Not okay.
» School is all-AP, all the time. Gone are the days of the brain-break in classes like art and gym and Spanish. You’ll literally fail art if you haven’t memorized the sub-strata of chroma and hue on the color wheel; if you can’t analyze and verbalize and editorialize on the masters’ brushstroke techniques. But the terror of changing clothes in the locker room–that hasn’t changed a bit.
» Their version of “playing sports” isn’t recreation. It’s brain surgery. It’s rocket science. It’s a vise grip of pressure, with their entire college career weighing on their being The Best. And every kid on the team needs to be The Best.
» The clearly defined roles of yesteryear–jock, popular kid, stoner, geek, gay–no longer exist. Remember Whitney Houston’s power ballad “I’m Every Woman”? That’s today’s kids’ theme song, only it’s “I’m Every Overachiever.” They need to stay Instagram cute, Ivy League booksmart, Olympian fit, and rockstar cool at all times. And post about it all on social.
» When they finally get home from school, where they might have participated in an active shooter drill, they sit down and do boring, stressful homework, so they can Be Somebody, fifteen unfathomable years from now.
Piece of cake, right? So what’s with this anxiety epidemic among teens? Why is your kid so unmotivated? Why does he only want to play video games? Why is she cutting herself?
Here’s what the science says.
In addition to all the cultural pressures of today, young people—between puberty and the mid-20s—are in epic change mode. Biologically, psychologically and sociologically. Everything is shifting. Your kid is trying to navigate pressures on every front while their body is in upheaval.
Take the brain. The amygdala—the part of the brain that controls our primal reactions (fight or flight; anger and fear)—is fully developed at birth. But the frontal cortex—the part that handles planning, reasoning, problem solving—isn’t fully developed until mid-adulthood. We’re talking, like, mid-thirties.
So your average 16-year-old can flex that anger, that anxiety, full force…but he can’t, yet, control all of his behavior, or create and implement a plan of action. Literally. His brain hasn’t grown that ability.
Big, crazy behavior? Yes! Well-reasoned problem solving? Not so much!
Keep that in mind as we consider puberty.
As young as age 12, and for most by 16, kids have had a big growth spurt. Body shape changes; facial hair appears. So by 16, most kids look like little adults.
Our brains, meanwhile, are wired to make snap judgments. So we look at a young person acting impulsively, and *snap!* we judge her by adult standards, because she looks like an adult. We think she should be acting and talking and thinking like “us.” And we—parents, schools, the justice system—often punish kids according to that standard.
How do these changes affect the dynamic at home and school? Well, let’s look at cognitive change. During adolescence, humans develop new abilities in thinking. Suddenly a kid is able to consider more complex issues—they see multiple shades of gray, instead of black and white. This is great when it comes to civics class, but what about when your kid starts challenging beliefs you’ve instilled in him since birth? Or when your daughter starts pushing back against your rules, or your son suddenly “stops caring” about his grades? Where did your kid go, and who is this stranger?
All of this is compounded by shifting family dynamics, and increased dependence on peer influence. Thanks to those cognitive shifts, adolescents are becoming more assertive and independent at home. They’re testing boundaries; they’re assessing their personal strength. This may be a biological imperative, preparing a mammal for independence, but it doesn’t make your teen fun to live with.
At the same time, teens are naturally inclined to spend less time with their family, and more time with their peers. And oh, those peers! Peers whose approval means the world; peers who are the source of so. much. stress. A small sampling:
» shifting allegiances and friend groups
» cliques and popularity dynamics
» pressure to perform socially, academically, athletically….
» comparisons based on appearance—body, clothing, face, hair….
Of course, peers go hand-in-hand with school, which brings more stress:
» increasing demands with the transition to middle school, high school, and college
» different expectations and personalities from different teachers
» motivation and engagement versus lack of motivation and boredom
» college and career decisions (P.S: at a time when most kids have no clue what they want to do or be…)
» extra-curriculars—are you a jock? a brain? an artist? an activist? all of the above? none? what are you?
And just to throw a match on this Molotov cocktail, let’s have a think about hormonal changes. Biologically, teens have a higher sensitivity to stress. Researchers give us a great, adaptive reason for this:
» adolescence is a phase of constant new experience and challenge
» stress gives us a shot in the rear, a shove of energy
» this increased stress, in adolescence, is a survival function, enabling kids to rise to the constant challenge.
Again, though: the science doesn’t turn life with a teen into a Sunday drive. Especially not when you throw in the increased depression, aggression and mood swings that often come along for the ride.
…and all of this, all, of, this, is happening at that pivotal moment when kids’ choices and behaviors can make or break the rest of their lives.
But hey! They’ve got Google, so what else do they need?
Well. Google is nice and all, but a caring adult—an adult who can:
» focus entirely on the kid, and
» ask the right questions, and
» help the kid figure out what they really want, and how to get there?
That can be even nicer.
As a life coach for teens—and a former troubled teen myself—I totally get, and totally help kids with, all of this stuff.