Some things teenagers have to deal with just don’t change. Heartbreak, hormones, heightened social anxiety -- it's all just part of the package.
But things that are unique to the 2015 teen experience -- social media, texting, and ephemeral messaging -- take regular teen issues to a whole new level. This isn’t breaking news, but teens are saying that adults still don’t fully get it.
And if parents and teachers can’t understand, how do they help?
Speaking on WNPR’s Where We Live, Cindy Rodriguez, a reading specialist at King Philip Middle School in West Hartford, said that teenage anxiety stems from the teenager-adult disconnect. Rodriguez’s debut novel, When Reason Breaks, tackles issues that teens often face, with the adult characters playing a positive role in the teenage struggle.
“I think in young adult fiction, adults too often are absent entirely, or part of the problem,” Rodriguez said. “But my experience has been that there are plenty of adults in the public school system who really do want to help, and have extended themselves past their professional role of teacher, or counselor, or principal.”
Outside the classroom, things get a little more complicated.
Shamoya Hanson and Vi’Quan Herring, high school seniors at the Journalism and Media Academy in Hartford, said teenagers mask their emotions, and that while discipline is important, it can often conflict with teens’ transition to adulthood.
Debra Dean-Ciriani , a marriage and family therapist at The Bridge Family Center in West Hartford, said during the program that parents should re-evaluate how they approach discipline. “Family and friends are often addressing the behavior; they’re not addressing the feelings,” she said.
There will probably always be things teens don’t share with their parents.
Olivia Smith, a student at Classical Magnet School in Hartford, said her family pushes her to do well in school and maintain a social life. But even with the support of her family, she said, “There are some things I cannot talk to [my mom] about.”
This divide may be fueled by parents’ disconnect from how their children are communicating. Social media connects teens to each other, but Hanson and Herring said that teens today are subject to the pressures of maintain an image online as well as in-person.
“Teens realize that the things that they do can be easily documented and posted online for everyone to see,” Herring said. “So they can’t act the way they want to act because they’re afraid they’ll be judged by a large group of people -- people that they don’t know; people that they don’t want to associate with.”
Hanson said that because of this pressure, she’s often unmotivated to leave the comfort of her house. “I’ve noticed nowadays I’d rather stay inside. I’d rather text them or Kik them, inbox them on Facebook, rather than actually leave the house,” she said.
Desire for isolation stems from the idea that nothing teens do can be private anymore, said Rodriguez. “All those things that used to be precious, private moments, when I was a teenager -- they were these things that you experienced. It wasn’t the world experiencing that with you,” she said.
Dean-Ciriani added that when teens face pressure from social situations, they opt to stay home, which can amplify the problems.
“Isolation is the biggest dream killer in the world for kids,” she said. “You go home, you lock yourself in your room, and you put all your thoughts in your head. And if there’s a kid leaning towards depression, that’s the worst thing you can do.”
Smith said a few of her friends have attempted self-harm and suicide, but it was hard to tell that they were going through such pain. “It was kind of an earth-shattering experience, especially because the friends I do have who have either self-harmed, or tried to commit suicide, were more of the outgoing people in our group, so we didn’t see it coming,” she said. “I think having social media should have made that easier, but at the same time, it’s easier to mask your emotions.”
Rodriguez offered some solutions to unmasking students’ troubles: “I think students, over the years, have gotten the message that they we know they might be uncomfortable talking to adults. We’re encouraging them to report a friend in need if that friend can’t do it themselves. It’s a very difficult thing to do…but I’ve seen over the years that more and more students are reporting.”
But if students are reporting, they need people to report to. Rodriguez said schools need to invest more in hiring counselors, social workers, and psychologists who can respond when a student is in crisis. “They do need more than one person in the building to go to who can take it to that next level of intervention,” she said.
Herring offered another solution: “The best thing to do in a situation where a child is feeling isolated is find some people who relate to you better, that understand you better, that talk to you if you have a problem,” he said. “It’s important to engage in extracurricular activities, something to ease their mind.”
Ryan King is an intern at WNPR.