For much of human history, the idea of adolescence being a distinct life stage was nonexistent. True, in the Middle Ages, children were recognized not merely as “mini” adults but as distinct beings with different needs. However, the years from ages 13 to 19 were not considered part of childhood until the turn of the 19th century. Instead, the “teen years” were the time when one began to assume adult responsibilities such as making a living and starting a family.
During the late 1800s, changes in child labor laws and the push for universal education for those under the age of 16 began to influence society’s perspective on when adulthood began. G. Stanley Hall, the first president of the American Psychological Association (APA), is credited with the modern “discovery” of adolescence, defining it in a 1904 book as a new developmental stage — created by societal changes — in which children grow into adults. Hall described adolescence as a time of “storm and stress” and, unlike later researchers, ascribed this life stage as lasting from ages 14-24 (rather than today’s generally accepted range of 13-19).
Although adolescence is still considered to be synonymous with the teen years, Hall’s instinct to single out the early 20s as different from later “adult” years was prescient. In the past decade, neurological research has discovered that the brain does not fully mature until one’s mid-to-late 20s. This revelation has spurred many researchers, particularly in mental health fields, to call for a separate developmental stage that is generally referred to as “young” or “emerging” adulthood.
Adding more than a soupçon of complication to both the recognition of emerging adulthood and the established research on adolescence is the reality that being a teen or 20-something in the information age is, in many ways, significantly different — and arguably more difficult — than it was for previous generations.
Stressed and depressed
An abundance of research indicates that teens and young adults are experiencing increased levels of stress and depression. In recent years, APA’s annual “Stress in America” survey has gathered data only on adults. However, in the survey released in 2014, “Stress in America: Are Teens Adopting Adults’ Stress Habits?” young people ages 13-17 were also included.
Survey respondents reported that during the school year, they had a stress level of 5.8 on a 10-point scale. During the summer break, teens reported a slight decrease in stress levels — 4.6 on a 10-point scale. Furthermore, 31 percent of survey respondents said that their stress levels had increased over the past year. In response to their high levels of stress, 40 percent of respondents reported feeling irritable or angry, 36 percent reported feeling nervous or anxious, 36 percent reported feeling fatigued or tired, and 31 percent reported feeling overwhelmed.
Depression is another significant concern among adolescents. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in 2016 (the most recent year for which statistics are available), an estimated 3.1 million adolescents ages 12-17 experienced at least one major depressive episode. That number represented 12.8 percent of the U.S. population in that age bracket.
Although most mental health surveys do not specifically target “young” or developing adults, data are available relating to college students. Among the more than 31,000 college students who completed the 2017 American College Health Association National College Health Assessment, 39.3 percent reported being so depressed that they found it hard to function at some point during the previous 12 months. Anxiety levels among respondents were even higher: 60.9 percent reported feeling overwhelming anxiety at some point during the prior year.
The high levels of anxiety and depression indicated in these studies are part of a national pattern of significantly increasing distress. A national poll published in May by the American Psychiatric Association noted a sharp increase in American anxiety levels over the past year. On a scale of 0-100, this year’s “national anxiety score” was a 51 — a five-point jump since 2017. A study published in the June 2018 issue of the journal Psychological Medicine found that rates of depression rose across all age brackets of Americans for those 12 and over from 2005 to 2015. Most significantly, among those ages 12-17, depression rates increased from 8.7 percent in 2005 to 12.7 percent in 2015.
Some researchers are eager to blame technology — particularly social media — for the increase of depression and anxiety among teenagers and young adults. The reality is more complex and involves myriad factors.
It is undeniable that some people do find their lives lacking when compared with what they see on social media. Carefully curated Facebook feeds can suggest to them that their friends are happier and more successful than they are. Celebrity photos on Instagram — most of which are professionally produced and heavily filtered — can encourage unrealistic expectations about body image and personal appearance. However, when one considers the role that social media plays in the quest for perfection, it may be something of a chicken-and-egg scenario.
A 2017 study on perfectionism that appeared in the journal Psychological Bulletin found that beginning in the 1980s, a culture of “competitive individualism” in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom steadily increased the quest for personal perfection. So, is what we see on social media pushing us toward unattainable standards of perfection, or is it a reflection of the pressure we put on ourselves? At this point in time, we may be caught in a reinforcing loop. The study found that current generations not only feel intense societal pressure to be perfect but also expect perfection from themselves and others. The study’s authors also believe that this rise in perfectionism may be linked to an increase in myriad psychological problems.
Today’s teenagers and young adults are unquestionably subject to high expectations and demands. Licensed mental health counselor David Flack, who has worked with adolescents and young adults for 20 years, says he has seen a significant increase in anxiety related to academic performance among his clients.
“It is not uncommon for teens I meet with to have three, four or even more hours of homework most days,” he says. This reality creates significant pressure and is particularly stressful for students who are predisposed to anxiety. Flack, a member of the American Counseling Association, also believes that such heavy academic workloads are interfering with important social and developmental processes because many teenagers may be spending more time doing homework than socializing and engaging in extracurricular or other age-appropriate activities.
Licensed professional counselor (LPC) Sean Roberts, an ACA member who specializes in working with young adults, says he has witnessed a precipitous increase in anxiety among clients. He thinks this is strongly, though not solely, linked to teenagers and young adults feeling increased pressure to succeed.
Not coincidentally, the anxiety they experience makes it only more difficult for them to achieve. “Anxiety has a neurological effect,” explains ACA member Amy Gaesser, an assistant professor of counselor education at the State University of New York at Brockport whose research focuses on the social and emotional well-being of students in school. “The survival part of the brain activates and shuts off or interferes with the parts of the brain that help us think clearly.”
This can have a significant effect on academic performance, says Gaesser, a certified school counselor in New York who gives presentations and offers private consultations with parents. For example, some students can study extensively and be fully prepared for a test, but because of their anxiety, can have trouble accessing that information while taking the test. Anxiety can also interfere with the ability to take in and synthesize information, Gaesser says. Students become frustrated with their seeming inability to “get it,” which affects their feelings of self-efficacy and can even make them question their level of intelligence. Once a pattern of academic difficulty tied to anxiety is established, the problem can become self-perpetuating.
Disrupting the cycle is vital, says Gaesser, who recommends the emotional freedom technique (EFT) as an effective method of interrupting the stress response and downregulating the brain. In EFT, participants respond to stressful thoughts or situations by visualizing an alternative outcome while taking their hands and tapping acupuncture points on the body that have been linked to stress reduction. Students can go through the whole sequence of body points or just use the areas they find work best for them, she says.
Gaesser also recommends the “4-7-8” breathing method as a quick way to interrupt the stress response. This involves breathing in for four seconds, holding the breath for seven seconds and then breathing out for eight seconds. Students can practice this method themselves, but Gaesser thinks that teachers should also use it in their classrooms as a way to begin class.
Peter Allen, an LPC based in Oregon who specializes in counseling young adults and adolescents, used to work with teenagers in a wilderness therapy setting. Most of his clients were struggling with a variety of issues, including substance abuse, conduct problems (although not usually at the conduct disorder level) and mood disorders, principally depression and anxiety. In most cases, Allen says, the core elements of the wilderness setting were effective in helping these clients address their various presenting issues.
In part, he believes that’s because the pressures of school, family and social life were stripped away, leaving these teenage clients to focus on the basics, such as securing food and shelter. Surviving in the wilderness also required working together and building a community, which helped teach clients new communication skills. Participants also got daily exercise, ate healthy meals and were required to follow a regular sleep schedule, all of which had a calming and stabilizing effect. “Once diet, sleep and exercise have been regulated, about half of the problems disappear right away,” Allen says.
Many wilderness therapy clients also benefit from what Allen calls “expanding the size of their world. … If you are a 15-year-old kid and doing bad at school, arguing with your parents, your world is tiny.” The wilderness program not only provided literal wide-open spaces, but also introduced clients to people from different places and adults who didn’t have the same expectations as the teenagers’ parents or teachers did.
The wilderness can also serve as a mirror for clients, says Roberts, who has also worked in wilderness therapy, or, as he says it is becoming more commonly known, outdoor behavioral health care. For instance, when clients who struggle with executive function and organization encounter bad weather for which they are not prepared, the experience can be a vivid demonstration of the importance of working on those problem areas. Another example: Someone who is struggling with distress tolerance will need to get used to having to build a fire after hiking all day.
Although none of the counselors interviewed for this article view social media or technology as inherently negative, they agree that living in the information age is complicated. The current generation of teens and young adults is awash in an unprecedented flood of information, asserts Roberts, clinical director at Cascade Crest Transitions, a program that provides support to young adults struggling to launch their independence by attending college or obtaining a job. He maintains that this technological bombardment not only is difficult to assimilate but also can encourage the tendency to “get stuck” in one’s own head.
Allen adds that in the age of the internet, children and adolescents are exposed to a lot of information and knowledge at an earlier age than previous generations were. In certain cases, it is information that they may not have the maturity to handle. For example, most children and adolescents who grew up in the latter half of the 20th century had to somehow get their hands on a copy of Playboy or another adult magazine to satisfy their sexual curiosity. Today’s children and teens are exposed online to myriad genres of easy-to-access pornography, which not only present unrealistic ideals of sexuality but also can include disturbing practices such as bestiality and pedophilia. Children and young adolescents today are also more likely to be exposed to media coverage of frightening or horrific events before they have the ability to contextualize all that they are taking in, Allen says. He believes this early exposure is contributing to a kind of “nonspecific existential dread” that he says he commonly sees in his clients.
Roberts says that technology offers many positive benefits, but it also sometimes provides adolescents and young adults with a means to avoid their problems. He stresses the need for counselors to learn more about the draw of technology so that they can help clients evaluate whether they are using it in positive or negative ways. Roberts gives gaming as an example. For those who know little about it, gaming may seem like an excuse to “do nothing.” In reality, he says, it is a legitimate hobby that can provide enjoyment, stress release and even a sense of community while boosting problem-solving skills. However, like any other activity, when gaming gets in the way of schoolwork, chores or getting out of the house, it becomes a problem to be addressed, he says.
Another complicated aspect of online life is social media. For all the potential benefits, social media feeds have made it so that virtually no part of life is private anymore, Allen says. Many adolescents may not fully understand that by making everything public, the internet is, in essence, “forever” or grasp the potential ramifications of that reality, he says. In addition, he notes, social media feeds can encourage social contagion.
ACA member Amanda LaGuardia, a former private practitioner whose research focuses on self-harm, agrees. Much of the social media content targeted to young girls is focused on body image, says LaGuardia, a licensed professional counselor supervisor in Texas and a licensed professional clinical counselor supervisor in Ohio. Many of her former clients talked about the images they saw on Instagram, such as already-thin celebrities discussing “thigh gap” (as part of a supposedly “perfect” body, women and girls must have thighs that don’t touch each other) and other unrealistic physical standards. Such posts are usually popular, garnering a large number of likes and admiring comments, which gives girls the impression that this is what their bodies should look like, she says.
However, such standards are unrealistic for most females and are simply unachievable for girls with developing bodies, continues LaGuardia, an assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati. Regardless, these images are presented as the feminine ideal, presuming to highlight all of the elements that will make women attractive to men. At the same time, girls are often subject to sexual harassment at school and too often told by those in authority “that’s just how boys are” (boys will be boys) and that girls just need to find a way to deal with it, she says.
All of these messages about how girls should look and act and what they should accept come at a time when they are already struggling to figure out who they are. It is overwhelming, and self-injury is becoming a more common way to cope with the distress. Self-harm used to be most common in the eating disorder population, but according to LaGuardia, social media has introduced it to a wider audience. It isn’t necessarily that self-injury is presented as a positive behavior online. Most people who talk about it on social media are seeking support, she says. However, the widespread nature of the discussion has created social contagion.
The best thing counselors can do to help is listen and affirm, LaGuardia emphasizes. When adolescents talk about their experiences, some counselors focus on helping them feel better about themselves, but that is not what they need most, she asserts. Instead, adolescents need to express what they are going through and to process their confusion verbally. Counselors should respond, she suggests, by saying things such as, “That sounds really difficult” and “I’m here and I’m listening.”
“So many of the messages they [adolescents] are receiving are controlling,” LaGuardia explains. “They need to feel in control.”
As these clients become more comfortable, they will begin to talk about how they are coping with their turmoil. LaGuardia explains that these clients view self-injury as a means of surviving what they are currently experiencing, not a solution. “I ask clients, ‘Is this something you see working for you for the rest of your life?’ I’ve never had anyone say yes.”
Usually, LaGuardia notes, clients will say that they hope not to engage in self-harm forever, but at the current time, they don’t know what else to do. At that point, counselors can ask whether this coping method is something the client is ready to change. LaGuardia says the first step is finding out what the client needs help coping with and then exploring ways that will allow the client to cope without self-harm.
The most common underlying problem for clients who self-harm is conflict with a parent or sibling, LaGuardia says. In such cases, she works with the whole family on communication skills. She starts with the adolescent clients, teaching them how to express their needs without self-injury. She asks the adolescents to think about their most stressful conflicts and what they would like their parents to know. Then, through role-play, LaGuardia helps these clients practice asking for what they need.
Often, LaGuardia will also bring in the parents and have the adolescent express the source of conflict. As the parents and adolescent talk, things can get heated, so LaGuardia is there to help redirect the conversation. She also tries to educate parents about what adolescents need, which includes being treated as independent young adults and given space to grow, while at the same time knowing that their parents are always there to listen to them regardless of
Allen is the program director at College Excel, a residential, coaching-based college support program. The program’s clients are typically young adults who are coming out of high school and looking for extra support to succeed in college or those who previously attended college but dropped out because of a mental health issue or learning disability.
Many of the students have some level of anxiety and depression and often struggle with executive function deficits. College Excel provides the students with mental health support and coaching on life and study habits. Allen says he tries to run the program through the lens of good mental health practices. Calling on his background in wilderness therapy, he also encourages students to eat well, follow a consistent sleep schedule and get regular exercise. College Excel staff do not live on-site, but the program does provide students with housing, which helps them establish a sense of community and support — elements that are common among those who successfully adjust to college life, Allen points out.
Allen says that many of the program’s clients struggle with attention-deficit disorder and organization. College Excel staff teach students basic organizational skills such as using their attention strategically. For example, with students who struggle with memory and retaining information, Google Calendar can be a particularly useful tool. It can tell students where they need to be at any given moment, freeing up their attention and memory for other tasks.
Allen also talks with students about the importance of a clean workspace and provides them with practical tips on organization. For example, he says, students who constantly misplace things can save time and frustration by designating a space for pens, papers and other basics so that they will always know where to find them.
Students also work on developing good study habits. For example, rather than growing frustrated with their struggles to focus on what they’re reading for long periods of time, clients learn to study in 15- to 20-minute chunks, with five-minute breaks in between.
Roberts’ program is geared toward young adults who are coming from inpatient treatment and are ready to enter college or find a job. In addition to receiving ongoing mental health treatment, these clients take classes that focus on interpersonal skills, stress regulation, goal setting, time management and money management. They are also encouraged to exercise, and all students are matched with a case manager who helps them focus on sleep hygiene, peer interaction, health and nutrition, and, in some cases, dating.
Clients are required to attend one individual and one group counseling session per week. Counselors are also on-site five days a week, which allows them to give feedback outside of sessions. For example, a counselor might say to a student, “You say that you want to socialize, but you’re constantly retreating to your room or on the phone.” This opens up a discussion about why the student isn’t following through on counseling goals and allows the counselor and client to work on solutions together, Roberts says.
The students are usually enrolled in college or working when they start Roberts’ program. The coaching and classes take place around the students’ schedules, and staff members are available to help clients through whatever challenges they are facing in school or at work. Clients typically remain in the program about nine to 12 months. During the last six months, they move out of program housing and into their own apartments or college dorms.
Allen closes by noting that today’s adolescents and young adults — the oft-discussed millennials — are very much aware that older generations generally view them in a negative light. He believes this widespread maligning carries a psychic weight for this generation and can contribute to limiting their self-efficacy and sense of options.
Because this negative image of adolescents and young adults is so prevalent, Allen believes that even counselors may fall prey to it. “You can’t hold them in contempt and do good work,” he emphasizes. “The best thing we could be doing for them is stoking the fire of creativity.”
To learn more about the topics discussed in this article, take advantage of the following select resources offered by the American Counseling Association:
Counseling Today (ct.counseling.org)
- “#disconnected: Why counselors can no longer ignore social media” by Laurie Meyers
- “Parenting in the 21st century” by Laurie Meyers
- “Responding to the rise in self-injury among youth” by Brent G. Richardson and Kendra A. Surmitis
- “Examining our assumptions about emerging adulthood” by Peter Allen
- “Validating the quarter-life crisis” by Lynne Shallcross
- “Getting unstuck” by David Flack
- “Coming to terms with technology” by Laurie Meyers
- “All in the family” by Laurie Meyers
- “Coping with college” by Laurie Meyers
- “Going wild” by Bethany Bray
Books and DVDs (counseling.org/publications/bookstore)
- Youth at Risk, sixth edition, edited by David Capuzzi and Douglas R. Gross
- A Contemporary Approach to Substance Use Disorders, second edition, by Ford Brooks and Bill McHenry
- Active Interventions for Kids and Teens, by Jeffrey S. Ashby, Terry Kottman and Don DeGraaf
- Suicide Assessment and Prevention, DVD, presented by John S. Westefeld
ACA Mental Health Resources (counseling.org/knowledge-center/mental-health-resources)
- Suicide Prevention
- Substance Use Disorders and Addiction
- LGBTQ Resources
- “Depression/Bipolar” with Carmen S. Gill (CPA22120)
- “Trauma/OCD/Anxiety” with Victoria E. Kress (CPA22118)
- “Substance Abuse/Disruptive Impulse Control/Conduct Disorder” with Shannon Karl (CPA22116)
- “Counseling Students Who Have Experienced Trauma: Practical Recommendations at the Elementary, Secondary and College Levels” with Richard Joseph Behun, Julie A. Cerrito and Eric W. Owens (CPA24339)
Laurie Meyers is the senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Letters to the editor: email@example.com