Between constant academic pressures, changing friendships and relationships, altering personalities, extracurricular activities, and uncertainties about the future, it's no small wonder teenagers sometimes need counseling help – even if they think they have it all figured out.
For today's teens, multiple stressors affect them as they mature socially, academically, and personally. School counselors work with teenagers by examining their problems and conflicts related to academics, family problems, anger management, substance abuse, relationships, and self image.
Why are the teenage years marked by conflict?
As they mature, teenagers grow significantly – physically, mentally, and emotionally. These changes inevitably lead to conflicts between peers, significant others, parents, and educators. According to the New York Times online Health Guide on Adolescent Development, conflict most frequently occurs as teenagers rebel against their parents’ wishes, challenging authority. For a teenager, going out with friends is certainly more important than washing dishes, cleaning his or her bedroom, or doing homework. For more information see Adolescence Developmental Psychology.
In addition to parental conflicts, sudden and confusing physical changes - such as new body hair and growth spurts - and other hormonal changes cause many teenagers to perseverate about body image. As teenagers struggle to accept themselves, internal conflicts over their changing bodies possibly leads to the development of unhealthy or dysfunctional behaviors, such as eating disorders.
Additionally, expectations for teens to excel academically cause extreme stress. On the other hand, parental disinterest or apathy in their children’s academic success also places unique and stressful conditions on the student. School counselors must know how all forms of stress affect mental health, potentially leading to risky and unhealthy behaviors.
Tackling Teenage Stress and Risk Behavior
There are dozens of reasons teenagers feel stress in the high school setting, from academics, to peer pressure, evolving friendships, and part-time jobs. Many teens experience stressful feelings as they rush to finish studying for a big test, or spend the morning picking out an outfit.
A 2007 survey from the Associated Press examined rates of stress among high school students and found them to be as stressed as, if not more than, their parents. The survey showed 45% of girls experienced stress frequently, and 32% of boys frequently experienced stress. Stress is characterized by feelings of tension, withdrawal, frustration, and anxiety that seriously impact a teenager's ability to perform well in school and participate in social activities.
So what kind of problems will counselors come across when dealing with teenage stress? Personal high school relationships are a major source of stress for students. Because teenagers are focused on exploring new options in life, many have their first serious boyfriends or girlfriends. While a few students go on to marry their high school sweethearts, the reality is many also experience their first breakup while in high school.
The end of a relationship seems like the end of the world for some teens. “Why?” is the question teens often ask, unable to find a rational answer. Teenagers speaking to counselors about breakups share their emotions with someone they trust, someone who provides reassurance about their self-worth, and provides a dialogue that helps put overpowering emotions into perspective.
Counselors also teach and explain how to cope with breakups, encouraging healthy eating, exercise, staying busy with friends, and expressing emotions in healthy ways, such as art, writing, or focusing attention on new hobbies. Teens that don't develop healthy coping techniques are at risk for expressing their emotions through risky activities, such as anger or substance abuse.
But anger results from a variety of reasons besides relationship issues, and when teens bring these problems to school, or suppress their anger, fights and small incidents are often the result., When the case is especially severe, or left to fester without the proper intervention, the teen might act out in violence against other students or parents. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) 2009 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 31.5% of students surveyed had been in a physical fight one or more times in the 12 months before the survey.
Students cannot learn without feeling safe, so counselors advise teenagers on anger management, teaching them how to express their feelings in healthy ways. For example, a counselor working with a teenager who recently was in a fight would identify the source of the problem, work with the teen to develop potential nonviolent responses to that problem, consider all consequences of the responses, and work with the teen to choose an appropriate response.
The goal is to have the teen internalize the anger management process, so that the next time the situation arises, the teen applies what he or she learned during sessions with the counselor.
Instead of reacting violently, if insulted, a teen would be instructed to think, “While I am angry, violence is not the best way to react in this situation.” Then, the teen would take deep breaths, or use a technique such as calling up a calming word and saying it over and over, or even behavioral techniques such as slowly touching each fingertip with thumb on each hand. The counselor might also teach the teen to use assertive “I” statements to get the aggressor to back off without violence, such as “I’m not going to fight you over this problem.”
School counselors are also integral to helping students develop skills to resist peer pressure associated with drugs and alcohol. In 2009, 24% of high school students reported heavy drinking, while 21% reported using marijuana, according to the CDC.
In their discussions with students, school counselors should focus on the academic impact of drug use, the physical effects of using drugs or alcohol, as well as alternate coping techniques.
Ensuring Future Success
Outside of counseling for crisis situations like anger, drugs, and extreme stress, a critical aspect of the counselor’s job is counseling teens on selecting colleges and future careers.
For most of today's high school teens, college is on the horizon, and counselors must be familiar with the huge number of colleges, their respective specializations and degrees, financial aid, and other important factors that guide students toward the right academic fit. Throughout a student’s high school years, counselors must remain in frequent contact, developing a counseling plan in order to suggest career paths based on the student’s interests. From those career paths, the counselor suggests colleges and universities.
The college application process is cumbersome and overwhelming for any teenager. According to the American School Counselor Association, student counselors help to coordinate the application process, ensuring paperwork like transcripts, portfolios, and standardized test results are in order, in addition to assisting students who are writing entrance essays.
As students leave high school, effective counselors will have given them the tools to propel themselves through college or careers. Effective time management and motivational skills, as well as the ability to combat peer pressure and negative influences are all skills developed by high school counselors that help students succeed in higher education, and the workplace.