The life of a teenager seems to change daily.
One minute a teen seems interested in a new sport, topic in school, or type of music, only to completely shift gears the next. Constantly exposed to new ideas, social situations, and people, teenagers work to develop their personalities and interests during this time of great change.
Before their teenage years, these adolescents focused on school, play, and gaining approval from their parents. But now, those former goals are replaced with a desire for independence, as teenagers work toward becoming young adults.
During adolescence, teenagers develop emotionally, cognitively, and physically. These changes aren’t without challenges, but thankfully, education professionals, family members, counselors, and psychologists are available to help the teens navigate this difficult period.
Parents and teachers of teenagers might recognize this phrase: “I’m bored.”
Many teenagers find class and school work “unexciting” or “pointless”, and report they don’t feel motivated or challenged by the material. According to “The Silent Epidemic,” a report from Civic Enterprises, most students drop out of school because they are “uninterested” in the material.
The report, which examined high school drop outs from 25 different cities in the United States, found that nearly 69% of students said they felt unmotivated to do schoolwork.
And of the students who dropped out of school, most were not failing students. In fact, many of the students had C averages or better, and indicated that if they had felt like it, they could have graduated from high school without much trouble.
For these students, lack of motivation was the primary reason they didn’t finish school. Generally, there are two types of motivation: intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation.
Extrinsic motivation is characterized by outside forces that motivate individuals to accomplish tasks. Teachers who motivate students extrinsically essentially offer rewards for harder work or good grades. For example, a teacher might offer candy or extra credit for finishing optional homework to motivate a student to work harder.
Extrinsic motivation has the advantage of producing quick behavior changes in the student, but typically, these changes are temporary and last only as long as the reward is available. Some extrinsically motivated students are only learning material to earn the reward, and might not fully absorb the new information.
Teachers who wish their students to truly feel motivated must learn how to motivate students intrinsically. Intrinsic motivation is characterized by fascination with a subject, and learning something for the sense of accomplishment it provides.
If a student is consistently unmotivated and unwilling to put effort into activities, it might indicate the student is depressed. Teachers and other educators must become aware of the signs of depression and help that student to seek treatment.
Depression in Teenagers
Everyone has “down days.”
Maybe it’s the bad weather, or the disappointing grades on a hard test, but some days teenagers just act uninterested in life or school. But these symptoms often pass quickly, as teens move on to new school subjects, or meet with friends to distract themselves from what bothered them at the moment.
But if a teenager displays symptoms of depression for more than two consecutive weeks, it might point to something beyond normal teenage mood swings. For more information see teenage depression.
A variety of factors cause teens to feel “down” and depressed. In an examination of 1,208 high schoolers, researchers Susan Gore and others found a number of differences in how depression and stress affects boys and girls.
In “Gender, Social-relationship Involvement, and Depression,” published in The Journal of Research on Adolescence, Gore found that girls become more depressed from interpersonal problems, such as failed relationships, lack of friend support, and conflict in family. Alternately, depression in boys was more likely to rise from achievement areas, like failing a test or not being accepted on a club or sports team.
These negative events – both within the realms of family and friends – greatly affect a teen’s mental health. Those who encounter both negative interpersonal and achievement events will likely suffer from lower self-esteem, which acts as a significant barrier to treating depression.
According to the article, “Adolescent Depression,” published in Clinical Practice, there are a number of symptoms that indicate serious depression in a teenager.
- A depressed mood for most of the day
- Markedly diminished interest of pleasure in almost all activities
- Clinically significant weight loss in absence of diet
- Insomnia or sleeping more than usual
- Fatigue or loss of energy
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
- Diminished ability to think or concentrate
- Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide
A significant number of teenagers experience depression through their lives. According to statistics from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), nearly 20% of teens experience depression during adolescence, and only one-third of this group seeks treatment.
However, treatment for adolescent depression is often successful, and helps to alleviate mental stresses of teenagers.
The National Institute for Mental Health-funded Treatment for Adolescents with Depression Study examined the effectiveness of psychotherapy and antidepressants used to treat depressed teenagers. In an study of 439 teenagers randomly assigned to different treatment methods, researchers discovered that combining cognitive behavioral therapy with antidepressants was the most effect method of treating depressed teens.
After 18 weeks of treatment, 85% of teenagers undergoing combination therapy showed signs of relief from depressive symptoms. For more information on depression treatment, see help for teen depression.
Teens who do not receive proper care are at higher risk for self-medicating through drugs and other high-risk behaviors that put their futures on the line.
Teenage Drug Use
Some teenagers begin using drugs as a way of coping with the depression and stress in their lives, while others try them because of pressure from peers. In either case, drug use among teenagers has far-reaching consequences that negatively affect their lives.
Statistics from the National Drug Intelligence Center indicate that marijuana is the most commonly used drug among teenagers, with nearly 40.2 percent of high schoolers having tried the drug.
So for bullied and picked-on teens, the risk of using drugs is especially high.
When dealing with stress or negative events, some teens use drugs as an escape – a way to avoid pain or fear in situations where they don’t feel in control. The most common reasons teens will use drugs as coping mechanisms are victimization and witnessing violence.
While victimization plays a large role in why teens use drugs, a teen’s peer group might have the most profound effect on his or her view of drugs.
Because adolescence is characterized by greater focus and importance on friendships, parents and counselors must pay attention to a teen’s social network.
Teens who surround themselves with peers who resist drugs or alcohol are more likely to resist drugs or alcohol themselves, while teens who make friends with drug users are more likely to also try drugs. For more information see peer pressure.
For example, in “Risk Factors for Serious Alcohol and Drug Use: The Role of Psychosocial Variables in Predicting the Frequency of Drug Use in Adolescents,” by Maury Nation and Craig A. Heflinger, research shows that teens who use drugs often do so because their friends begin using drugs.
The article, published in The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, asked 214 teenagers to identify their closest friends, and indicate whether or not those friends were drug users. Results showed that the teens who closely associated with drug users also tried drugs themselves. For more information on drug treatment and drug abuse in teenagers, see teenage drug use.
For many teenagers, adolescence represents a time where they will start – and sometimes end – their first serious relationships. And within these relationships, mistakes sometimes happen, and a teenager becomes pregnant).
According to statistics from the Guttmacher Institute, in 2006, 7% of girls ages 15 to 19 became pregnant, while the birthrate was 41.9 births per 1,000 teens.
Teenage pregnancy is associated with a host of negative outcomes for both the parent and the child. Children of teenage mothers are more likely to become pregnant at a young age themselves, and have higher chances of engaging in risk behaviors such as drug use.
When a teenager becomes pregnant, she has three options. The teen can either terminate the pregnancy, place the child up for adoption, or become a mother. For more information on all the options, see teenage pregnancy support.
Teenagers who decide to become mothers face significant barriers to continuing their educations, financing their (and their children’s) lives, and juggling the emotional and cognitive developments of adolescence with the very adult reality of becoming a mother.
Counselors, government officials, and educators agree that the best way to ensure these issues don’t arise is to prevent teen pregnancy itself from happening in the first place. Generally, there are two different types of pregnancy prevention programs – abstinence-only and abstinence-plus.
Abstinence-only programs focus on telling teenagers to wait until marriage before having sexual intercourse. Abstinence-plus programs give teens comprehensive sexual education, advising teens to wait until they are ready to have sex, while also providing information on contraceptives. For more information on prevention programs, see teenage pregnancy prevention.
Providing guidance to teenagers
Given the abundance of challenges teenagers face during adolescence, it’s important for teachers, counselors, and psychologists to offer expert advice, counseling, and knowledge to troubled teens.
Teenagers consider developing friendships and engaging in social situations as some of the most important aspects of adolescence, so when problems arise in these areas, teenagers feel hurt, stressed, and rejected. Most of these situations happen in the school setting, so it’s only fitting for the school counselor to be the primary source of relief for these stresses. School counselors help teenagers to balance their social and academic lives, while providing guidance and advice about the future. Below are some of the areas of focus for schools counselors:
- Dealing with bullies
- Conflict resolution
- Time management
- College planning
- Goal setting
- Coping with loss of relationships
For a teenager, one of the most difficult and trying times is establishing independence from parents. Often, in their quest for freedom, teenagers damage their relationships with their parents through increased conflict.
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. Teenagers might react angrily or violently when their parents punish or discipline them, and this conflict sometimes extends into the school setting.
For more information on how counselors work with teens to defeat negative thoughts, increase motivation to do well in school, and provide guidance for future aspirations, see counseling teenagers.
Help for Parents of “Independent” Teenagers
As a parent, it’s hard to see the energetic bundle of joy that was your child turn into an angst-filled, sleepy, rebellious teenager.
As teenagers develop, they push new boundaries, complain about rules, and seek greater independence from their parents. According to the New York Times online Health Guide on Adolescent Development, parents must be a constant and consistent figure in their teenager’s life, providing a safe boundary for a teen to grow, even if that teenager acts like these boundaries are unwanted.
Parents need to provide these rules, while also remaining flexible and respectful of the growing teen’s need for independence. For example, teenagers will often feel frustrated, embarrassed, and even angry that though they want freedom, they still need to ask their parents for permission to go to a friend’s house, or need their mothers to drop them off at school.
The U.S. Department of Education’s guide “Independence – Helping your Child through Early Adolescence,” states that parents should respect and support their teen’s choices as long as those choices won’t have long-term detrimental effects.
For example, even if a parent doesn’t enjoy the music his or her teen listens to, it’s unlikely that the choice of music will prevent that teen from entering a good college, or lead to health consequences. However, if that teen is drinking alcohol and driving, parents must enact strict punishments to teach that there are consequences for poor choices that come with increased freedom.
Parents who do not consistently enforce their set rules run the risk of losing credibility with their teenager. Parents without credibility will likely see most of their rules broken, and face an “out-of-control teen,” who doesn’t respect their rules, their lifestyles, or their wishes.
At that point, parents might seek the help of professional counselors to help re-establish their role in their teen’s life.