It’s just allergies
Experts weigh in on teenagers’ emotional difficulties
March 9, 2023
Generation Z comprises the population born between 1997-2012. It is the most ethnically diverse generation in American history, and makes up 27% of the U.S. population. While its diversity and intelligence has made a difference in today’s industrial America, the generation has had emotional struggles vastly different from its generational counterparts.
With the addition of social media influence, the COVID-19 pandemic and an increase in hate crimes around the country, it is safe to say today’s teenagers have seen the lot of it. On top of this, two students passed away last semester, something very difficult to process at such an early point in a person’s mental and emotional development. While being a teenager and going through puberty is already difficult, Generation Z has additional walls to break down and walk through.
Being a teenager in 2023
The stereotype is true: teenagers are emotionally rocky.
Clinical professor of psychology at the UCLA school of medicine Dr. Daniel Siegel found that the limbic area of the nervous system, which works with the brainstem and body to create emotion, exerts much more influence on higher-level reasoning from upper regions of the teenage brain than that of children or adults. This means emotions simply become more intense as children seep into adolescence. Teens can become more easily irritated and moody because of these intense emotions.
Licensed Professional Counselor Marquia Caldwell works with teenagers in the San Antonio area, many of which struggle with anxiety or depression or are in the LGBTQ+ community. Caldwell said one of the most difficult things she sees her recent teenage clients struggling with is labeling themselves.
“I’ve noticed that labels [are] something that has stressed them out a lot,” Caldwell said. “No one wants to be labeled this, or they want to be labeled this and they’re having issues with everybody conforming or understanding how they feel. There’s that struggle with being who you are, being comfortable with that and understanding a lot of people aren’t going to like it.”
Along with the many stressors teens process daily, school has become increasingly more competitive and stress-inducing the last few years. The National Assessment of Educational Progress found that 2009 graduates earned over three credits more than 1990 graduates. It also found 2009 had a greater percentage of graduates who completed higher curriculum levels with greater course requirements (13% in 2009 versus 5% in 1990). The difference has also, comparably, gotten much larger in the 14 years since 2009.
“I’ve seen a lot of [students] stress [about] making certain grades,” counseling and mental health teacher Jacqueline Rans said. “They feel like they’re in competition with each other and their peers; they feel like they have to hold a certain standard for their family or their parents or they have to get to a certain college or career.”
Caldwell said she often hears students staying up until 2 a.m. to finish homework, something she never heard of when she was in school.
“I have noticed with a lot of my teenagers [that] school is a lot different from when I went,” Caldwell said. “Remember to take care of yourself, put your homework down for an hour [and] give your brain and yourself [a minute] to relax. If there’s something going on in your household that’s toxic, find a safe space, because no one is more important than you.”
Arguably the biggest difference between Gen Z and any generation that came before it is the influence of social media and the internet, which can bring benefits and challenges. Some of the more common negative effects that teens must combat with social media include exposure to comparison and peer pressure.
“I’m not saying it’s always negative, but in terms of that exposure, emotions now are a little bit more heightened than [they were] in the past years,” Caldwell said. “The [handling of] emotions is a little bit harder, but I do like with our teenagers that mental health is an option. For my generation, it started to become an option, but with our parents, it was never an option.”
Another concern with the addition of social media in the lives of Gen Z teenagers is that online conflicts and cyberbullying are much more present and easily accessible.
“Teenagers now don’t know life without internet,” student assistance counselor Stephanie Bañuelos said. “We kind of joke as adults [that] our school day would be much easier if kids didn’t have their phones, just because a lot of the bullying or conflicts all stem from somebody messaging somebody [or] somebody saying something [over social media]. It’s just so accessible every day to say something mean. That’s different [from] past generations — they had to go up to somebody and say something to them.”
Social media also provides an avenue for students to learn mental health terminology, which can have its positives and negatives.
“The beauty of social media, access to the internet and it being so readily available is that we do have the terminology to understand anxiety and depression and to know there’s a lot of people that maybe we didn’t realize have anxiety and depression or symptoms of anxiety and depression,” Bañuelos said. “But I also think people are quick to self diagnose, not understanding that it is OK that we feel anxious. It doesn’t mean that we have a true diagnosis of anxiety, but there are going to be times that we naturally feel anxious. We are meant to feel that at times.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has accounted for even more mental health changes among teenagers. At the peak of the lockdown in the spring of 2020, connection with others was greatly limited.
“COVID caused a lot of issues when it comes to mental health for everybody, but I think with teenagers, it made life a little bit more difficult and unbearable,” Caldwell said. “I notice an increase in anxiety and an increase in depression because, for a lot of kids, school was their way for that separation from the parents, from the home life, from pressures of a lot of things. And then that lack of being able to physically be around other people – the emotional turmoil I think caused a hindrance in our teenagers.”
Although many struggles are often associated with the pandemic, some students thrived in the enclosed environment that caused virtual learning, and are now struggling with the switch back to in-person learning.
“I saw students [during] COVID that really kind of benefitted because they couldn’t get here at 8 a.m.,” Rans said. “They struggled with the structure of the school, and when they could wake up at whatever time, do an assignment and get it in by midnight. I could see some students, not many, that benefited from the more flexible structure of it, [and] then the kids that were kind of struggling with the isolation part of it.”
After two Hebron students passed away last semester, some teens have had to deal with grief for the first time in their lives.
“Whenever a school community loses a staff member or student, it’s just horrible,” lead counselor Justin Fields said. “One of the nice things about school for young people is that school provides structure and routine. You have routines to your day, you see people at certain times, your classes are arranged a certain way, and that’s really good for people. I think there’s comfort in that.”
Although those who knew the students personally are having to deal with the grief associated with losing a loved one, even some who didn’t have a relationship with the students lost are being reminded of the feelings associated with losing someone. Fields said this is part of the reason he doesn’t encourage school-wide responses or assemblies like those that were done when he was in high school.
“Let’s say, for example, you just recently had a grandparent pass away and you’ve handled that, and then a 10th grader that you don’t have any clue about passes away,” Fields said. “If we were to create a widespread response that forced you to participate, maybe that would disrupt you and bring you back into a state of grief that maybe you had already worked through and were comfortable with.”
Every source interviewed said talking to others is the best coping mechanism when going through any mental difficulty.
“I do encourage a lot of people [that] if you do feel like you are struggling, reach out; do not try to do it on your own,” Caldwell said. “When you try to do it on your own, you go into this deep, dark spiral, and if you don’t ask for help, it is just going to continue that way. Reach out to friends, family – don’t feel like you’re a burden. And then if somebody is reaching out to you, be open, allow them to have that space to talk about what they need to talk about and don’t judge them on it.”
Part of Fields’ and the counseling staff’s job is providing support that could get students who are struggling back to their normal routine.
“I think with crisis like this, friends are great [but] I always want to make sure people have adults that they can go to as well,” Fields said. “Not that I don’t think [students] can provide good support, but, sometimes, I just don’t want you to have to feel responsible for other things that come up. I think that also goes back to [my] wish [that] people would assess their circles for who really has [your] best interest at heart. Are the people that you let in the ones that are trying to lift you up — that let you be you? That’s what I hope.”
“The Hawk Eye” surveyed 371 students through a Google Form, and 43% said they have had to deal with losing someone close to them.
“With grief, I always try to remind everybody that it’s not the same for everyone,” Caldwell said. “There is no correct way to grieve. Don’t judge somebody else by the way they are grieving. There are some people that don’t want to show emotions, but when they’re by themselves, they do. Some people become very emotional and they do need that support.”
Bañuelos noted how although there are the five standard stages of grief, there is no “right” way to grieve. Some go through all stages in order, some bounce back and forth.
“Grief is long, [and] it’s weird,” Fields said. “Just when you think it’s done, an anniversary comes back, the first thing that you used to do with this person comes back, holidays that grandma used to [attend], the smell of food they used to make. You just never know. The biggest thing we want to do is make sure people [know] it’s OK to be sad, it’s OK to be angry, it’s OK to be grieving – we just want people to do it in a way that doesn’t harm themselves or other people. Really staying away from drugs and alcohol as a coping tool and just finding people they can be expressive with.”
When students are in need of assistance, the school counselors are available to help. QR codes can be scanned in each classroom for students to schedule meetings with their counselors, which are assigned to students by last name.
“Sometimes all we can do is say, ‘this is really horrible, [and] I can’t make this better for you but I can go through this with you,’” Fields said. “I won’t fix [it], but you’ll be amazed at how much better you might feel if you just talk out loud or let your emotions out in a healthy way. I think people might be surprised [they] could maybe feel a whole lot better by emoting. I can’t bring this person back, I can’t snap and make you feel better, but I’ll be there for you every step of the way so you feel like you can get going again.”