I recently saw the movie 8th Grade, wherein we follow the journey of 13 year old Kayla as she navigates the social landscape of 8th grade. It chronicles in a very realistically and honestly R-rated fashion the struggles that girls (and boys) are going through today.
Watching this movie, I was struck by how much I connected with it and some of the feelings that I experienced as a 13-year-old boy.
Sometimes a movie like this teleports you in time to a period that you thought was long resolved in your life, and then you begin to realize many of those thoughts, emotions, and experiences we moved on from were really put on pause until we have the emotional bandwidth to deal with it later in life.
I remember in my own 8th grade experience my English teacher telling my class at the beginning of the year that 8th grade would “be the nadir of our lives.” Now she was an English teacher and used a word I had never heard of and many people haven’t who I have related this story to, so let me define it for you:
“Nadir, noun: the lowest point in the fortunes of a person or organization”
8th grade. Our lowest point. Not the joyful, happy ending of middle school we hoped for, but rather the year of “hey, at least it can’t get worse than this!” 8th grade, the year most of us spent 13-14 years old, is smack in the middle of our development out of childhood into adolescence. We were starting to get more “with it” and even become socially conscious, but it’s a period where we are so socially self-conscious as well that it can be debilitating.
Watching this film reminded me of so much of what was hard with this period of life, and much of this period is the same as it always has been. However, I want to make the case that teenage problems of today are harder to handle than ever before.
Our teenagers are becoming much more conscious of mental health than ever before, which is a good thing. However, this is only correlating with such a need to do so. Let me dive with you into the some of the teenage problems faced today.
More of the same
Adolescents today deal with many of the same teenage problems we dealt with as teenagers ourselves. The most obvious one is that it is a period of development. When I say that, my brain goes to a cheesy 1960’s puberty education video that we had to watch, informing us that “your body is changing” and all of the various things we have to look out for. However, this developmental period is so much more than physical.
The teenage years are an emotional and social developmental period as well. Friendships in the elementary years are largely formed by proximity and activity. You play baseball and live on the same street as me? I think we just became best friends! However, by the age of 13, we begin to develop more niche interests and tastes, and we associate with those who have similar ones.
Inevitably, some will be labeled “cool” and cliques begin to form. Fortunately, today I believe a much broader spectrum of hobbies is falling into the cool category than ever before, but still many teenagers feel ostracized when on the outside.
These periods of social change are incredibly difficult to navigate and will inevitably cause everyone to go through rough patches in adolescence. Now compound the social changes occurring and mix in a dash of “oh I didn’t know my body would do that” and “I need to find a deodorant that actually works for me” and this becomes incredibly hard to navigate! Fortunately, it’s in these rough patches we grow.
Another element of adolescence that still remains difficult is navigating the relationship with parents. When we were born, we were 100% reliant on our parents. As adults, we are nearly fully independent.
However, this change wasn’t instantaneous and the changes in independence we go through adolescence are so hard because we don’t really have a roadmap for how much independence we really should have. Most teenagers think they should have more, most parents think less. This is an important step in navigating into adulthood and a normal struggle.
For parents, it’s hard to feel like your child, who was five just a short time ago, is navigating and foraging into life all by themselves. Famous personality theorist, Erik Erikson, suggested that we have a “struggle” that everyone goes through during every developmental period, and for adolescence, it’s the battle between “identity and role confusion.”
Basically, we are all just trying to figure out who we are during this period. Just a short while ago we were kids with no responsibility, now we’re not quite an adult yet, but entirely our own person. It’s a tricky navigation, for both teenagers and their parents alike. When the will of one doesn’t align with the other, strife is sure to ensue, and this is a problem that teenagers will always face.
A lot of difference
Now let’s look at what’s different for adolescents today, and I want to start with the big one: social media. It used to be that we had about six hours of interaction with our peers and then we could go home and comfortably be our (probably weird) selves. Now, teenagers have to always be “on.” Imagine how draining this is!
Home used to be a place of refuge from bullying, from needing to impress others, from feeling pressure to be someone you’re not. However, now home is where social media gets to run free, unrestricted by class rules. You used to be able to leave the bully at school, now you might carry that same bully in your pocket.
You used to be able to compare yourself to the “pretty girls” at lunch, now you can scroll through nearly endless streams of pictures of the “perfect” lives (spoiler: they’re not perfect). When you try to compete and show yourself as better than you feel, you are left to deal with the shame of not living a life that matches your photo. However, this is what everyone is doing!
I heard it explained once quite well that what social media forces us to do is to compare our everyday lives with everyone else’s highlight reel. Sure, I’ve been on some awesome trips and had some good times and pet some cute puppies, but most of the time I’m having a normal day. That normal day is fine! However, normal doesn’t feel good enough when we think everyone else we know is living a “perfect” life (but in reality, they are going through all the same experiences on the other end of it).
Another related problem of modern teenage years is just the constant connection that computers and cell phones provide. Now, connection can be a great thing! However, we learn independence from venturing out and parents learn to trust by simply saying, “Be home by 11!” on a Friday night.
The constant connection and “find my friends” apps breed anxiety and insecurity. When we don’t have connection, we learn that things are going to mostly be alright. Sure, some bad things may happen, but we learn and grow from them.
Further, the connection to the outside world (news, politics, etc.) causes us to feel like the world is going off the deep end. In fact, we are living in the safest time in the history of humanity! The reason we hear about so many things is the fact that they have become newsworthy. The dark sides of humanity do still exist and are tragic, but our chances of horrific things happening to us have never been lower.
Yet, our connection to the outside world breeds anxiety in us that impedes us from being the best versions of ourselves. This is a problem that affects both teenagers and adults of today and I would love for us to embrace the progress the world has made and recognize that the part of the Lord’s Prayer “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” is actually happening and not just empty words thrown into the void.
Combined with all the connection that we have now with the facts of the impending job markets teenagers are facing, I believe the need to achieve is much higher than it ever has been. Basic jobs that provide comfortable standards of living require college degrees now. Teenagers then look around and see what their peers are doing and realize it is a competition, thus furthering the anxiety about the need to perform.
Not only academically, but there is a need felt by so many teenagers to be overly involved, play three sports and head up a club. Oh, and a job to have some money might be nice too. It’s not enough to be a teenager anymore, teens have been placed in a role where they have to both have the responsibilities and workload of adults while still dealing with the problems and growth associated with adolescence, and I do believe this is a problem.
Finally, one last thing that is different about teenagers today is one that I think is a fantastic thing, and it is the valuing of empathy. I do believe that teenagers care about each other much more than ever before and are socially conscious about issues that I had no clue about as a child.
Teenagers today are often already thinking about how they can impact the world in a better way and what their role is going to be in it. With their peers, teenagers are much more likely now to know who is experiencing depression or anxiety and be supportive.
Historically, someone with depression or anxiety would have suffered in silence for fear of social consequences. Now, whenever I ask teenagers that come in who they have spoken to about their emotions, most can name a few friends. Especially amongst teenage boys have I seen this growth, and this is a fantastic thing that will help buffer against the rising problems teenagers face today.
So, now what?
If you’re a teenager reading this article, I want to say this to you: keep on going. The teenage years are rough. We learn a lot during this time but not all the pain is necessary. Life generally will get better, and you have so much to look forward to. Also, try and make life worth living now.
Getting into the hardest college to get the hardest job sounds, well, hard, doesn’t it? Enjoy life and the time when you don’t have as much responsibility as you do later. However, if it feels like it’s too much, know that it’s ok to talk with someone. I love working with teenagers and helping them navigate the stress and coming up with more effective strategies for dealing with your time.
If you’re a parent reading this, then you are probably concerned about your own or a teenager you know. And to you I say this: thank you for caring. It can feel overwhelming as a parent not knowing the best way to proceed in parenting. It is okay to reach out for help for both you and your child.
Sometimes the best way you can care for your teenager is to deal with some of your own anxieties associated with parenting so that you can model what it looks like to navigate challenges in life. Further, perhaps the developmental period of adolescence has put such a strain on your relationship with your teenager that the relationship feels damaged and broken.
If so, please consider engaging in some family counseling as well. It is a fantastic way to not fix each other, per se, but rather to fix the relationship. By doing so, you will be able to have a much healthier relationship as your teenager becomes an adult. The teenage years are hard and full of problems, but please know that we can navigate them together!
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