The teen years, ages 12–17 for our purposes, have never been easy, but in today’s society they have only become more complex. With divorce and blended families on the rise, constant exposure to social media, reality TV, and the desire for social acceptance, the teen years of today differ dramatically from those of yesteryear. Yet, adolescence continues to be an important period of physical, cognitive, social, and psychological growth. It is apparent that today’s adolescents are exposed to far more negative influences than ever before at a much younger age. Given this backdrop, the role of secondary school principals is growing more significantly.

Images of self-injury, pornography, violence, and terrorism can now all be viewed within the privacy of kids’ own bedrooms. Adolescents are also bombarded with pharmaceutical commercials that flood the airwaves, conveying the message to take a pill for all that ails you. Furthermore, today’s adolescents are living in a society where opioid addiction (prescription pills and heroin) is ravaging the country, leaving no neighborhood immune to its effects.

These reasons, among others, may be why more students are being seen by school counselors than ever before. Whether it’s for depression, anxiety, eating disorders, alcohol/drug abuse, suicide ideation, bullying, or family- or peer-related issues, it appears that millennials and members of Generation Z are exhibiting various mental health issues and possess fewer coping skills. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “Half of all cases of mental illness start by age 14, and when left untreated, mental health issues can lead to dropping out of school, substance abuse, violence, and suicide.”

What can secondary school principals and counselors do to help students not just survive the adolescent years, but thrive?

  • Adolescents need to feel a sense of belonging. Schools should offer a wide variety of clubs and activities to keep students busy and involved in the school community. This can also provide students with a positive adult role model, which can make a huge impact at this age.
  • It is imperative that teens be exposed to new experiences and perspectives other than what their daily lives afford them. The pressure of fitting in—figuring out who they are, what they excel at, and where their talents lie—can be daunting for students. School trips that include history, art, music, and culture can uncover a world they never knew existed. It can spark a new passion and ignite the desire to learn.
  • Bringing motivational speakers into schools can also be an effective tool for students to learn how to overcome life’s adversities. While sharing their personal hardships, speakers can inspire teens to believe that they, too, can overcome obstacles in their lives and accomplish their goals.
  • Provide accessible, confidential mental health and substance abuse counseling services for students so they have a safe place to go and seek help. The counseling services should also include psychoeducational groups that teach adolescents coping strategies to deal with the stressors of everyday life. Substance abuse counseling is led by trained professionals in the field.  
  • Provide parent workshops in the evenings to educate families about current adolescent trends, early identification of mental health/substance abuse behaviors, and communication techniques. It is essential to maintain parent involvement at the secondary level. As schools have become responsible for teaching social and emotional learning, it helps that they are perceived as a safe place for parents to meet, interact, and learn how to access social services and community resources.

Educating adolescents today should be viewed as more of a collaborative effort so students can reach their full potential. When schools, families, and the community work together, everyone reaps the benefits and rewards of a thriving society. 

Jacqueline Giordano, SAC, LPC, ACS, is a student assistance counselor for the Woodbridge Township School District in Colonia, NJ.