Young people today face an unprecedented amount of pressure. Even before the effects of COVID-19, rates of teen anxiety and substance use were on the rise. According to the recent Conditions of Children report by the Orange County Health Care Agency, hospitalization rates due to serious mental illness and substance use among youth have increased 51% since 2009.
Living through a pandemic brings its own unique set of challenges. While young people may be struggling to keep up academically, they may also really be missing the normal routine of school and socializing with their friends. However, pandemic aside, just being a teen has its own set of challenges. Changing hormones, navigating friendships, and juggling a busy academic schedule can fill these years with anxiety, hurtful self-criticism, and feelings of inadequacy.
Social media’s portrayal of perfect online lives only adds to these feelings. I think we can all agree that being a teen in South Orange County also comes with further pressures of high achievement and the need for perfection—being the best academically, physically, and socially.
If you are a parent like me, you know our generation was not given many tools for coping with stress. We had to find our own ways to escape reality, which may have included drugs and alcohol. Thankfully, we now have the research and platforms to help our children learn better coping strategies, so they don’t have to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol.
Research shows that one of the reasons teens use drugs and alcohol is to cope with stress and anxiety. Thus, Mission Hospital’s youth prevention campaign, Strength in Numbers OC, sheds light on this pressure to be perfect and provides an online space for teens to openly talk about these very real issues and know that they are not alone.
Our campaign, using a social media-based platform, encourages teens to be honest about their internal struggles. Young people share their stories about the pressures they face and, in doing so, realize their personal power to make healthy choices.
How can parents play an active role in reinforcing the campaign’s benefits? We can tell our children that we don’t expect them to be perfect and we will love them no matter what, even though society often says otherwise. While they may roll their eyes at us, research shows that parents are the strongest influence in a child’s life. It’s important to let your teen know you understand these pressures and actively listen to them when they voice what they are going through.
Many parents find it helpful to have a family discussion about values and expectations. What’s in the best interest of your child’s emotional well-being? Is there too much pressure—either from you or your teen—to earn good grades and get into a top school? How do compassion, self-motivation, effort, hard work, and success fit together in a healthy way for your teen and your family?
No one ever said parenting is easy. Providing stability and support to our children by encouraging honest dialogue will help them build resiliency and lifelong coping skills so they won’t need to lean on substances or risky behaviors when times get tough.
Encourage your teen to join the conversation at StrengthInNumbersOC.org or @Strength_in_numbers_oc.
Marci Mednick leads Mission Hospital’s youth substance use prevention initiative, including RaisingHealthyTeens.org and StrengthInNumbersOC.org, which brings evidence-based strategies to South Orange County. She can be reached at email@example.com.