Creating a safe place for today’s adolescents

According to the Mission Australia Youth Survey 2020, the top four concerns for young people aged 15-19 were:

  1. Coping with stress;
  2. Mental health;
  3. Body image; and
  4. School or study problems.

Adolescence has always been a time of confusion, rapid change and uncertainty. Every adult has cringe-worthy memories from this transition from childhood to adulthood.

However, what’s changed for our adolescents today is the technology/media-driven screen world that saturates young people and perceptions that are often unhealthy.

They have casual access to millions of sexualised images, advertisements, movies and TV programs that normalise ‘risky’, shallow and often narcissistic behaviour – whether that be around alcohol, sex, aggression, violence or the pathetic pursuit of fame through a misguided value in being a celebrity.

The ease of accessing pornography is distorting healthy sexual maturity and adding to misunderstanding in the formation of caring, safely intimate relationships. There has been an increase in sexually predatory behaviour from both girls and boys with many unwanted consequences – physical and emotional.

The social media monster has created a whole new enemy to many adolescents – the anonymous ‘troll’ – or the angry, unhappy school acquaintance who makes threats or spreads malicious lies ‘just for the fun of it”.

There is technically nowhere safe for most of today’s adolescents – they can be bullied and attacked in the safety of their bedroom. This creates an enormous sense of threat and stress – a stress they cannot seem to escape.

Another area of threat for many fledgling adults is the absurd insidious pressure (often from mindless actors, models or trashy celebrities) to look the same. I have been really disturbed at the increase in self-hatred, disgust and self-loathing that I have heard from some of the adolescent groups I have worked with this year. The incidence of self-harming – often as a consequence of feeling overwhelmed by these dark ugly feelings – is increasing at a disturbing rate. The scars created just add to the loathing and the perception of being ugly and unlovable.

We’re even seeing cases of a form of ‘online self-harm’ where young people anonymously post abusive and hateful things about themselves.

Today’s education system has become even more test-focused in Australia and while that sounds like a good idea to ensure good ‘educational outcomes’ for students, for adolescents who are not academically strong, this is just another sign that they are not enough.

Many leave high school feeling like a failure and this mindset, when combined with the heightened intensity of emotions that are a normal part of adolescence, adds enormous stress. Then our strong students are telling me they feel pressured by both teachers and parents to achieve the highest marks possible – at any cost!

The dilemma for teachers & parents

The main dilemma for adolescents is that many parents step back because their adolescents think they can make great choices and their parents want to give them their independence. However, the brain pruning of early adolescence means they are actually less able to make sound decisions right when they want to claim their independence. They need guidance and they need parents and teachers to keep a close eye on how they are tracking.

Research confirms the benefits of parents providing consistent rules and discipline, talking to children about drugs, monitoring their activities, getting to know their friends, understanding their problems and concerns, and being involved in their learning. The importance of the parent-child relationship continues through adolescence and beyond. – National Institute on Drug Abuse, Preventing Drug Use Among Children and Adolescents: Research-Based Guide for Parents, Educators and Community Leaders, (2nd ed.),


What to look for when there’s too much stress

Most people, whether they are young or old, get overly stressed sometimes. Unhealthy stress can be caused by a lot of different things, but common causes in young people are to do with school, work, family or relationships. Whatever the cause, the results are usually the same.

It’s important to know what the warning signs are so that we can tell the difference between normal adolescent behaviour at the ‘tipping point’ that can push them over into unsafe, even fatal, territory.

Common mental health symptoms include:

  • feeling angry or irritable
  • feeling anxious
  • being moody and easily frustrated
  • feeling like crying regularly
  • having low self-esteem or lacking confidence, including giving up or avoiding tests or challenges
  • feeling restless all the time
  • having trouble concentrating
  • feeling an irresistible urge to run away, hide or use alcohol or drugs to self medicate.

Common physical symptoms include:

  • feeling sick in the stomach (like butterflies)
  • having constipation or diarrhoea
  • having stomach aches and/or headaches
  • having problems sleeping especially getting to sleep
  • feeling constantly tired
  • sweating a lot
  • having cramps or twitches
  • feeling dizzy or fainting
  • eating too much or too little
  • using drugs or smoking
  • seeming unable to manage distractions, especially social media or online gaming.

Drinking alcohol and taking drugs can also cause stress, even though it might feel momentarily like it’s relieving stress.

Frequently overlooked symptoms of anxiety

  • angry outbursts
  • oppositional and refusal behaviours
  • temper tantrums
  • attention-seeking behaviours (i.e. can be sexual or through bullying)
  • hyperactivity and difficulty sitting still
  • concentration and memory problems
  • scholastic underachievement or excessive resistance to doing work
  • frequent visits to school nurse
  • high number of missed school days
  • difficulties with social or peer group.

There is normal stress and then there is unhealthy stress. Adolescents have poorer coping skills than mature adults.

If you are worried about your son or daughter or one of your students, it can be tricky approaching them with your concerns. This can be seen by the adolescent as a sign of criticism or disapproval. Sometimes it’s better to get an older sibling to make the first approach or maybe a trusted friend. Rather than focus on trying to work out what is creating the stress – focus on building protective factors or things that works.

Protective factors

We need to make sure we are talking to the adolescents in our care about stress and how to manage it (and modelling good stress management ourselves of course!).

  • Ensure a healthy diet
  • Improve sleep (check out
  • Try Epsom salts bath, sleep support (non-chemical), calming teas/vitamins or Chillax
  • Increase activity and exercise (incorporate some movement into your classroom)
  • Increase warm relationships with family and friends
  • Reassure adolescents you ‘have their back’ no matter what
  • Lighten up around home and in the classroom
  • Ask how you can help them reduce their stress
  • At least once a month – one-to-one tell them how much you love them (for parents). As a teacher be sure to focus on their strengths.
  • Write caring/inspiring messages on their mirror/post it notes on their bedroom wall.


Two of the main reasons for an overload of stress for adolescents are:

  1. feeling excluded, separated or unloved (g. friendship battles, especially bullying, rumours, mean or hurtful things said to them, dropped from football team, didn’t get a part in the school play, no-one saved a seat for them on a bus, not invited to a party or a school formal, trip to movies, when people ignore you)
  2. feeling ugly, dumb or not good enough (g. failing a test, not understanding school work, finding homework too hard, missing a goal, getting sanctioned for a poor choice, having acne, not having ‘cool’ gear,  forgetting to do homework, thinking they are fat.)

Feeling either of the above mentioned things can feel devastating for our adolescents. Remember the brain’s natural tendency to prune during adolescence has skewed the way they see themselves and the world and they often misread the confusing emotional and social tides of adolescence.

When they know and are reminded they are loved unconditionally and that things do get better when their brain finally matures in their 20s – and that making mistakes is a way of learning how to make better choices – it really helps them cope.

Adolescents need information about what’s happening in their brains and resources and guidance.

Please be mindful that today’s adolescents are struggling with a nastier, scarier and more threatening world than their parents.

They need as much support and guidance as possible and research shows they really value their parents and want to have a warm connected relationship with them – both Mum and Dad if possible.

My favourite parenting and teaching tools were practising fairness and kindness – our adolescents need allies, lighthouses and champions who encourage them – no matter how bumpy the ride gets. The simplest thing we can all do is imagine they all have an invisible sign on their chest that reads “MAKE ME FEEL I MATTER”. Because they do.


Maggie wrote this article for Teachers Matter magazine.