Teens feel pressure to put on 'face of success'

A small crowd assembled Tuesday night at City Hall to talk frankly about the stresses and difficulties today's teenagers face and what can be done to prevent depression, substance abuse and suicide. But while attendance was low, the conversation generated among the teens and adults who turned out was honest and bore much insight about how to improve the spirits and well-being of area youth.

The panel discussion, sponsored by the La Cañada Flintridge Youth Council and co-sponsored by the Public Safety Commission and the Community Prevention Council, follows the March 1 death of Campbell Taylor, a La Cañada High School senior who committed suicide on campus. Since then, several local outreach efforts have focused on how to better support teens in need and their families.

Throughout this process, residents are talking to teens and learning that problems associated with stress and fatigue, and the immense burden students are bearing in an effort to succeed, may be more widespread than anyone imagined.

“We're not really touching the hearts of kids,” said panel member and La Cañada therapist Pam Erdman. “Particularly in this community, there's a pressure to present this face, a face of success. But deep inside, there's a pain — all of us are hungering for real authentic connection.”

Other panelists included Mark Yeager, senior chaplain with YMCA of the Foothills; Pasadena social worker Paul Royer; and representatives from LCHS' Bridge peer-to-peer program, Noelle Smith, Cameron Aenlle-Rocha and Katie Goetz.

The discussion centered around the particular pressures La Cañada teens face, the impact of modern technology on communication and peer influence, and what parents can do to help eliminate, instead of add to, their children's stress levels.

“You have to be available. And you need to shut up and listen,” Royer said. “Kids want to talk. They have a lot to say. But we've got to break out of our traditional molds so we know how to talk to them.”

The generation gap between parents and children is wider today than it's ever been, in part because technology and social media impede on the time and attention young people give to their families and can alienate adult viewpoints, Yeager noted.

The added pressure local youth feel to excel in school and get into good colleges, especially given the fierce competition today among applicants, often feels overwhelming.

“A big cause of stress is the expectation parents and teachers put on students,” Goetz said. “It's like La Cañada's put on a pedestal almost, and we can't reach what we're expected to do.”

That stress and competition, coupled with a feeling that there are not enough fun and relaxing things to do in town, may drive some teens to parties, where the allure of de-stressing through use of alcohol and other substances can be a big temptation.

“It's no secret there are parties that occur in our community,” Yeager said. “Teenagers will go to these parties looking to de-stress and hang out with their friends.”

And when drugs and alcohol happen to be around, a stressed-out teen will be more likely to try them, he added.

Professionals discussed the harmful effects of mixing stress with depressants, like alcohol and marijuana, and stimulant prescription drugs sometimes taken to increase focus for studying. When they are combined, mental health issues may arise in a developing teen brain, Erdman said.

She added that the normally developing brain of the average teenager is beginning to ask the question, “Who am I?” and that young people should be given room to explore this in a safe and healthy way.

The demands parents make, subconsciously or otherwise, on their children to chart a path for the future and to never deviate from it can thwart this natural inquiry, making teens feel wrong for wanting to question or explore different aspects of their identity.

“The whole identity thing, that's a very, very hidden pressure,” Smith admitted. “In La Cañada, it's a stress that's not talked about. Identity and academic [expectations] mesh. The overload is huge, but hidden.”

Panelists offered suggestions, from before-school meditation periods and the introduction of well-being classes to fun-focused activities and bull sessions, where students could speak in a safe, confidential environment.

Goetz addressed the need for mental-health support at school. Currently, LCHS counselors focus on academics and college applications, leaving students little to no access to adults who will simply listen and advise on social and emotional issues.

“There's a significant area [of improvement] for us to be able to get back to supplying on-site emotional support services, to really be able to say we're going to learn from previous issues that have happened here,” Royer conceded.

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