Signs of the times

A guid­ance coun­sel­lor of 20 years re­ports from the front line of a decile-one school.

New Zealand Listener - - THE NEXT GENERATION -

Kathryn Bar­clay is at the ­coun­selling coal­face at a decileone South Auck­land school. She says the down­ward trend in risky be­hav­iour isn’t trans­lat­ing into fewer trou­bled teens in her of­fice. “I’m see­ing as many kids as ever, and the is­sues are just as big, so for me it doesn’t feel like it’s changed. It sur­prises me how big the trend is – if I hadn’t seen the sta­tis­tics, I wouldn’t have said there was one.”

She sus­pects that’s be­cause the stu­dents she sees are of­ten the ones en­gag­ing in the risky be­hav­iour, rather than those who aren’t hav­ing prob­lems.

In nearly 20 years as a school guid­ance coun­sel­lor, Bar­clay has worked at both a decile-10 school on Auck­land’s North Shore and in one of the most de­prived ar­eas, where she’s spent the past 11 years. One thing that has changed, she says, is the num­ber of un­planned preg­nan­cies. When she ar­rived at the decile-one school, there were up to 18 preg­nan­cies a year re­sult­ing in girls leav­ing school. This year, there were none, a drop she ­at­tributes in part to the school’s health ser­vice, which gives away con­doms and sup­plies ­con­tra­cep­tives for girls, in­clud­ing lon­gact­ing im­plants.

Bar­clay, a mem­ber of the School Guid­ance Coun­sel­lors Ad­vi­sory Group, says most stu­dents’ prob­lems re­late to ado­les­cence: they’re mov­ing away from their fam­i­lies, de­vel­op­ing their own iden­ti­ties and sex­ual iden­ti­ties, and ­deal­ing with peer group ­pres­sure and the need to fit in. “That’s al­ways huge: kids who have had friend­ships fall apart that have turned into bul­ly­ing or mock­ing.”

Teens ap­peared to have ready ac­cess to cannabis through lo­cal tinny houses, and smok­ing the drug was “quite nor­malised. One kid said to me that in the hol­i­days, they get stoned a lot, be­cause it’s eas­ier to get hold of cannabis than al­co­hol. They say they can’t rock up to the dairy and buy [al­co­hol] – it takes a long time to stand out­side and con some­one to go in and get it for them.”

Ci­garettes are ex­pen­sive, but it isn’t un­com­mon for ­stu­dents to buy a pack and sell sin­gle ci­garettes for a profit. “They cost $2 each – when I started it was $1.”

Many stu­dents binge-drink reg­u­larly, she says, and the area prob­a­bly sees more drink-driv­ing and car con­ver­sion than higher-decile sub­urbs.

But Bar­clay says so­cial-me­dia bul­ly­ing is par­tic­u­larly prob­lem­atic. “It’s re­ally emo­tion­ally dam­ag­ing be­cause young peo­ple will say things on so­cial me­dia that they wouldn’t say face to face. When you have a post on Face­book and 20 peo­ple send you abu­sive mes­sages and ev­ery­one sees those posts, it’s hugely sham­ing and em­bar­rass­ing. Some kids don’t want to come to school be­cause they feel ev­ery­one is laugh­ing at them.” She’s of­ten frus­trated when adults weigh in on the on­line fights, es­ca­lat­ing the abuse.

Most stu­dents have a smart­phone, even if pupils in lower-decile schools are a bit slower to get them. Some­times par­ents con­fis­cate them for mis­be­haviour, but ­stu­dents usu­ally find a way around bans – for ex­am­ple, bor­row­ing a phone from a friend to up­date Face­book.

Stu­dents aren’t per­mit­ted to use their phones in class, un­less the teacher al­lows it. “But kids are sneaky, and they do,” says Bar­clay. “In my high-decile school, if I couldn’t find a kid with a ‘run­ner’ to the class­room, I could text them and within min­utes, get a mes­sage back. With the old phones, they could send texts from their pocket be­cause they knew the key­board.”

“One kid said to me that in the hol­i­days, they get stoned a lot, be­cause it’s eas­ier to get hold of cannabis than al­co­hol.”

hap­pen­ing ear­lier, and even she was “flab­ber­gasted” to dis­cover al­co­hol use de­clin­ing, “be­cause that’s not the im­pres­sion you get from the me­dia”.

Un­like Clark, she de­scribes the reg­u­la­tory en­vi­ron­ment around al­co­hol as “re­laxed”, not­ing New Zealand low­ered the drink­ing age to 18 in 1999. “You can get al­co­hol prac­ti­cally any­where; there hasn’t been the tight­en­ing we’ve seen around to­bacco.”

The Youth2000 study also cor­rob­o­rated Twenge’s find­ings that se­condary school stu­dents were much less likely to have a part-time job in 2012 than 2001 – down from 42% to 26%. Ball says it’s there­fore pos­si­ble that even though al­co­hol is be­com­ing more “af­ford­able” for the av­er­age adult earner, it may be be­com­ing less af­ford­able for teens be­cause they have less money to spend.

She doesn’t be­lieve in­creased so­cial-me­dia use is caus­ing the de­cline in risky be­hav­iour, say­ing a grow­ing body of re­search shows the op­po­site: that young peo­ple who spend the most time so­cial­is­ing “vir­tu­ally” are more likely to use sub­stances, and en­gage in other delin­quent be­hav­iours, than those who are less so­cial on­line.

Ball says her anec­do­tal im­pres­sion is that many of to­day’s teens are more fo­cused, smarter and more sen­si­ble than ear­lier gen­er­a­tions. “I’m re­ally im­pressed when I look at young peo­ple. They’re ar­tic­u­late, con­fi­dent speak­ing to adults, and of­ten very fo­cused on where they want to go in life and what they want to do.

“Young peo­ple are do­ing what they’ve al­ways done – try­ing to make sense of them­selves, try­ing to make sense of the world and where they fit into it, with all the chal­lenges and new tech­nol­ogy we have. The chal­lenges are dif­fer­ent now, but I think young peo­ple are mak­ing a pretty good job of it.”


But Ball says she doesn’t want to im­ply that “ev­ery­thing is hunky-dory, ei­ther”, with per­haps 10-15% of the ado­les­cent pop­u­la­tion “re­ally strug­gling”.

Although the fact that teens are grow­ing up more slowly seems a pos­i­tive trend, their men­tal health is not im­prov­ing cor­re­spond­ingly, and on some mea­sures ap­pears to be de­te­ri­o­rat­ing.

Vic­to­ria Univer­sity pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy Marc Wil­son, who heads a lon­gi­tu­di­nal youth well-be­ing study of 1000 young peo­ple ques­tioned ev­ery year for six years, says it’s im­por­tant to recog­nise that “most young peo­ple are do­ing pretty well. But there ap­pears to be a mi­nor­ity who aren’t do­ing so well, and we no­ticed that as they’re get­ting older, their men­tal health chal­lenges are in­creas­ing, and this mi­nor­ity group is po­ten­tially get­ting big­ger.”

The Vic­to­ria work found that al­most onethird of high school stu­dents sur­veyed had self-harmed, to pun­ish them­selves or man­age neg­a­tive emo­tions, and nearly 20% had had ­sui­ci­dal thoughts.

Wil­son won­ders if teenagers are less likely to show their dis­tress to the world, but more likely to ex­pe­ri­ence it. “Things like de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety are what we think of as in­ter­nal­is­ing, so maybe rather than turn­ing emo­tional dis­tress out­wards, as in risky be­hav­iours, they’re turn­ing it in­wards, and there’s not nec­es­sar­ily an equi­lib­rium but a see-saw here.”


Youth2000 re­searcher Si­mon Denny, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Auck­land’s de­part­ment of pae­di­atrics: child and youth health, says US so­ci­ol­o­gist Richard Set­ter­sten iden­ti­fied slow and fast tracks to adult­hood that are largely de­ter­mined by s oci o- e c onomic sta­tus, re­sourc­ing and de­pri­va­tion.

“There are teens who grow up too quickly, and the more mod­ern phe­nom­e­non where they’re grow­ing up much more slowly and be­ing looked after by their par­ents into their twen­ties,” says Denny. “That is by far the health­ier, more mid­dle­class route. Those tak­ing the quicker, ear­lier route are of­ten young peo­ple from fam­i­lies who don’t have the same re­sources, and get into the work­force and into mar­riage too quickly. Their life out­comes are much more cir­cum­scribed.”

Apart from the ef­fect of so­cial me­dia, which has “detri­men­tal as­pects”, es­pe­cially for young women, he says teens could also be grow­ing up more slowly be­cause we’re ac­tu­ally get­ting bet­ter at par­ent­ing. “We now know that au­thor­i­ta­tive, puni­tive forms of par­ent­ing don’t work, and peo­ple have moved to­wards a more re­la­tional, col­lab­o­ra­tive style of par­ent­ing, which is much more ef­fec­tive.”

Ball says there’s ev­i­dence from the UK that parental mon­i­tor­ing has in­creased dra­mat­i­cally, par­tic­u­larly in lower so­cio-eco­nomic groups, and she wants to an­a­lyse the Youth2000 data to see if that’s mod­i­fied risky teen be­hav­iour here.

“It used to be that rich folks were care­ful about where their kids were and who they were with, whereas young­sters in lower so­cio-eco­nomic groups roamed a bit freer,

“There ap­pears to be a mi­nor­ity who aren’t do­ing so well, and we no­ticed that as they’re get­ting older, their men­tal health chal­lenges are in­creas­ing.” “Peo­ple have moved to­wards a more re­la­tional, col­lab­o­ra­tive style of par­ent­ing, which is much more ef­fec­tive.”

Guid­ance coun­sel­lor Kathryn Bar­clay says she’s sur­prised by the sta­tis­tics.

From top: pub­lic health re­search fel­low Jude Ball, pro­fes­sor of psy­chol­ogy Marc Wil­son and re­searcher Si­mon Denny.

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