In the New York Times this week, staggering statistics from the American College Health Association were published on the prevalence of anxiety among today’s youth. Hospital admissions for suicide have doubled over the last 10 years, while the percentage of teenagers reporting “overwhelming anxiety” has risen from 50 per cent in 2011 to 62 per cent in 2016. That should shock us! But I don’t think it does.
It is obvious to everyone that in this information age of 24-hour news, social media, and more technological gadgets than ever, kids are having a terrible time just getting to be kids. As their parents, if we weren’t killing ourselves to protect their childhoods, would they even have one?
I recently trained an affluent high school district in northern California. On my way to one of the high schools, my Uber driver shared that a passenger he recently met was approximately 13 years old. The boy sat himself in the front seat, quickly started to open up, and before long had a “really good cry,” the driver said, “a release that seemed much needed and long overdue.” The boy shared with this perfect stranger that many times throughout most nights, he is awoken by his nightmares, as well as by the thought that a nuclear bomb is going to land close by and cast an orange haze across the sky. He gets out of bed and checks the window for the approaching glow, he said, and went on to ask, “How can anyone expect me to do anything when there is no future, when there is no reason to believe that I’ll even have a life?
My own 7th-grade son is a different person at 12, the age of the beginning of the adolescent brain. Neuroscientific findings have defined the period of adolescence from 12 to 24 based on clear evidence that neural pathways for various capacities are developing but are far from being fully developed. It’s a long stage of learning, not one of knowing. I’ve recognized this from a professional point of view, but when you see your own son struggling with this in-between stage of needing to do more and know more but not yet having the neurological capacity, that is a whole other thing. I feel helpless as I watch him wrestle with his internal demons, many of which are simply the function of rapidly changing and intense surges of hormones that leave him tired, stressed, dazed, and confused. I see it! He can’t articulate what’s going on inside of him. It’s just too complicated. Anytime we try to talk about it, I see him just wanting to give up.
How do we help the adolescents that we parent, teach, mentor, coach and just plain love (secretly hate sometimes)? Can we forgive ourselves for the limits we feel, the mistakes we make, and the ignorance we have about how to do this well? Here are the tips I’m giving myself these days, based on a lot of research that I don’t want you to have to do:
- Self-compassion and self-care: I need to be the best I can be for my adolescent and that doesn’t come from parenting out of guilt or overwhelming exhaustion. Of course I’m tired all the time. I’m juggling parenting and work like everybody else. There’s a difference between tired and overwhelming exhaustion. We need to get as much sleep and rest as we can and we need to practice a tremendous amount of self-forgiveness because we’re not always going to get it. Without enough rest, we’re going to mess up.
- Knowledge: We need to remember, not only is this their raging hormones, it is also a lack of brain development. The adolescent brain is a long way from the adult brain. We are not to take any of this personally. Even when it sounds like they are personally attacking us, it isn’t personal. My son says the meanest things to me, ABOUT ME! But I know that the storm in his skin is painful and scary. He feels safe enough to spew it out to me in whatever way it comes and that can be okay. I’m not saying I’m a punching bag and I don’t want you to be one either, but I do pick my battles and I let a lot go.
- Time & Space: Let’s stop talking – please – fewer words always – and let’s leave the room when we need to, to let the whole thing cool off. Imagine pausing, slowing down, giving yourself and the other more time and space that’s quieter. I catch myself as quickly as I can when I get into one of those long guilt-inducing talks about the behavior I can’t stand or the behavior I want instead. I just stop mid-sentence if that’s when I finally hear myself getting louder and more righteous. I just don’t want to be that person. Not when I understand how hard this is for him.
- Really See Them: See how hard they’re working, how much they’re trying, how dazed and confused they actually are, how much they’re feeling the need to posture and be perfect in front of friends, how much pressure they actually experience. It’s far from perfect. They’re not going to be on top of everything we expect them to be on top of because they just don’t have that level of brain sophistication yet. They have to learn through experience, over and over again, and eventually, they’ll get better and better. During adolescence, we have to see the effort and how difficult it will remain for them until they mature neurologically.