It's clear that many kids are breaking down in college. But most of the issues affecting them are at play well before they get to college age.
If you wish to understand what is happening with young adults, it's wise to focus on teenagers. We have all heard about the male loner who suddenly blows people up, like the pipe bomber or the Columbine kids. We are learning about the girls who are as aggressive as the boys but who are indirect in their aggression, the so-called mean girls syndrome. They are the most visible symbols of some disturbing trends.
By any measure, our young people are in trouble. Rates of depression and anxiety are soaring—and getting worse. Possibly one out of three teens will end up with significant clinical depression needing treatment. Their suicide rates have tripled.
We need to take action. If you are the parent or sibling of a teenager, or come in contact with them on a regular basis, there is information you need to have and strategies to adopt. I want to focus this article on teenage girls.
Make no assumptions that you know what is really going on. Recognize that you are ignorant even though you'd love to believe you're not. Teenagers represent the most classic case of what you see is not what you get. One major reason parents are out of touch is that to be in touch takes a great deal of time and parents are just too harried.
Recognize that to be in touch requires new communications skills, and they have to be learned if you expect to connect with and understand these kids. All the skills that worked up to this point no longer work.
Turn to the real experts for answers, the people who are immersed in the peer culture teens set up for themselves, adults who work with teens day in and day out and know how to help them. Take workshops and classes where you get hands-on training in skill-building.
One of the best sources of information is The Inside Story on Teen Girls, by Alice Rubenstein, Ed.D., and Karen Zager, Ph.D. The book was published by the American Psychological Association.
Appreciate how different their world is from ours, and expose yourself to the culture your kids are immersed in. Look on it as an anthropological exploration. Ask kids what's hip and what they are paying attention to. Watch a half hour of MTV for a couple of weeks. Ask your kids to show you some of their favorite computer games and video games. Look at the magazines teen girls read. Go online to good teen websites.
Take all the expertise you've gathered and distill it down to some core action strategies that will work with your particular kids.
Let your kids know that you're really interested in learning about them and their lives without judging or controlling—and that it can be at their time and in their way.
Make yourself available at the most inconvenient times. Your kids will purposely choose the worst time of your day or week to open up to you. They want to talk when you're exhausted, in bed, and they've just come home at curfew time.
You have to mobilize your values and realize that your exhaustion is not worth missing an opportunity to connect. In the long run connection produces more value than a night's sleep.
Whatever else, avoid comments—positive or negative—about body appearance. Any remarks are triggers to cultural craziness on the topic. Instead talk about health and strength.
Engage in activities together, which then tend to open up opportunities for communication and connection, rather than sitting down eyeball to eyeball. One of the very best approaches is a shared fitness activity. Walk, run or do yoga together; or go to the gym and lift weights together. Take in a museum exhibit on video art. Go to a movie like Bridget Jones' Diary. But don't go shopping together.
There are many reasons why depression is rampant in young people. They face unprecedented pressures to succeed. The college race is harder and more uncertain than ever. As the pressure has increased, so has anxiety, because adults aren't there to teach kids how to handle it. It's exploding in eating disorders, anxiety disorders and aggression.
This is the first generation of divorce, the product of absentee parents and lots of conflict.
Today's teens face more pressure for sexual activity earlier, a situation that can be very depressing for those who aren't ready or don't know what to do.
There is an epidemic of low self-esteem, because parents haven't had the time it takes to build it. That has left adolescent girls prey to body image issues.
It's critical to go after depression in the young. We now know that there is a kindling effect: the younger you are when you get your first depression, the more at risk you are for serious adult depressions with more frequency. The faster anyone can pick up on depression and its signs in young people, the quicker they can be helped.