Where I am going with this blog, that is longer than usual, is to suggest how many young people, particularly in the final stage of adolescence that I call "trial independence" (around ages 18 - 23) can come to lead extremely unhealthy lifestyles.
They do so to a physical and psychological cost as college counseling and health centers, for example, will attest. And young people do it with cause. The transition into living away from the oversight of parental supervision and the structure of family life creates a challenge of self-management that is hard to meet without an emotional strain.
However, I believe parents can mitigate some of these crises and collapses by helping their son and daughter develop healthy practices and priorities while still in high school. In particular, they can teach the young person some simple guidelines for managing a key component in healthy living - their personal energy, that potential for doing and action upon which everyone must depend to get anything in life accomplished.
Because personal energy is such a vital and limited life resource, to maintain health it must be guarded and nourished, kept in steady and sufficient supply. From what I have seen in counseling, the mismanagement of their energy gets many young people in psychological difficulty during the final stage of adolescence.
At this transitional time the adjustments are many, loneliness can be painful, more freedom rules, temptations abound, excess is indulged, and adequate self-care is easily neglected. Run out of energy and they can run into trouble as stressed, exhausted, overwhelmed, depressed, anxious, or stimulant dependent young people living away from home for the first time often seem to do.
Then there are young people who are fortunate enough to have learned, by parental example and instruction, habits of healthy energy management to take with them when they leave home. They seem to know how to take good care of them selves at an unstable, scattered, and distracted age when many of their peers do not.
Talking with parents, there is simple distinction between two broad categories for spending personal energy that I advise them to teach.
The first is on daily MAINTENANCE: the recurring activities we did yesterday that we repeat today to keep our basic functioning and wellbeing in tact. Just enumerate a few of the fundamentals: rest, sleep, relaxation, nutrition, hygiene, transportation, exercise, family care, social company, employment, medical care, play, cleaning, laundry, bill paying, repairing, shopping, cooking, and the list of basics goes on and on.
It takes a huge investment of effort to get from one day to the next so that our system is adequately maintained. Neglect these basics long enough and we begin to suffer. For example, when college students ignore illness and don't take steps to get well, when they don't get enough sleep, when they stop eating regularly, when they give themselves no time to relax and renew, when they ignore work obligations, when they do without companionship, their circumstances worsen.
Self-care is neglected,relationships suffer, performance declines, energy becomes depleted, and their system runs down. For everyone, to keep our selves consistently maintained is extremely important.
And yet, why is it that we don't credit these essential activities? I think it is because they seem so basic that they are not worth crediting. Taken for granted, we give them with no great importance. They are under-appreciated because they are simply to be expected. Besides, such basics are not a lot of fun.
Think about it. When was the last time someone said to you, or you said to yourself: "Congratulations! You took care of your basic needs and successfully made it through another day!" Doesn't happen.
So if we tend to ignore the importance of maintenance, what way of spending energy are we taught to value? To answer this question, consider two value sets, each one supporting a different way of spending energy.
The first value set emphasizes doing New, More, Better, Different, and Faster.
The second value set emphasizes doing Old, Less, As well, The same, and Slower.
Which one of these value sets is more likely to be socially rewarded? In our culture, the first set wins hands down because doing new, more, better, different, and faster is how one moves up in the world, attracts notice, achieves success, and maybe even pursues happiness. This value set promotes investing in CHANGE. As for the second set - doing old, less, as well, the same, slower - it tends to support maintenance.
We glamorize change; we celebrate change; we believe in change; we reward change. For example, most any product introduced in this country is advertised and sold because of its change value. Buy it, and it will enable us to do some combination of new, more, better, different, or faster.
Or think about our daily conversation. Which activity are we more likely to discuss with a friend? That we did the laundry again today or that we saw a neat new TV show? That we got the oil changed on the car or that we found a good restaurant? That we renewed our medical prescription or that we got this great bargain? Change trumps maintenance every time.
It's not that change is bad. Change is good. It allows us to adjust, adapt, invent, create, learn, and grow. We need the stimulation of change (trying unfamiliar experiences and activities not done before) to keep us challenged. But we also need the restoration of maintenance (repeating sustaining experiences and activities) to keep us energized as well. The trick is to keep our investments in change and in maintenance in healthy balance. What is that balance?
On any given day I would estimate on average we spend around 80% of our available energy - our potential for doing and action - on maintenance, which only leaves about 20% available for change.
And here is where a lot of adolescents and their parents have a parting of the ways. While parents appreciate the obligation and necessary repetition of maintenance to keep the family system going, the adolescent becomes disdainful of maintenance and prefers the excitement of change.
In counseling with parent and teenager, youth can accuse age of being dull and boring, and age can accuse youth of only being interested in the latest fads and fashions. "I'm not going to waste my life by doing same/old, same/old!" the young person declares. "Well, you're not going to get anywhere in this world by refusing to do anything that isn't new and different!" the parent sternly replies. Youth stands up for change values; age stands up for maintenance values.
Undergoing the throws of trial independence is a hard time to act healthy for young people who are living away from home for the first time, faced with more freedom of choice than they have ever had before, and are tempted by more exciting change that they can easily refuse. What do many of them do?
They ignore self-maintenance (who has time for that?) and they invest in change at the expense of maintenance, in both cases allowing their systems to run down and their energy to become depleted. Now they physically and psychologically becoming more susceptible to serious ailments of the age - fatigue, depression, anxiety, stress, substance abuse, and the like.
Low on energy,unable to self-motivate or concentrate, what do many young people do? Instead of attending to maintenance, they go for rescue. They go to dealers or doctors who, for a fee, will supply psychostimulant medication to get them the up and runnning and back on focus when they feel too depleted or distracted to perform. And now, in the words of one college student, "I can't function without my meds."
So at some point in my counseling with these casualties of trial independence, I pose basic energy management questions.
"What are the minimal activities you need to do each day to feel basically taken care of?"
"Are there any of these activities that you are not consistently doing or have let slide?"
"How many new and different activities have you chosen to build into you life right now?"
"Have any of these recent changes gotten in the way of taking care of your basic needs?"
"How much of a priority is adequate self-care compared with more fun and exciting things to do?"
It's when a young person runs out of energy, stops renewing energy, becomes entirely focused on entertaining or exciting changes, that a lot of troubles begin. So when in counseling a young person reports saying "no" to a fun change because he or she does not have the available energy to afford it, or because significant self-maintenance must be sacrificed to do it, I support that. I do the same when he or she has the self-discipline to regularly invest in self-maintenance to keep energy adequately maintained.
What are the principles of managing energy for healthy living that parents can emphasize (and model for) their last stage adolescent?
1)Invest in sufficient maintenance activities, repetitive as they may be, to keep energy adequately nourished and restored one day to the next.
2)Invest in sufficient change activities to stimulate energy for continued growth.
3)Honor the disproportionate investment that maintenance takes for an individual to get from one day to the next with one's energy in full supply.
4)Appreciate that after taking care of maintenance needs there is only going to be a moderate availability of energy left for change.
5)Resist investing in change (no matter how appealing, glamorous, or exciting) at the expense of maintenance because that will run a person's psychological and physical system down.
6)Most of the time, when it comes to managing your energy and consistently supporting your health, self-maintenance needs to be priority number-one.
Next week's entry: Adolescence and the choice of public, private, or home schooling.