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How Can We Nurture Our Teens?

Suicide prevention in hyper-competitive communities

As someone who started her career promoting adolescent health and well-being, I’ve long thought about how we can create supportive situations for teens. What’s nature and what’s nurture, and what roles can parents play in helping their kids develop into healthy adolescents? How can educational settings be best equipped to support teen emotional health? What needs to be in place within communities to show teens that they’re not miniature adults, but valued for their stage in life?

More recently, as parent of a toddler, I think a lot about who my son will become and what my husband and I, our families, his schools, and his community can do to provide him with the best foundation possible. He’s only two, and yet it’s an adolescence of sorts: Struggles for independence (his most-used phrase is: “I want to…” and he’s just learned to say, “I don’t have to…”), concerns about impulse control, and discovering and supporting his strengths.

I listened to a recent On Point broadcast with two sets of ears - my professional ears, attuned to ideas about how we can change culture to grow healthier teens, and my parent ears, that like the rest of me, want to do the best thing for my little guy.

It was very hard to listen with my parent ears. It was unbelievably difficult to hear the desperation in the voice of a mother who had lost her son to suicide. It was even harder given the impetus for this On Point story - two of the three communities mentioned as having recent clusters of teen suicides are places where I have a personal connection: Newton, Massachusetts (I lived for the past decade in neighboring Boston and spent a good portion of my early career working in Newton), and Fairfax County, Virginia, where I spent the first 17 years of my life, and a neighboring community to where I’ve recently relocated my little family.

NPR calls these communities “hyper-competitive.” For some, perhaps, it feels good to hear the place you’ve chosen to raise your child described that way. For me, not so much.

Listening with my professional ears was more hopeful. Though with the motivation of tragedy at its base, a national conversation about what teens need to grow into healthy young adults - and beyond - is long overdue.

Adolescent development experts Madeline Levine and Laurence Steinberg provided helpful tips for parents who are trying to figure out how to balance creating challenging environments in which their kids can learn and thrive and providing support for kids who may be under too much stress.

Before I share their thoughts, I want to reinforce what they both emphasized: It’s not about any one thing - early school start times, multiple extracurriculars, or even having too much homework. It’s about feeling taken care of during a period of life in which young people are learning the coping mechanisms they’ll use for the rest of their lives.

Teens who attempt suicide do not do so because they had too much homework - lots of teens have too much homework and do not attempt suicide. What really helps kids thrive?

  • Connection: What Levine describes as “an inviting, listening presence.” As she said, racing around, taking kids to activities is not connecting. If that’s the only time you have together, show that you’re open to hearing what your child has to say and really listen.
  • Challenge, Balanced with Time to Unwind: Challenge is good, for all of us. But, Steinberg asks, “how do you draw the line between challenge and stress?” Giving adolescents time to unwind, when their lives are not structured and their time is not directed teaches them that they don’t have to be “on” all the time and gives them practice creating a sense of balance.
  • Scaffolding: I loved this idea of giving young people challenges that are within their reach so that they can learn skills over time. We can’t expect teens to learn how to be good at everything all at once - none of us, as adults, are good at everything, ever. We are drawn to and turn toward our strengths, and are built up by getting better at those things over time.

This advice from experts applies to all of us who are struggling to find a balance, but it is especially important for teens, who are sometimes less able to take the long view and see that what’s stressful in the moment will not be present forever. (Let’s be honest: There are many of us who are way outside the teen years and still have trouble taking perspective!)

But, I’m hoping - for my son, our hyper-competitive community, and for all teens - that we can focus on raising kids who are successful in many ways, not just ways that can be measured by academic honors, test scores, or college admissions. There is so much life after adolescence - let’s help teens get ready for all that awaits.

Copyright 2015 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved

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