The pressures of being a kid or teen in our society today are monumental. Constantly being “on,” and never being able to fully unplug, or at least feeling like you can’t, has left them stressed, highly anxious and much more depressed than previous generations. They report higher levels of loneliness, isolation, disconnection and dissatisfaction with life in general. The appearance of always being “connected” has created an illusion in the minds of their parents and makes us susceptible to missing all the signs of depression and anxiety, amongst other things like self-harm and suicidal thoughts or behaviors.
Aside from this, it is also one of the most competitive generations we have yet to see. “Normal” has become the worst possible thing to be, because in order to achieve success you must be set apart. They push themselves harder, taking more difficult classes and larger class-loads, they sign up for community service along with tons of extra-curricular activities all while losing sleep and forgetting when they ate last… did I mention that they also drink large amounts of caffeine, and we are not taking into account all the other unhealthy coping mechanisms.
Of course, this does not account for each child or adolescent, but in general we are seeing higher levels of stress and feeling like they have no where to turn. They often hear things like, “You have nothing to be stressed about... This is life, you just need to suck it up… Its time that you learn to grow up and deal with this stuff… You can’t use your anxiety as an excuse… You have nothing to worry about… Just wait until life gets really hard…” and the list goes on. Also, we often forget that just because someone is a child or teen it does not exclude them from having big emotions or bad days, and yet we expect (unknowingly many of the times) perfection. We expect them to fall in line, to do what we say, to never talk back, to not have attitudes, to never be upset about something, to pull it together and to basically be sunshine and rainbows because why would they have feelings other than joy?
When they try to come to us about the hard things and we dismiss them because we are uncomfortable or don’t know how to help them, we essentially tell them that we aren’t safe to go to and they need to deal with it alone. This creates a dynamic for isolation and frustration. It is okay if we don’t always have the answers, we need to let them see that too… often, they just want someone to hear them out, to validate their feelings and what they are going through, and to be there for them unconditionally.
The preteen and teen years are some of the most difficult! Not fully adult, not fully child… everything changes and is changing around them. They will (sometimes) make bad choices, that doesn’t make them bad. They will (sometimes) make mistakes, that doesn’t mean they are stupid. They will (sometimes) forget to do things, that doesn’t mean they are lazy. They will (sometimes) become overwhelmed, that doesn’t mean they are weak. They will (sometimes) struggle with relationships, that doesn’t mean they don’t want them. They will (sometimes) do things that make you angry, but it doesn’t mean their behavior was personal!
The number one thing I tell families is that behavior is a symptom; we (all) act out when we are struggling to communicate. Behavior is rarely personal, and usually has far less to do with you than it does with themselves. During these years it is imperative that we offer unconditional love and support, which is not devoid of natural consequences and boundaries, but that allows them to learn through growth opportunities. If we never make mistakes, we will always be complacent and there can never be growth in comfort.
We must come together to help them understand that it is normal to feel things, to make mistakes, to struggle in certain areas, and to need someone to connect with and talk to. If you don’t feel equipped, that is okay, and it is also okay to tell them that and encourage them to get help from a professional by making the appointment and supporting them in the ways you know how and are capable. One of the best things we can do is to teach our youth that we all have limits and limitations. We do not know everything, and we do not know how to fix everything. Furthermore, it is okay to lean on and rely on someone who does know more than us. We can reach out, connect, ask for help and learn that we all have giftings and a purpose in this world. Their lives matter and they have a unique purpose; sometimes it can feel like life is crashing in on them and it is hard to see and have hope for a brighter future, but our job is to model how, even through the darkest times there is still hope and there are still people who care.
It is time we stop isolating our youth further by diminishing their struggles and start allowing them to express themselves and be there for them. We wont ever be able to fix everything or have all the right answers, but some things you can do right now are:
Listen to hear not to respond.
Give them a set time (like 5 minutes) to just talk… no consequences, no rules, and no restrictions. They get to share openly without judgement.
Validate their feelings.
Help them connect with someone who can help.
Be fully present.
Understand that bad choices don’t make them bad.
And allow them to make mistakes and figure out who they are.
All of us adults were once in this place, and we know how it felt to be misunderstood and alone. Just imagine adding the pressures of social media and connection, while feeling alone, and increasing the pressure to be perfect because their lives are always on display. It is time to understand that their struggles are real, and when we pretend they are not, we are doing a huge disservice to them, ourselves and our world. It is often said that it is easier to raise a healthy child than to fix a broken adult, and I agree whole-heartedly. We can help them be their version of healthy by being there for them, loving them and trusting that they know how they feel. We can help by being there, reaching out to others, and allowing them a safe space to be. We don’t need to have all the answers, we just need to connect and love them unconditionally.