TAHOE/TRUCKEE, Calif. —-The river flows to the sea and becomes part of something greater. Without the rivers, the sea would be diminished, thirsty, without revitalization and the ecosystems would suffer and die as a result of imbalance.
As parents, we are connected by our experience of parenting with all its joy, all its mystery, and the times we are fearful and uncertain. Our children are their own beings, with souls that are being colored and carved by their experiences. We are their shepherds; we are their beacons, but they are not us and they do not belong to us. As their parents, we are charged with being witnesses of our teenagers’ journeys to becoming part of the consciousness of the world, the participants in shaping their cultures according to their vision and values. When we let go, if we can let go, we cannot predict the course. On some level we know they must determine that for themselves; to engage their imaginations, their resourcefulness and their voices. But how will they learn to use their voices if their predecessors do not teach them to speak in whatever language expresses them best whether it is through spoken language, the language of art, music, dance, writing or another of the imagination’s vehicles?
Transforming the parent relationship —
from knower to witness
Witnessing is different than protecting, advising, teaching or telling. For the parent of a teenager perched on the edge of the nest ready to take the first test flight, witnessing is an act of refraining. To refrain from speaking, warning, teaching, advising or telling is to open space for the voices of our teenagers. To refrain from filling the empty space with our opinions and admonishments while they search for the right words is to trust they will find them. Too often, we extinguish and silence voices that need a quiet host and we fail to act as curious guests in the imaginations of young minds and hearts. As M. Scott Peck wrote in his 1988 book “The Road Less Traveled,” “Our job is not to prepare the path of life for our children, but to prepare our children for the path.”
How our culture affects teens
Teenagers are weighted with cultural expectations for maturity juxtaposed against the realities of their emotional capacity. Teenagers try to match what the culture expects often at the cost of their self-esteem and inner peace. Many teens struggle with body image, sexuality, economic disadvantages, depression and learning problems, and many cannot imagine talking about these issues will provide relief or resolution. Those who cannot withstand the pressure from peers, parents, the schools and the culture often drop out of school, use substances to cope with emotional pain, join gangs or they decide suicide is the only way to end their suffering.
American boys are required by law to register for the draft when they reach the age of 18. When a war is going on, registering for the draft and contemplating possible death in a country thousands of miles away has the potential to be terrifying, yet our culture does not address all the implications of this requirement, selecting only to valorize voluntary military service as a means of achieving success or increasing self-esteem or guaranteeing a college education, if a soldier makes it home again. Many arrive home in pieces, their tender psyches reeling to return to the place left far behind on the threshold between childhood and adulthood.
Teenagers struggle to discern their values and expectations with those of the culture, schools, and parents in trying to create the paths they will take as adults. For teens who leave the school system or who drift after graduating high school with no clear plan for the future and few resources, the world can seem overwhelming and inhospitable. There is little time to dream, imagine and to retreat, perhaps cocooning into a chrysalis for a time to let the lessons sink in. There is only the experience of harshness, rigidity of the systems they are caught up in and our culture’s frenzied pace to know more, be more and do more.
Despite the rumbling in their stomachs, their aching heads and emptied hearts, they press on keeping pace with a speeding conveyor belt with no “off” button within reach. American teenagers are a silenced population. They are given no clear role or voice during their most critical developmental years in shaping the world they will inherit. They are rarely offered a voice in decisions that will impact them as adults.
We are a nation of fearful consumers and ravenous competitors, our eyes turned outward for food that never satisfies the deepening starvation for connection with each other. Our children receive the anxiety like radio waves, and they respond to the frenzied pace with the language available to them, usually behavior such as bullying or withdrawing into the darker realms. We diagnose it rather than paying attention to what it says about the state of our culture. We identify them as the patients rather than examine ourselves and the world into which we have brought them.
The children left behind
According to Angela Diaz, M.D., MPD, director of the Mt. Sinai Adolescent health Center in New York, the population of youths between 16 and 24 is the most underserved in the United States in terms of health care, preventative care, mental health services and dental care. They are legally adults at the age of 18, but unless they are in college, the likelihood is that they will get jobs that pay little more than minimum wage, inadequate to live on with no medical benefits. The mental health system has coined the term “transitional age youth” to describe the population of young adults who are suspended in the nether-region between being teenagers who have more access to social services and those 18 and older who are cut off from services or who cannot get into college and become stuck in survival mode of minimum wage jobs. These are just a few of the barriers that millions of teenagers who will inherit our country are up against.
Our educational system has put its resources and focus on preparing students to pass aptitude tests and less on developing imagination, creativity and the ability to navigate the complex problems of living in this competitive culture beyond high school, which for many does not include college. Our children fear failure because they are not permitted to fail and then retrieve success from its fallout by accessing their own resilience.
For teens with emotional problems stemming from lack of access to stable caregiving, economic stability and medical care and who have experienced trauma as children, the legal system becomes the de facto parent. Children who break school rules or the law due to violent behavior, drug use or truancy are placed either in foster care or juvenile detention. Many cycle through these systems over and over again until they reach the age of 18.
Without experiences of loving, caring stable homes, or parents with whom they can speak honestly, these children are released from the juvenile justice system at 18 and are expected to go out in the world and live according to the laws and expectations of a culture with which they are unfamiliar. Some will make it into college or vocational programs against all odds, but most do not. These are the young adults this society fails to recognize and offer resources for healthcare, social support and life skills education in a supportive, safe and nurturing environment.
Talking about suicide
Although none of this information may apply to you and your teenager(s), the possibilities for any teenager to fall through the cracks and land in the juvenile justice system, on the streets, or drug involved is everyone’s concern. It is critically important for adults and teenagers to speak openly about the fears and challenges of growing up and out of the family and into the world. Statistically, male teenagers complete suicide more than female teenagers and the reasons for suicide remain the same as they were 10 years ago. Boys often feel they must have certainty about their life path by the time they reach the age of 18; the benchmark we have set determining their ability to be independent.
Although there has been progress in cultivating openness about fear of growing up, boys are typically not as willing as girls to express such feelings. The CDC cites depression as the main cause for suicide and that suicide is the third leading cause of death for teenagers between the ages of 12 and 19 after accidental deaths and homicide. Among the leading causes for teen depression is discord, violence or abuse in the family, inability to feel a connection with parents or caregivers, pressure and anxiety associated with school, and isolation or being ostracized by peers. Statistics evaluating depression among teens show that if there is just one person, not necessarily a parent, but a coach or a teacher or an extended family member, with whom they can speak openly and feel safe and who can offer them support and unconditional love and care, it often makes the difference between rebounding from depression or not.
The transparent parent
The river is allowed to make its way to the sea meandering over the land, carving its way around obstacles, bumping over stones and crashing in great waterfalls to the valleys below. To watch it and witness its journey is a miracle, a marvel for all the senses to experience. To stop it by force is to starve it from creating its own path severing it from its ultimate destination which is to join with its greater ancestor, the sea. Learning to let go of old ways of being “the parent,” the knower or the authority is perhaps our greatest and most terrifying challenge. Transforming the parent relationship means learning to hold space for the most frightening conversations including depression and thoughts of suicide. Trusting ourselves in the action of refraining requires relentless faith that simply listening and holding space goes a long way, perhaps even preventing the desperation and depression from eating our children alive. An undefended and open heart is always an invitation even for the most reluctant visitor. The changing role of parenting as our children open their wings is an opportunity to show our humanity and fallibility and to choose humility rather than hubris, to hold sacred the role of being the one they want to come to first when life seems overwhelming.