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February 17, 2013

Raising Johnny or Sue

Reuel S. Amdur

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It is not easy being a teen these days, nor to be the parent of a teen. Parents cannot compare what being a teen was like when they were teenagers. A big difference is the incredible impact that the social media have today. Another factor is the massive growth in the available amount of knowledge, courtesy of Google. The world of today's young people is not our world, and we cannot understand how they experience it. As Kahlil Gibran put it, "You may house their bodies but not their souls. For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams."

Yet there are some things that are the same.  Teens yesterday and today enter their teen years with a lack of life experience to face their challenges.  They are entering puberty, with the confusing demands of their hormones.  As a result, the brain is sidetracked: reason is replaced by impulsivity.  This is a time of transition, when a youngster may be going to a new school and developing intense friendships.  At this time, a young person is pressed to make decisions about what to do next in preparing for adult life.

There are some other things that are similar but yet somewhat different.  The dynamic with the family is changing, but the family today is not the family of yesterday.  Divorce is more common, and the stay-at-home mom is a lot less common.  Many young people have part time jobs and are starting to engage in romance.  But more common today than in the past is the experimentation with drugs and alcohol.

So how does one parent today?  Parents need to communicate openly with their children and need to talk about such things as mental health and addictions.  That means that parents should have some basic knowledge about these subjects.  Contact your local Canadian Mental Health Association for some informational pamphlets or ask the librarian at your local library to recommend a book or two on the subject. 

In talking with your youngster, listening is essential.  As Annmarie Nicholson, coordinator of volunteers at the Royal Ottawa Hospital, who is a major source for this article, expressed it, “You need to listen three times as much as you talk.”  The conversation needs to connect at a feeling level.  Identify feelings and desires and acknowledge their validity.  Understand why your youngster thinks, feels, and reacts the way he does.

Timing is important in having the big conversation about how things are going with your teen.  In some case, the direct approach is appropriate, while in other situations it is best to come at the subject gradually, depending how open the teen appears to be.

Here is an example from my own experience, as best I can recall it.  One of my sons came to me and announced, “Dad, Mary and I are going to get married.”

“If you’re in love, that’s fine.”

“No, it’s not that.  She needs to get a student loan and she’s not eligible because her parents have too much income, but if she is married she’d no longer be tied to her parents’ circumstances.”

“You’re getting married just so that she can get a student loan?”

“Dad, you don’t understand.  Young people need to do things to help one another.”

“So you want to marry her as charity?”

“That’s not fair.” 

“I’ve seen her with you, and it’s not just the student loan.  She has the hots for you.” 

My son was startled by this observation and decided that he needed to discuss the matter with some close buddies.  The good news: no marriage.

Nicholson told an audience at the Royal Ottawa that in Canada 3.2 million youth are at risk of having a major depression as adults.  Depression is the most common problem they might face.  Something between 10% and 20% are affected by mental illness or disorder, and yet youth are the least likely to accept help, largely because of stigma.  Therefore it is important to talk to children about mental health.  “Half of mental health disorders begin in adolescence,” she said.  And if a condition remains untreated, it is likely to become worse.

How can you tell if your youngster is depressed?  Depression in young people often appears different than depression in adults.  In adults, the person typically looks sad and drags himself along.  A young person may express his depression in irritability, anger, hostility, physical complaints, and change of behavior, perhaps including using drugs and alcohol.

If these indicators seem to be present, the big conversation needs to address what is bothering the son or daughter and what the parent can do to help.  The goal should be to get professional help for the problem.  The first step should be to go with the teen to see the family doctor.  If you don’t have one, contact the local Canadian Mental Health Association for advice.  However, not everyone with these symptoms is depressed.  In the case of the Nicholson family, the diagnosis was attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but again there was a need for professional involvement.

Depression can lead to suicide, so it needs to be taken seriously.  The worst strategy is to expect a teen to grow out of it or get over it.  Instead, put your arm around the teen and give him a hug and talk to him about getting help.  Tell him you are proud of him that he was brave enough to let you know.

A youngster, usually a girl, who cuts herself is not engaging in suicidal behavior.  The pain from the cutting serves as a way to block emotional pain.  Again, a hug is in order, along with the big discussion and a visit to the doctor.

A final word about being a parent.  It is not easy these days, and with all the pressures and challenges in child rearing it is important that parents find some time for themselves, whether in some sports, listening to music, going to a movie, or doing something together or with friends.  Recreation can renew the energy level to deal with those challenges.

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