Somewhere, I’m sure, there are parents who remember their child’s adolescence as a delight, full of achievement and steady maturation. If we’re to believe Luke’s account in the Bible, Jesus’s years between his precocious teaching at the Temple and the start of his ministry were like that — “growing in wisdom and grace.” Lucky Mary, lucky Joseph.
But most of us experience our of kids’ teenage years as years stuck on a roller coaster we never wanted to ride, watching misery, rebellion and confusion from the back seat but largely helpless to smooth the track or ease the pain. Chances are they’ll get to the end of the ride intact, but as a parent, you’re never sure.
As my grandkids approach adolescence, I ache to learn that the period between childhood and adulthood is more fraught than ever for American teens. Last Sunday, the New York Times reported at length how Covid, on-line learning and social media have accelerated the rise in teen anxiety, depression and suicide attempts. Experts cite many contributors: Puberty arrives earlier, anxious parents pressure kids to excel, cell phones and video games interfere with sleep, social media bathes teens in images of unattainable beauty and happiness while leading them down dark tunnels of pornography and isolation. Kids are drinking less, driving less, working less, sleeping less, socializing less. They’re less sexually active while simultaneously confronting a wider range than ever of possible identities and pronouns. Meanwhile, far above their pay grade, politicians bicker over how to teach kids about race and sex.
The same day as the Times’ report, the Minneapolis Star Tribune chronicled Minnesota’s broken juvenile criminal justice system. Kids arrested for carjackings and violent assaults are released over and over to their parents, many of whom are desperate for help to turn their kids’ lives around before they end up dead or in prison. The community counseling programs that are supposed to help them lack both resources and authority to make sure kids show up and do the work. As with debates over how to teach about sex and race, political leaders spend time talking about cutting taxes, renaming schools and decriminalizing certain behaviors, all of which can agitate voters but do little to help kids. Meanwhile, both the parents whose kids are cutting themselves and those whose kids are violently stealing cars are largely on their own to figure out how to save their children.
I’m no expert on adolescence, but I know that getting through it requires trustworthy guides, sturdy guardrails and people and activities to love. Teens need adults and friends who listen and encourage. They need skills to develop, activities that engage their energy and ardor, ways to get out of their buzzing brains and virtual reality to find out what they’re good at and what they love. For one of our kids, those were running and woodworking. For the other, theater and music did the trick. And what sustained them as teens and remains in middle age was a set of close friends. That’s what all of us, including political leaders, should be helping our kids find.