After nearly twenty years of working with teenagers, I can honestly say that I am more worried about our kids now than I have ever been. Before I get into the meat of this article I want to point out one of the high positives and that is that I am generally seeing teens staying away from harder drugs. I used to see a fair amount of kids using hard street drugs like heroin and even though there is a high percentage of kids that use marijuana, vape and drink alcohol, I am glad they are staying away from heavy drugs.
What I am specifically concerned about is their mental health. There are a lot of negative factors at play with our kids these days and they have learned a lot of wrong things. I believe that our high rates of teen suicide is the combination of a lot things happening to create a little bit of a perfect storm. Our kids have adopted myths or what I call pathological nonsense and trying to make them work in life and it’s a bit of a disaster. We need to collectively come together and be realistic about what we expect from teens if we want them to stop taking their own lives. Here are four really damaging myths that modern young people believe. I have also included some positive alternatives for our kids to learn.
- It’s not okay to make mistakes – I have been wrestling with this particular idea, concept and issue for a couple of months and have narrowed down what I believe to be a really core issue that is formed around a big misconception. I see parents, and teens, that have what they call high expectations and high standards but the breakdown seems to be happening where people think that having high standards and expectations also means low tolerance for mistakes. I have high standards and expectations for kids too but to me it’s extremely important to understand that this does not mean that kids can’t or shouldn’t make mistakes in the process. “High expectations” should absolutely NOT mean that there is low tolerance for mistakes. I believe that as people raise their standards and expectations for kids so should their tolerance for mistakes and failures. The bigger they try and the higher they aim, the bigger they are going to fail. The key here is to turn mistakes and failures into learning experiences. When we just focus on the mistakes and failures instead of turning them into learning experiences, then kids are just going to keep repeating them. They need to know that mistakes and failures are okay. They need to know it’s okay to try and fail and learn from those things.
- They should care about what other people think – So many teens these days are crippled with anxiety and while I consider it to be normal for teens to be concerned about their peers and the social opinion of peers, this kind of anxiety seems to have accelerated in recent years. It probably has something to do with social media but I also think that it likely has something to do with parents as well. I think parents are more worried about what others think than they ever have been. Parents engage in the culture of comparisons more than they ever have as well and so it’s naturally expected that teens would too. Unfortunately, it has reached alarming proportions. Kids are crippled by anxiety and fear. Some are even obsessed with trying to decipher what others think about them and they are hyper focused on adjusting their behavior accordingly. I find that it’s more effective to teach kids that the real problem is their own thoughts and their own perceptions because that’s what they truly have the power to change. I also believe that it’s extremely important for them to understand that it’s far more important on how they evaluate themselves instead of how others evaluate them and that they should evaluate themselves based on the evaluation of others.
- They aren’t supposed to experience negative or uncomfortable emotions – I think we have gotten into a really bad habit of talking about negative emotions in such a way that is neither accurate or healthy. There are negative emotions and then there are uncomfortable emotions and they often get lumped in together. Uncomfortable emotions, while uncomfortable, are actually important and even productive. Examples of this would be sadness and some types of anger. Sadness is uncomfortable but it’s really important and healthy to express it. There are different types of anger but most types are normal and some types of anger can actually motivate us to make needed and healthy changes. These are just a couple of examples but sadness and depression usually get lumped in together and good anger is lumped in with bad anger. As a result, kids seem to be learning the incorrect belief that they should not be experiencing these negative emotions and if they do it’s because they are faulty in some way or there is something wrong with them. Adults often get into the bad habit of telling kids to not feel certain things or feel certain ways. Emotions are normal and often healthy. As kids grow and develop they experience emotions more intensely and in a wider range. They need to understand that it means that they are normal, not broken.
- They aren’t supposed to have problems and issues – Recently, a young person gaped at me because I actually told him that he’s supposed to have problems. It’s normal. Kids and parents alike have often gotten uncomfortable or even upset with me because they seem to interpret this as me as encouraging young people to make bad decisions or that I am condoning bad behavior. I, of course, don’t do this, but I am also realistic. What percentage of people make bad choices in their lives? What percentage of people go against good advice at some point and make a mess of things? The answer, of course, is one hundred percent, every last one of us. In my experience, it’s extremely counter productive to talk and act as if problems and issues aren’t laced throughout our entire life span. It’s far more effective, I find, to help young people be prepared to face all the challenges of life rather than put it into their heads that there could be a way, somehow, that all challenges can be avoided or eliminated. This notion that we can just create a problem free life for kids and that is the path to happiness is nonsense and a failed strategy. It has to go.
A wise man once said that if you change your thoughts, you’ll change your life. Our teens are struggling because they have the wrong ideas, attitudes and beliefs plugged into the equation of life. A few small corrections can make a world of difference. We need to help our kids plug in the right ideas and better days will follow.