Protecting Teens: What Works?
The teen mental health crisis continues. 42% of teenagers report persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness and suicide rates and self-harm are increasing . School shootings seem to be weekly occurrences, and kids are routinely practicing lockdown drills as part of their school experience. As adults consider how best to help, the natural response is to circle the wagons and protect our kids. Could we be protecting in more effective ways? Let’s look at some interesting ideas about growth and resilience.
There are two sides to everything. In our book “What Works With Teens” we suggest that adults must bring respectful, kind and validating interactions to young people. This modeling is critical for bringing out the best in teens and ultimately results in adults who capably manage emotion and risk. At the same time, it’s important not to do too much for kids. They need the necessary struggles and risks associated with adventure and challenge to learn effective problem solving and build stress management skills.
There are clearly times when adults must step in to protect young people, and it is a delicate balancing act. Too little protection leads to increased risk, too much protection leads to decreased resilience. Let’s look at some possible consequences of protecting ineffectively.
There has been a societal shift towards protecting kids at all costs starting in the 1980s. Parents have become less likely to allow kids to play unsupervised with other kids in the neighborhood and are monitoring their whereabouts more closely. For generations, young people have explored, taken risks, learned from their experiences, and interacted with playmates out of their parents’ sight. This sort of exploration and play continues to occur in indigenous communities. The change over the past few decades is significant, and according to an article in the Journal of Pediatrics  may be contributing to the steady increase in depression and anxiety that we are seeing with adolescents over the past 40 years.
What else happened in the 1980s? The explosion of cable television and 24-hour news. Has this unrelenting cycle of “breaking news” increased our sense of danger and consequently led to parents tightening the reins? If so, the increased protection and resulting lack of opportunity to learn from experience may be paradoxically decreasing resilience and mental health.
Another curious trend is “trigger warnings”, which are both ubiquitous and startling. Do these warnings cause people turn away from information that might be hard to digest? Probably. However, the healthy resolution of trauma is achieved through processing the overwhelming event by thinking and talking about it, which severs the emotional intensity from the memory. Avoiding “triggers” will likely worsen anxiety and PTSD symptoms. Our eagerness to protect one another from any pain or risk may be making things worse.
Sometimes the intuitive parenting response, protecting kids by reducing their ability to engage in independent, unsupervised, and potentially risky activity, is not the most effective. Allowing for struggle leads to growth. There is wisdom in Wendy Mogel’s books: The Blessing of a B Minus, and The Blessing of a Skinned Knee.
It has long been understood that there is no growth without some pain. Let’s effectively balance our responsibility to protect young people with the need for young people to experience some adversity (which requires us to manage our own uncomfortable emotions). We can do this while adhering to all the tenets in our book: respect, kindness, predictability, authenticity, and acceptance. Each of these is a protective factor that contributes to good judgment and better problem solving. If we aren’t more intentional about getting this right our kids will be starved of opportunities to learn from experience and grow.
~Britt Rathbone https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/data/yrbs/index.htm
 Gray P, Lancy DF, Bjorklund DF, Decline in Independent Activity as a Cause of Decline in Children’s Mental Wellbeing: Summary of the Evidence, The Journal of Pediatrics (2023), doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpeds.2023.02.004.