Every day, new and disheartening reports of the poor mental health of American adolescents roll across our social media feeds. In numbers never before seen, American teens are experiencing inconsolable anger, anxiety, and depression.
We want to believe that emotional downturn is an unavoidable and universally experienced aspect of a normal developmental stage: adolescents have always been susceptible to heightened angst; adults have always fretted about it.
But the scope and the scale of the malaise is growing, and, like frogs in a steadily heating pot of water, we need to feel alarmed.
It’s reasonable to expect this transitional period of life will be accompanied by a certain amount of drama. It’s not reasonable to expect unrelenting despair and disillusionment, from a clear and growing proportion of adolescents, on what should be the eve of their triumphal debut into the fellowship of contributing adults.
Something is seriously and systematically wrong. To the first-time parent of an adolescent, it may not be fully obvious that this widespread mental health crisis is abnormal. But to anyone who has had the opportunity to interact with healthy and well-adjusted teens, the problem is clear, and potential solutions are many and varied.
The greatest obstacle to the repair of the spirits of our adolescents is the lack of understanding of the developmental needs of adolescence, and the absence of a coherent vision for healthy youth culture.
The clear developmental task of adolescence is to find a place in society. The task of adultsoutside the family is to help young people transition from being the ones taken care of to being among those respected as contributors and care takers in the larger society. This is not just about stocking their tool boxes – it’s about giving them opportunity to try out the tools.
If our young people – far and wide – are not happy, it’s because they are unable to get their developmental needs met. We adults are responsible for repairing our childrearing culture to ensure a safe and sustaining passage out of the nest.
That will require, first, that we engage in broad and coherent dialogue about what it is that ails our teens and what it will take to bring them back to the sovereignty, conviviality, optimism, and inspired engagement that are the natural entitlement of every young person at the threshold of adulthood.