If there is anything I could tell the parents of teenagers right now, it would be this: It doesn’t matter. I am a mom of four, a college counselor for high school students, and a journalist who has covered college admissions and parenting topics for almost a decade, and I am here to tell you that it just doesn’t matter.
Nothing matters if your teen isn’t healthy
It doesn’t matter if your child earns a B (or a C or even a D) in Algebra, if they don’t make National Honor Society, if they start on the varsity baseball team, if they warm the bench, if they don’t pass the AP exam, or if they get the highest score, or if they get that internship or not.
It doesn’t matter if they get a perfect score on the SAT or if they bomb it. It doesn’t matter if they are the valedictorian of their high school. It doesn’t matter where they go to college.
It just doesn’t matter — none of it matters — if your kid isn’t healthy.
I’m not talking about if your child is afflicted with appendicitis, lupus, or cancer, though those conditions would all take precedence. I am talking about mental health. And please, do not be fooled: Mental health is physical health.
Our teens are not okay
Even before Covid, our teenagers were in the midst of a mental health crisis. I am not sure most parents realized the extent of that crisis. Still, post-pandemic and facing political and economic instability that none of us have experienced before, our young people are not OK. If you are the parent of a teenager or adolescent, you should be worried — but not about where they will get into college or what their SAT scores might be.
This spring, not long after Stanford soccer star and senior Katie Meyer died by suicide but before University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Sarah Schulze and James Madison University’s Lauren Bernett died of the same, Ohio State football player Harry Miller announced he was “medically retiring” from football after struggling with thoughts about taking his own life on Twitter:
A person like me, who supposedly has the entire world in front of them, can be fully prepared to give up the world entire. This is not an issue reserved for the far and away. It is in our homes. It is in our conversations. It is in the people we love.
Harry wrote that he was aware that his generation, GenZ, is considered “fragile,” sometimes mocked for being too coddled:
I had seen the age-old adage of how our generation was softening by the second, but I can tell you my skin was tough…It had to be. But it was not tougher than the sharp metal of my box cutter.
And I saw how easy it was for people to dismiss others by talking about how they were just a dumb, college kid who didn’t know anything. But luckily, I am a student in the College of Engineering, and I have a 4.0 and whatever accolades you might require, so maybe if somebody’s hurt can be taken seriously for once, it can be mine.
And maybe I can vouch for all the other people who hurt but are not taken seriously because, for some reason, pain must have pre-requisites.
I saw how everyone in the school struggles in the aftermath of a Code Red lockdown
My teenagers were in the middle of their high school exam week several years ago when a peer took her own life with a gun in the high school auditorium, throwing the school into an active shooter situation that required a Code Red lockdown. I worked at that high school the following year, and I saw the way even adults struggled in the aftermath, visibly wincing and flinching if an administrator interrupted class unexpectedly over the intercom.
I have read college essay drafts by students that detailed the ways they had dreamed of taking their own lives to escape the pressure and anxiety of simply existing. I have found students sobbing in the school bathrooms, having panic attacks in the middle of AP exams, talking about waking up to throw up in the middle of the night before exams. I have received text messages from former students, now away at college, that said, “I don’t want to be here anymore.”
Some students confided in me that Covid gave them a much-needed break
Just last week, a teenager confessed to me that the Covid lockdown had not seemed all that bad to him, because it allowed him to step off the treadmill that is school, work, sports, and home for many high school students. “It was kind of a relief,” he said, a tinge of guilt in his voice. He’s not the first student to tell me that.
As a parent, I know it’s overwhelming and it’s scary and it’s hard to know where to begin to think about this. But I can tell you exactly where to begin: With us, in our homes, in our conversations with the children we love.
Over the past several years, I have done a lot of reporting and a lot of analyzing of why our kids are in such a dark place. I’m not a psychologist, a sociologist, or a trauma expert, but I have talked to a lot of high school and college students from all over the country, and my not-expert opinion is this: The stakes are simply too high.
We have convinced our teens that there is no room for error
We have somehow convinced our children (and, if we are honest, ourselves) that everything in their lives matters so much, there is no room for error. Our teens are not “fragile.” In fact, they are incredibly resilient but they are worn out from being resilient for so long and through so much.
Even in the pandemic, even when everyone else was baking sourdough bread and watching “Tiger King” in sweatpants, our kids had to soldier on, not drop the ball, make the grade, get the score, stay in shape. They are exhausted, and they have every right to be. There are no pre-requisites for pain.
Parents ask if they can pull their children out of classes if they are in ‘danger’ of earning a B, certain that anything less than an A will keep them out of “a good college,” whatever that means. They won’t let them quit a sport or an activity they don’t like anymore because they believe colleges will not want them unless they show a four-year commitment.
Our teens compromise everything in pursuit of perfection
Our kids compromise their sleep, their nutrition, and their social lives chasing some notion of what their future demands. Don’t get me wrong, I understand these worries and the fear kids need to do certain things to have “good” lives (again, whatever that means). I get it. And, of course, our kids do need to do things that make them uncomfortable or challenge them. I wholeheartedly believe that.
But at the same time, because we are their parents, we’re sometimes the only ones who can turn down the pressure valve for our kids. We have to confidently tell them it’s OK (really!) to get a B, a C, or even a D.
It’s OK to fail. It’s OK to quit a team, the band, a job. It’s OK to say no. It’s OK to be who they are and that may not be the class president, or the team captain, or the class valedictorian. They can just be themselves because being themselves is enough, and they are enough, and they can and will survive any of these perceived setbacks.
Because here’s the hard truth: So many kids have sat in my office and told me while wiping away tears that they are afraid of disappointing their parents. It breaks my heart every time, because like any other parent, I just want my kids to be happy. Yet, I know my own kids would say the same thing.
We parents are guilty of getting caught up in all of it
It’s easy for any of us to get caught up in all of it, to begin to believe that we need certain scores, grades, titles, or acceptances to validate ourselves and tell the world our value. Our job is to let our children know that their value is inherent.
Your children, my children, all of our children very much believe that their value in this world is in question. My mission, I have decided, is to make sure my kids know that all I want for them is to be good citizens, good friends, good partners and good humans.
What matters? Hope, effort, love, purpose and people matter. Wanting to stay on this planet and get up tomorrow and try again matters. Nothing else really does.
Parents need to let their kids know it’s ok to lay down their burdens
How do we convince our kids it’s all right to put down their burdens and rest and realize they are and always have been enough. They are worthy of love just as they are. They need us to tell them. They need us, the ones who have lived long enough to see the other side of a bad day, a bad month, or a bad year, to tell them that things are not either “perfect” or “ruined,” that lives, like some of the best roads to travel, are winding and have rest stops and that success (whatever that looks like for them) is not linear.
They need us to tell them the stakes are not nearly as high as they think they are.
After his retirement statement went viral, Harry Miller told the TODAY Show, “It’s raining young people off of buildings, and you look around and you say, ‘Something’s going on right now and something needs to happen.’”
His words haunt me every day. Something has to happen. Something has to change. And, that something starts with us believing that nothing matters as much as our kids’ health.
There’s no time to waste.
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