“After all the test preps, and all the focus on getting things just so you can get into college, I feel like an empty shell. There is no me, and the person who ends up succeeding and getting all that stuff isn’t me at all.” KF, 17 year old NYC teen.
As BP finally siphons some of the oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, it will most likely fade from public attention. The same can be said for forest fires. Crown fires that spread rapidly from treetop to treetop attract attention and frenzied intervention. Fires that smolder beneath thick layers of fallen leaves can burn undetected and destructively for many acres before anyone notices. The mind gradually assimilates most long term chronic events, and it can even seem as if they no longer impact our lives. Humans have an ability to get used to almost anything, a trait that is adaptive in the short-term and destructive in the long term. The mind numbing defenses of repression and dissociation are the cultural equivalent of bureaucratization, processes meant to dissipate and nullify the possible emotional tension of group behavior.
David Brooks recently expressed the feeling that Elena Kagan was too perfunctory, too organized around success, not inspired or even inspirational. While Brooks is wrong about her, I believe he might be on to something very important. What he is describing is the gradual dulling of individual expression and intellectual risk-taking brought on by the culture’s emphasis on an overly bureaucratic, professional and strategic presentation of self. Ask any teen in high school, like the young woman I once met who was interested in a certain 9/11 project for her college resume. Teens will tell you how the continued emphasis on the externals of success and the neglect of powerful socio-cultural values gradually wears them down.
Protracted Stress and Teens
No population is more subject to the metaphoric chronic leaks and slow burns than adolescents. Subject to adult-like responsibilities, young people have to muster up almost an as-if personality to seem like the people who can accomplish those tasks. This leaves their real-age selves floundering, and surfacing only when they have consumed enough alcohol or drugs, hence the popularity of teen partying on even the most elite campuses. Kids can only access their still present and developing childlike selves when intoxicated. While there is a tendency to blame schools, or parents, I have a different conception. Most educators of decent schools are well aware of the pressures on their kids and are doing all that they can to alleviate them. Parents too, for the most part, try to keep their own narcissistic needs in check and genuinely want what is best for their kids. So what drives the protracted stress?
My sense is that psychologists have not called enough attention to the way in which kids and young adults are affected by the socio-cultural events in their environments. If something is pressuring our kids, the source is more likely to be their fears and anxieties about a disappearing ecosystem, the economy, and terrorism rather than school or parental expectations. This doesn’t mean that schools or parents don’t inflict pressure. What it does mean is that the pressure they inflict would be more manageable if kids had more of an opportunity to process and engage the important social events that happen to them.
Kids, Especially Teens, Need Guidance
Due to the fragmentation of identity during adolescence, charismatic personalities draw other kids’ attention. The person who presents as cool, or more advanced, or having mastered topics that cause other children anxiety, like sexuality, collects followers. Yet most of those kids don’t generally feel good about behaviors that cross ethical and moral lines. When kids drink too much, hook up, or use the internet to cheat on homework (including google translation for foreign language assignments) they generally feel less confident and more unhappy. With good guidance and peer leadership, the same kids can easily be interested in civic minded projects, artistic endeavors, or even political events. The minute these activities start to become important as resume builders, however, they will lose value.
At heart most kids, and especially adolescents, are quite idealistic. They want to study, participate in activities or involve themselves in social action or community service because it is meaningful to do so. They long to be appreciated as children who are becoming but aren’t yet adults. They wish adult mentors might understand how they are affected by their newly acute perceptions of socio-cultural realities. If they are depressed or anxious, they don’t want an intervention that can help them perform better. It makes it seem as though their only value is as an appendage of an institution. Rather, young adults want to be heard, understood and validated. Then, they want to be taught how to tackle the world that awaits them, and how to succeed in this world with their values and dreams intact.
A Plea for a Walk in the Woods
There was a time when young people had many opportunities to explore their environment, to use their hands, and to walk silently for long stretches of time. In these moments young people generated a relationship to their inner world. In this relationship kids could derive strength from their imagination and the soulful recognition of inner truth and conviction. Such introspection builds not only bold decisions but also decisive turns of moral courage. Most schools attempt to nurture that in the kids they teach. Most parents also long to ensure that their kids don’t get trapped by but are able to make use of social frames. Yet when kids hurt, or languish, sometimes what they need isn’t a clinically focused psychological intervention. Sometimes they need guidance to help them unpack the very deep worries they have about the world around them and their future in it. A metaphoric walk in the woods, or even a genuine hike through a pristine landscape can go a long way toward fortifying young people to cope with the complexities the adults who raised them will leave behind.