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What Do Teens Value…and at What Cost?

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Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010 | CWK Producer

“If you want a kid to be able to thrive through his or her whole life, to find something that will sustain him or her for the long haul, they’ve got to find something they love.”

– W. Keith Campbell, Ph.D., University of Georgia

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American life in the 1930s… The stock market fell by 90 percent. Over 25 percent of the nation was out of work. Almost half the banks in America failed. 3 million children quit school to find work. It seems like a bleak picture, yet today, researchers have found that among young people, depression and anxiety are three times higher than the 1930s.

“You’re always stressed out. You make achievements, but you never get to the top, because the bar just keeps rising,” says Meghan.

“I definitely feel like my parents don’t understand what my life is like and don’t have a concept of what an average day in my life is like,” says Josh.

“You’re competing with thousands of students nationwide,” says Charmaine.

Researchers from the University of Georgia and San Diego State University find the teens they questioned believe that happiness comes with money… fame… material goods.

“Unfortunately, that is a formula for problems with mental health because people who have those extrinsic values and are thinking about gaining material wealth or fame those are difficult to obtain and you can never have enough, so those tend to lead to anxiety and depression,” says Jean Twenge, Ph.D., and professor at San Diego State University.

How best to guard against depression and anxiety? Dr. Twenge suggests it is the intrinsic values of social connectedness, too often missing in our online relationships of today.

“To have those close relationships that you value and that are very stable, and that seems to be what we’re missing now in modern life,” she says.

Experts say the best way to solve some of the challenges kids face today – bullying, drug and alcohol abuse, stress and anxiety, to name a few — is to focus on internal values and help kids find a joy for learning.

“If you want a kid to be able to thrive through his or her whole life, to find something that will sustain him or her for the long haul, they’ve got to find something they love,” says W. Keith Campbell, Ph.D., University of Georgia. “Just go out in the community. Talk to every burned out attorney or accountant or professional… and there are lots of them out there, and they’re not living lives of joy. They might be socially successful, but it’s not necessarily life, lives of joy. Then think, do I want my kid to be that person?”

What We Need To Know

Pressures that are too intense or last too long, or troubles that are shouldered alone, can cause people to feel stress overload. Things that can overwhelm the body’s ability to cope if they continue for a long time can include being bullied or exposed to violence or injury, relationship stress or family conflicts, ongoing problems with schoolwork related to a learning disability or a difficult workload, non-stop schedules and not having enough time to rest and relax.

Knowing how to “de-stress” and doing it when things are relatively calm can help you get through challenging circumstances that may arise. The Nemours Foundation offers these strategies to control stress:

  • Take a stand against over-scheduling. If you’re feeling stretched, consider cutting out an activity or two, opting for just the ones that are most important to you.
  • Be realistic. Don’t try to be perfect – no one is. And expecting others to be perfect can add to your stress level. Ask for help when needed – on schoolwork or other issues.
  • Get a good night’s sleep. Getting enough sleep helps keep your body and mind in top shape, making you better equipped to deal with any negative stressors. Because the biological “sleep clock” shifts during adolescence, many teens prefer staying up a little later at night and sleeping a little later in the morning. But if you stay up late and still need to get up early for school, you may not get all the hours of sleep you need.
  • Learn to relax. The body’s natural antidote to stress is called the relaxation response. It’s your body’s opposite of stress, and it creates a sense of well-being and calm. The chemical benefits of the relaxation response can be activated simply by relaxing. You can help trigger the relaxation response by learning simple breathing exercises and then using them when you’re caught up in stressful situations.
  • Treat your body well. Experts agree that getting regular exercise helps people manage stress. (Excessive or compulsive exercise can contribute to stress, though, so as in all things, use moderation.) And eat well to help your body get the right fuel to function at its best. It’s easy when you’re stressed out to eat on the run or eat junk food or fast food. But under stressful conditions, the body needs its vitamins and minerals more than ever.

Refocusing goals from today’s “race for reward” to more intrinsic values including integrity, compassion, perseverance and responsibility requires parental and community support. Chandler DeWitt, a teen author reflecting upon her high school experiences, and wrote a book with short stories about the stress, anxiety, competition, cruelty, the need to please, and all of the day-to-day tension. “While I was in high school, sometimes I felt like I was living for someone else. Rather than trying to figure out who I was, I was trying to be the person someone else wanted me to be. I knew many of my friends felt that way too, but no one should live life that way,” she says. “If everybody is honest, a lot of the pressure to perform comes from our parents, teachers and other adults.”

The documentary film, The Race To Nowhere, suggests these strategies for families to reset and reevaluate their goals and lifestyle:

  • Discuss what success means to your family. Do your actions, as a family, reflect your values?
  • Reduce performance pressure.
  • Avoid over-scheduling.
  • Allow time for play, family, friends, downtime and sleep.
  • Ask your children how they are feeling.
  • Allow your children to make mistakes and learn from them.
  • Talk with your children about their experiences in school.
  • Know the signs of childhood depression. Follow your instincts.
  • Attend school board meetings and other venues where education is discussed and policies are established and reinforced.


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