Parenting Our Nation Through an Adolescent Crisis

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March 13, 2017

As a pediatrician, I often counsel teens and their parents. I love teenagers and yet, they are in a precarious position where they make choices that can affect their futures profoundly, and they are easily led into dangerous territory. They have amazing potential, they want to make their mark on the world and assert their newfound independence, but they can also be easily distracted by the latest trends from sexy swimsuits to internet crazes. And naturally, they think they know everything and often treat their parents with scorn.

Like an adolescent, our nation is at a crucial time, a turning point in its history. We made it through our infancy and toddler years, but now we are undergoing an identity crisis. Are we really going to stand by our democratic values and grow into a mature nation that can sustain its population, get along with its neighbors, produce great new products and ideas, and solve world problems? Or are we going to try to coast along, taking advantage of others for our own comfort, and giving in to fear of our neighbors?

Have we perhaps been enticed to elect and follow a leader who doesn’t really have our nation’s best interests in mind? Are the current president, his advisors and our other elected officials really thinking about the big picture, what is best for our nation, its people and our future? Or are they wanting to promote policies to maintain the status quo with their luxurious lifestyle with giant yachts and other status symbols despite the ongoing poverty and suffering of many Americans? Each citizen has to answer this question individually – but first we have to open our eyes and ask it.

How do I counsel parents of teenagers? My style has developed over the years, aided greatly by the gift of a feisty, independent teen of my own to challenge my parenting muscles and lead me to read parenting books, look to other parents and professionals for support, and consistently work to improve our relationship. To respond, not react. To listen deeply to concerns, problems and challenges. To clearly communicate our family values and support her when these are different from what she faces at school. To work together to improve organizational and decision-making skills. Of course, I encourage parents of teens to do all these things, but first, likely before they even come talk to me, parents have to wake up, pay attention, and notice what’s really happening with their son or daughter. Ask questions, and be willing to really hear the answers. Dig deeper and ask more questions when things don’t make sense. Step up and really be a parent.

Who are our adolescent nation’s parents? Really, do we have to ask? Not only the President, Representatives, Senators or Supreme Court Judges, but each and every American citizen, of course. Together we are responsible for the future of this great nation. We may have many voices, but really, we must create a common vision of who we are as a collective, what our nation is becoming. First, each of us must open our eyes and ears, and be willing to learn more both about history and about what is happening now. What is the real news and what is the fake news, the “alternative facts?” What is the real truth? Why are we being told lies? What financial incentives might our leaders have to tell us certain things? Why are the media being evicted? We must pay attention to the crucial decisions that are being made in our government day by day and ask ourselves whether these are really good ideas for the long term, for the health of our country as a whole and not just for our pocketbook, or that of the company for which we are working.

When challenges arise with our adolescents, be they behavioral, psychological, medical or all of the above, parents are often shocked, overwhelmed and not sure what to do. They may even think it’s too late, that there’s nothing they can do. However, studies show that parents actually are the biggest influence in their teens’ lives and that empathic listening and clear boundary setting are the most important skills for parents to develop. Day by day, the goal for the parent is to continue to show up, stay present in the conversation, and keep a relentlessly positive vision of the child’s potential and ability to grow up into a happy, healthy adult.

So, we American citizens, who’ve been coasting along in relative economic security and relative domestic peace for decades, are now being called to civic duty. Not to blindly trust those we’ve elected to make the right call because they were elected, or because they’re part of the political party we joined. Equally not to simply give up and think we don’t have any power. Not to simply put our heads in the sand, focus only on work and think things will get better on their own – not when so much is at stake. What is at stake, we ask? Major decisions are being made that will significantly affect the health of our citizens, the education of our children, our national security, women’s reproductive choices, and the freedoms and civil rights of those who immigrated here, practice different faiths or have a different skin color or sexual orientation than those in power.

Now is the time to step up, listen to each other, pay attention, and participate in our role as citizens. We are responsible for parenting our amazing democratic nation to the next stage of life, keeping our eye on the big picture, speaking up for our values, and living with the consequences of our choices.

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