Originally a Guest Post on The Zero: The Official Website of Alexander Vachss.
When I surfaced from the dark world of Times Square and the night world of the five boroughs of New York City several years ago, I set out to talk to America's teens and their parents about how they truly could once again reclaim the dignity and intimacy in their lives. The street was a world where bodies washed up on the shores of a broken American dream. I made a promise to all those kids I lost that I would move back upstream and engage with meaning as many kids as possible before they too dropped into the endless river of night.
The hardcore truth is that we ignore teens in our society today. Ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance of their struggles leaves them at risk and leaves them to fend for themselves in their most desperate hours. There is no comfort in knowing that when kids are raped, abused, contemplate suicide or are self medicating themselves that they hold fast to their wounds and keep them as secrets. The secret keepers learned long ago that they could never turn to the adult world for help. And for those who do not have hidden trauma in the walls of their heart, they too are certain about one thing in their lives. When it comes to dealing with important issues, their life experience has taught them that adults simply are not available to talk with. There is nothing more tragic than knowing that a child in desperate trouble truly believes there is nowhere to turn to for help.
Over the past two years, I have been out on the road and informally surveyed nearly 8,000 high school students across the country. My interest was to get a sense of the backdrop of their lives. What were the issues they thought about? What were their concerns? How aware were they of their peers’ struggles? And who did they feel they could talk to about these issues? In other words, the quest was to uncover not only the major issues in their daily lives but also to discover who was talking to them.
I picked a wide range of questions to ask the kids. After all, I knew going into the survey that teenagers have a lot on their minds. To make it easier for the teens to open up, I phrased each question in the following way: “How many of you have a friend who you know for a fact has …?” I defined “friend” as someone who was more than an acquaintance, but not necessarily a best friend. It is important to keep in mind that, since these questions were asked in schools and youth groups, the numbers reflect the fact that several students may be responding to a situation affecting one individual.
In other words, I was interested in the real issues that confront them. You may be surprised to learn what those issues are.
The eye-popping results follow:
100% had a friend who had been seriously depressed.
100% had a friend with a serious drug or alcohol problem.
90% or more had a friend who thought about suicide.
90% were worried about violence.
100% encountered insults and bullying on a daily basis in school.
100% had friends who were sexually active.
Almost 50% of those who said they were sexually active also said they wished they were not.
20-25% were worried that one of their friends lived in a home where there was abuse.
75% wanted to get married eventually, but only 20% thought they would have a fulfilling marriage, and over 50% thought there was a high likelihood they would get divorced.
And most striking of all, only 15% thought they could turn to their parents for support in a crisis, though 85% wished they could discuss all these issues in depth with their parents and other adults.
What do these results mean? Are things going well with our kids or not? I think there is good reason to be alarmed. But I didn’t go out into the heartland of America to join the long list of pundits who rant and rave about negative statistics. I have spent the last 25 years in the business of helping kids turn their lives around. I come from a tradition that refuses to despair when faced with great challenges.
Many people reading these statistics will become alarmed. For those of us not talking to teens we definitely should be alarmed. The seeds of unhappiness and despair are being sown everywhere. Silence in families always produces secrets, and secrets are toxic timebombs that can affect generations. Traumas that are buried have an uncanny way of surfacing and detonating in succeeding generations.
There is no doubt that the young adults in our society have a lot on their minds. They have serious questions.
Are we prepared to answer them?
Are we prepared to engage them?
How many of us take the time to find out precisely what the hot issues are for adolescents today?
Before we can effectively talk with teens about their tough issues, we need to know what they are thinking, not what we think they are thinking.
But there is another side to the data. From my vantage point, I must say that I find these numbers to be encouraging. They tell us precisely how aware teens are of the most important emotional issues they face. After all, just as adults face compelling issues in their lives, so do teens. They also indicate that adolescents today are keenly aware of and sensitive to their friends’ struggles and that they clearly want to be engaged. What can be better than that? On all the core issues that truly impact young people, the current generation of teens are not blind to their needs and not callously insensitive to major decisions that face them on a daily basis.
One thing is very clear. Teenagers want adult input. They want to be engaged. Parents and other adults who observe teens often encounter a mountain of instability and mood swings. But ironically, the teen years are exactly the time of life when the support and stability of a strong family and community are needed most.
I am keenly aware how difficult it seems to impact a teen’s life. The antidote to their despair may surprise you in its simplicity. The key is to stay the course and never give up. Never underestimate the power of consistently being present in another’s life. Being present means being available unconditionally through the good and the bad times. Being present means that you care. Being present means that no matter what went down you are willing to be there. And most of all it does not mean being an expert in anything!
By opening up to their issues, by asking questions, by listening objectively to what they have to say, and by being honest with them about the struggles that we face even as adults, we can make a dramatic difference in the lives of the teenagers we love. In fact, we hold the most important key to helping them reach adulthood safely and confidently. We all may need each other more than we may know.
Yehudah Fine, rabbi and family therapist, is author of Times Square Rabbi: Finding the Hope In Lost Kids' Lives (Hazelden), and member of the guidance staff at Yeshiva University. His workshops with teens and parents take him across America. He is a frequent guest on talk radio and TV programs and hosts a monthly live conference through AOL's Addiction & Recovery Forum.