Parenting Our Teens Though the Challenges of Life | Notes & Critical Reflections

Parenting Our Teens Though the Challenges of Life: 
A conference on adolescent mental health

MPPC Conference on Depression_top

Opening with John Ortberg

Why are we doing this conference?

  • There is no greater gift in the world and no greater burden than being a parent.
  • There is no greater value than the value of a young life.
  • We live in a day where we face unique challenges in raising young people so they can flourish. Our society is facing unique hurts, and unique pains.
  • We can do better.

In a world in which we are financially rich, there are forms of poverty–relational, time, emotional–in which we need help.

Philippe Rey

Executive Director, Adolescent Counseling Services.

“Everything You Wanted to Know About Your Teenager But Were Afraid to Ask”

The one question that always comes up: What is wrong with these kids these days… What has changed?

  • Nothing has changed with our kids!
  • Society around children is what has changed!
  • Technology/social media
  • Pressure to succeed
  • Family structure
  • Lack of supervision
  • Peer pressure
  • Lack of understanding
  • Drugs

1985 – The Internet.

Developmental Changes:


  • Puberty


  • Think and feel differently
  • Disagreements
  • Independence
  • Vulnerability
  • Experimentation

In short, adolescence is a time for…

  • Struggle with sense of identity
  • Feel awkward about self
  • Focus on self, alternating between high expectations and poor self-concept
  • Interest and clothing style influenced by peer group
  • Moodiness
  • Realization that parents are not perfect!
  • Less overt affection shown to parents, sometimes rude
  • Complaints that parents interfere with independence
  • Tendency to return to childish behavior, particularly when stressed
  • Up and down physical and emotional energy
  • Risk taking, increased curiosity, love danger and adventure but yet their feelings are easily hurt
  • Immortality but worry a lot about what their friends think about them
  • Need for independence yet still want to be pampered and protected
  • Withdrawn and desire for private life but worry about being accepted by peers
  • Demand privileges but avoid responsibilities

This sounds all good but how do I recognize troubles?!

Emotional Problems

  • A National Institute of Mental Health Study indicates that one in five youth suffer from depression.
  • Of all these children and teens struggling with emotional problems, a mere 30% receive any sort of intervention.
  • About 20% of parents were somewhat or very concerned that their child might be depressed.
  • 25% of 7th, 9th and 11th graders reported symptoms of depression meaning that they felt so sad or hopeless for at least two weeks in the previous year that they had stopped doing some regular activities.
  • Further, 16% of the 7th, 8th and 11th graders reported they seriously considered, and 8.2% reported they actually attempted suicide.

Signs and symptoms of teen depression

  • Poor performance in school
  • Withdrawal from friends and activities
  • Sadness and hopelessness
  • Lack of enthusiasm, energy or motivation
  • Anger and rage
  • Overreaction to criticism
  • Feelings of being unable to satisfy ideals
  • Poor self-esteem or guilt
  • Indecision, lack of concentration or forgetfulness
  • Restlessness and agitation
  • Changes in eating or sleeping patters
  • Substance abuse

Depression can be difficult to diagnose in teens because adults may expect teens to act moody. Also, adolescents do not always understand or express their feelings very well. They may not be aware of the symptoms of depression and may not seek help.

Teens may experiment with drugs or alcohol or become sexually promiscuous to avoid feelings of depression. Teens also may express their depression through hostile, aggressive, risk-taking…

If you’re unsure if an adolescent in your life is depressed or just “being a teenager,” consider:

  • how long the symptoms have been present
  • how severe they are
  • and how different the teen is acting from his or her usual self.

While some “growing pains” are to be expected as teenagers grapple with the challenges of growing up, dramatic, long-lasting changes in personality, mood, or behavior are red flags of a deeper problem.

Sometimes teens feel so depressed that they consider ending their lives. Each year, almost 5,000 young people, ages 15 to 24, kill themselves. The rate of suicide for this age group has nearly tripled since 1960, making it the third leading cause of death in adolescents and the second leading cause of death among college-age youth.

Studies show that suicide attempts among young people may be based on long-standing problems triggered by a specific event. Suicidal adolescents may view a temporary situation as a permanent condition. Feelings of anger and resentment combined with exaggerated guilt can lead to impulsive, self-destructive acts.

Drugs and alcohol

 In the 11th grade, 41% of students reported having consumed alcohol in the previous month, 21% reported having smoked marijuana and 18% reported having smoked cigarettes.

In addition, 16% of seventh graders, 30% of ninth graders and 36% of 11th graders reported that they had been offered an illegal drug at school in the previous year.

Asian/Pacific Islanders appeared less likely to smoke, drink or use drugs than children and teens of other ethnic/racial groups.

Difficult topics to discuss with your children:

  • Drugs, Music, Depression and Suicide, Tattoos, Piercing, Racism, Spirituality, Sexuality…

Quick tips for a parent!

Offer lots of praise for any job well done.

If you need to criticize your child, talk about the action, not the person. If your son gets a math problem wrong, it’s better to say, “I think you added wrong. Let’s try again.”

Assign do-able chores. A 6-year-old can bring her plate over to the sink after dinner; a 12-year-old can feed and walk the dog after school. Performing such duties and being praised for them helps your child feel good about himself.

Spend one-on-one time with your youngster. Setting aside at least 15 uninterrupted minutes per child per day to talk, play a game, or take a walk together, lets her know you care.

  • You are NOT your child’s best friend!
  • Ask questions but LISTEN mostly!
  • Turn the TV, Radios, Phones, DVD, PC’s OFF!
  • Have dinner together as often as possible!
  • Take short and long drives with your kids and LISTEN to what they are talking about!
  • You are not a failure as a parent if your child does not attend an Ivy League school
  • Say “NO” when appropriate!
  • If you threaten, then follow through!
  • Be involved!
  • Listen to their songs…ask questions!
  • Watch their TV shows!
  • Read their magazines!
  • Level yourself to them…not the opposite!
  • Celebrate and praise ALL passing grades!
  • Is it your need or your child’s to be successful at everything
  • Say, “I love you!” Nothing will make your child feel better

Amy Simpson

1. Mental illness affects more people than we think.

A proper understanding can lead to a proper diagnosis.

  • More than 20-25% of American adults (18 yrs.)
  • More common than diabetes, heart disease, cancer, HIV, and AIDS combined.
  • Mental illness is the number-one cause of disability in North America and worldwide.
  • Family members are affected as well.

Average age of onset for anxiety disorders: 11 years old.

Range of disorders: Anxiety disorders, ADHD, Autism spectrum disorders (ASD), eating disorders, mood disorders, personality disorders, schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders.

With 100 people in your church on Sunday morning, 26 of them will suffer from a diagnosable mental illness this year.

2. Mental illness causes suffering

…psychological and emotional symptoms, family crisis, financial hardships, broken system, homelessness, incarceration, social cost.

This is a hard way to live and should inspire compassion from us.

[via: Amy mentioned the shortage of beds in mental health facilities. I found this report online supporting the decline.]

People suffering from mental illness are far more likely to be victims of violence and crime than perpetrators.

3. Mental illness is stigmatized both outside and in the church.

Have we also considered how Halloween “entertainment” uses mental illness categories and labels: “Crazy People,” “Asylum,” etc.

Stigma in the Church

  • demon possession
  • prescription: more faith and more prayer
  • all you need is God
  • overspiritualization
  • ignoring or ostracizing

These things are said in the church, and we tolerate it, and we wouldn’t tolerate it with any other disorder.

When people feel shunned, rejected, or abandoned by the church, it can sure feel like you’re being shunned, rejected, or abandoned by God.

4. We can all do something.

  • Acknowledge your own problems/brokenness.
  • Wrestle with your theology of suffering
  • Treat people like people
  • Be a friend
  • Talk about your own problems
  • Do what you already do
  • Use good boundaries
  • Create alliances with professionals
  • Talk about mental illness
  • Refer people to care
  • Refuse to abandon!
  • Start a ministry
  • Consider training
  • Be patient!,

Families in Pain: Helping Our Children Cope (Breakout)

Mary Campbell, LMFT

Consider long-term vs. short-term problems.

Resist the temptation to not tell your children anything or make them our confidant. We tend to swing the pendulum to one side or the other. How do we keep parents in the parent role and allow children to be children.

Always tell the truth to your kids. That’s different from making them your confidant. Don’t over burden them with all the emotion and feeling, but do not hide or protect them too much from the reality of what’s going on. Acknowledge the truth.

Allow for, and accept, that there are going to be different responses to the same situation.

Work on addressing your own fears and insecurities.

Need group times (family dinners).

Need individual times (bedside talks, walks, etc.)

Provide tangible, creative outlets (journals, crafts, drawing, etc.)

Find alternative adult support.

Do a lot of fun things. The more normal fun things you can do, the more functional they can remain. Kids are not made to carry chronic stress. Kids cope by “going back to normal.”

Don’t forget the physical activity; mood elevator, stress alleviation.

You may have to do the opposite of whatever your personal preference is in terms of style.

There is a natural cycle of healing, where you revisit some of these emotions and feelings.

Is there a difference in the coping mechanisms for “events” vs. “perennial” issues? More management tools, and more outside resources for perennial issues. Can we accept this new reality?

What is the difference between coping and healing? Coping is an aspect of healing, just not the whole thing. Coping with parents can be an important first couple steps.

If I’m not a parent, and I’m dealing with a family who does the exact opposite of what is suggested here, what do I do? You may be source of empathy for that student. Preserve the family unit and relationship; always keep that as a possibility. Estrangement can cause long-term, life-long pain, so protect that as much as possible.

How can we help parents to not be panicked about suicide?  My own conviction as a clinician, when it comes to suicide, while parents may have signs, flags, etc., we don’t hold that special type of knowledge whether or not that child is going to take that kind of action. It’s a large tragic event, but it’s not anyone’s fault in the family. We have to say this over and over as parents will always feel guilt. We don’t hold that final word on people’s lives.

Selected Secondary Reading and Video List

Handout: How you can help someone with depression.

Handout: Suicide Prevention.

General Mental Illness

Madness, Mind and Christians, John White

Helping Someone With Mental Illness: A Compassionate Guide for Family, Friends, and Caregivers, by Rosalynn Carter

When Madness Comes Home: Help and Hope for the Children, Siblings, and Partners of the Mentally Ill, by Victoria Secunda

Transforming Madness: New Lives for People Living with Mental Illness, by Jay Neugeboren

The Skipping Stone: Ripple Effects of Mental Illness on the Family, by Mona Wasow

Surviving Mental Illness: Stress, Coping and Adaptation, by Agnes Hatfield and Harriet Lefley


Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, by Andrew Solomon

The Masks of Melancholy: A Christian Physician Looks at Depression and Suicide, by John White

Depression? What Families Should Know, by Elaine Shimberg

Finding Hope in Times of Crisis, by Don Baker

Darkness Visible, by William Styron


We Heard the Angels of Madness: A Family Guide to Coping with Manic Depression, by Diane and Lisa Berger

Mood Swings: Understanding your Emotional High and Low, by Paul Meir, Stephen Arterburn, and Frank Minirth


Schizophrenia: Straight Talk for Family and Friends, by Maryellen Walsh

Schizophrenia Revealed: From Neurons to Social Interactions, by Michael Foster Green


Fierce Goodbye – Living in the Shadow of Suicide

Choosing to Live: How to Defeat Suicide Through Cognitive Therapy, by Thomas Ellis and Cory Newman


Chronic Sorrow: A Living Loss, by Susan Roos

Shattered Hopes, Renewed Hearts, by Maribeth Ekey

When God Weeps: Why Our Sufferings Matter to the Almighty, by Joni Eareckson Tada and Steven Estes

Disappointment with God, Philip Yancey

Co-Occurring Disorders (Dual Diagnosis)

The Dual Disorders Recovery Book, by Anonymous

Integrated Treatment for Dual Disorders: A Guide to Effective Practice, by Kim T. Mueser, Robert E. Drake, Douglas L. Noordsy, Lindy Fox


Let’s start with some commendations. I am deeply thankful to MPPC for hosting an event like this, and inspired that so many came out to learn, to discover, and to grow in our ministry towards our kids. Ortberg opened his talk by discussing how various gatherings–conferences, etc.–can often be characterized by the kinds of people in a room. Regarding this gathering, Ortberg said, we may never be in a room so full of such empathic people as this. I concur.

As someone who has worked with kids and families over 25 years now, as a theorist and practitioner, I had several contentions with some content. Because I deeply respect the people involved, I pray my readers will understand that my critiques below are primarily of the content.

For consideration:

1. When it comes to kids and culture, there needs to be a much more comprehensive and honest evaluation.

There are several subcategories to this point. First, the idea that our kids have not changed, rather it is society around children that has changed, is perhaps a bit misleading. I find this evidenced when certain aspects of adolescent development are presented as “normal” even though those aspects are themselves culturally conditioned. This is especially true in the “adolescent task” of “individuation” (autonomy, independence, etc.) The idea of the “individual” rather than a “member of the community” is a societal shift which has itself transformed the kind of teenager amongst us.

I suggest that the adolescent tasks of our young people are actually radically different in this culture and in this time from other cultures and other eras (evidenced by the reference to Asian and Pacific Islander teenagers not having the same complications or issues as American-born “homeland” ethnic groups, and the statement made from the platform that they will most likely acquire these same difficulties as they become more enculturated!) Societal and cultural shifts are shaping us, molding us, and transforming us into a different kind of people. Case in point: technology.

I have already written extensively about technology on this blog. Suffice to say here that in this presentation, as is so common, technology is seen as a “device,” something to utilize, something to hold. Yet, the entire “thing,” called “technology,” has been radically shifting and transforming our humanity, even to the wiring of our brains. It is not as simple as saying that kids are on their cell phones all the time. It is what the existence of cell phones and other digital devices are doing to the entirety of our being, individually and communally. In other words, technology is not just augmenting our behavior. It is transforming our minds–attitudes, worldviews, perspectives–in radical and subconscious ways. This needs more astute attention to better understand the role that technology plays in the maladies of our students.

There was a reference to rap music that was accompanied with a tone of negativity, as if listening to rap music was a symptom of a problem. First, why the only genre mentioned in this commentary was rap music may well have been simply an oversight. Most youth workers know that virtually every genre of music includes selections which put on display the hurts, pains, lamentations, and defiance of our youth. However–and with deference to my black brothers and sisters–that rap was the only genre mentioned is evidence that racial prejudices are alive and well and these prejudices color our evaluation of teenagers (pun intended).

If we are going to be successful in engaging culture and adolescence, we should have a more sophisticated view of music (i.e., “less prejudiced”), technology, and the ontology of humanity in context with all their cultural nuances and histories.

2. The evaluation of teenage problems is still primarily one of moral behaviorism rather than psychological health.

To be fair, there is a verbalized and stated commitment to the psychological health of our students (cf. the title of this conference). However, presentations such as this one focus so much time and energy on the statistics of drugs, alcohol, sex, technology, death, etc., that it’s hard to wade through the sea of data and maladies to get to the substantive issues. I wonder if the principle, “that which you give attention, you give power,” is at play here? I also wonder if it’s keeping us from the challenging reality, which is…

3. Teenage troubles are not a reflection of teenage dysfunction, but adult dysfunction.

I was honestly disappointed at how little was mentioned about the burden of responsibility of adults for not only creating, but perpetuating the conditions that incubate all of the dysfunctions we so readily condemn. It is a subtle, yet harmful form of hypocrisy. I see this–the fundamental absence of a burden of responsibility by adults–as having two main effects.

First, it reduces our counsel, ministry, and parenting down to mathematical equations, that if you do “x,” you’ll get teenager “y.” In addition, if you don’t get teenager “y,” then something is wrong either with the teenager or you, perpetuating an attitude that not only complicates matters but causes them.

Second, the absence of a burden of responsibility by adults emasculates us of the true solutions to these problems, much like blaming vaccines for autism keeps us from the real research into what actually causes autism. It’s a double tragedy. I also liken it to animal behavior school in which the trainers do not train the animals, but the owners.

I opine that the real solutions found in psychological health must be met equally in both parties, but must first be initiated by one of the parties.

Am I too harsh on parents, adults, and society. Perhaps. Am I right? And where in all this lies the truth? That is the question with which I’d prefer to wrestle.

In addition, let me be clear in saying that I am not blaming parents for the mental health struggles of their children. I do not mean for my critique here to be applied with that level of particularity. That would be irresponsible and damaging of me to do so, and I deplore anyone who would insinuate that a parent is at fault for the mental health issues of their child. What I am suggesting is that we use good evaluative tools and introspective ethics to see the dysfunctions in their proper light. Dysfunction of a “thing” is actually a reflection of something outside of the “thing” exemplifying the dysfunction (which I believe this presentation also suggested). In this case, it is a good principle to look outside the teenager to see the cause of the dysfunction, and that, naturally points to the culture which has been created by the adults. It is only by doing this exercise that we can begin the path to solutions, and healing, and a hopeful future.

It is reported over and over again that the number one influence in the lives of children are their parents, and that includes sentimental, emotional, and time investment. If we’re going to focus on the challenge of teenagers, we must, a) focus more on our role, and b) do better.

I would sum all of this up by saying, we parent our teens through the challenges of life by first leading ourselves toward healing, hope, and health. I wish more focus was on that aspect of parenting, without guilt, without shame, and without condemnation, but also without apology for calling out our responsibility.

After all, our own adult dysfunctions probably emerged from our own parents’ abdication of their responsibilities. Someone, somewhere, must hold up a mirror.

Again, my critique above does not negate my thankfulness, gratitude, and hope that I feel when rubbing shoulders with people who care deeply about these issues, and work tirelessly to attend to them.

About VIA

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