Growing up in a rather sheltered environment and experiencing the “military brat” existence of moving every 3-4 years, I never really understood or heard a lot about mental health issues amongst my peers as a teenager. We didn’t watch a ton of TV or movies, and most of the music I listened to was pretty tame compared to what was out there at the time. Plus, when you move a lot, most of your time involves getting to know new people – not necessarily understanding the challenges and stresses facing your friends. I didn’t really understand what depression or anxiety looked like, nor really cared much to talk about it. I was too busy trying to keep up and worrying about myself.
It wasn’t until I started learning how to play guitar that I heard much at all about depression and suicide. There was a ’90s Christian band called “Caedmon’s Call” that featured a dark (by Christian music standards) song called “Center Aisle” lamenting a friend’s suicide. I remember being enamored by the complexity of the chords as I was learning guitar, but I was more struck by the intense emotions of the chorus line:
“What crimes have you committed, demanding such a penance?
Could have waited for five more minutes and a cry for help.”
This was the first time I had ever considered that suicide could become an option for a person feeling distraught or out of options.
It made me wonder if any of my friends had ever considered suicide as an option. While I have experienced seasonal depression, I haven’t ever gotten to the point where I wanted to end it all. But, the more I learned, the more I understood the dark places people go to when they feel there are no other options available.
The World Health Organization estimates suicide as the second leading cause of death of people 15-19 years of age. As someone who works with and loves teenagers, that isn’t just maddening – it’s a mandate for us to take action. For those so young in life to think there is nothing else to live for is an indictment on so many things. But instead of pointing fingers, let’s look at what could be some very promising research with a surprisingly simple conclusion.
In a recent JAMA Psychiatry article, research was outlined on a study of 448 adolescents admitted to a psychiatric hospital for suicidal thoughts and tendencies. Within that group, they formed a control group (this group received no treatment other than hospitalization) and a treatment group. The treatment group was asked to identify four adults in their lives that they perceived love and support from moving forward. Those four adults were then trained in suicide education and support measures and asked to check in on the teens after they left the hospital. These adults also received coaching and support from the study writers throughout the process.
After ten years, the study checked back in on the control and treatment groups and while statistically small, the results were impressive. The control group had 13 deaths while the treatment group only had two. When you break the numbers down, even conservatively, the death rate drops by over 50 percent!
I have to stress again that the numbers are way too small to draw any definitive conclusions, but for me it speaks to something incredibly important about our (yours and mine) work with teenagers – ADULTS MATTER.
I think this study important for the following reasons:
The students selected the supportive adults
It is so easy to feel alone as you struggle through depression and suicidal thoughts. To be prompted to identify people who care in and of itself is a healing exercise. And by selecting these adults, a connection is made that cannot be easily broken.
The adults accept the invitation
No one is forcing these adults to participate. But, if a struggling teen asked you to be a part of their recovery, wouldn’t you help?
The adults learned how to support the teenager
So many adults feel like they know what is best for a teenager. We were teenagers once, right? But a learner is a leader in this case. The presence of an adult who is willing to do what it takes to support the struggling teenager has significant influence.
To me this isn’t just about suicide, though if it saved more lives, I would be screaming this from every platform I have. But, if the presence of a caring, informed adult can potentially save a life, how much more can it help a struggling teenager? The life of a teenager can be overwhelming and full of pressures. If more adults looked and saw the opportunity to learn and ask good questions, imagine what an encouragement we could be!
I encourage you to read further on this study and the implications here and consider partnering with organizations who are putting volunteers out in the field like Teen Life here.
Chris has worked with teens from a variety of backgrounds for over a decade. He has a desire to help teenagers make good choices while also giving their families tools to communicate more effectively as choices are made.
Is your goal to remove all of the worry in your life? It has been mine for most of my life.
I still distinctly remember the fear and worry in college of not knowing what was next. I even remember telling people closest to me, “I wish God would send a postcard with instructions so I know I’m making the right choice.” First, there was a flaw in my thinking that the choice was about what I should do rather than who I am. A lesson I have learned from many respected mentors and leaders like John Maxwell, Michael Hyatt, and others.
In our world today, there is a lot of talk about removing barriers, stress, anxiety and roadblocks. While this is often necessary, when it becomes our full focus and effort, we can lose an opportunity to understand where to find answers by moving too quickly past a learning opportunity.
No doubt this is not a new idea. I am sure it has formed out of the reading and listening I have done, especially the past 5 years. By listening to other successful people, new ideas come to light and clarity is gained. That being the case, this time it was a conversation with my 10 year old that brought the important piece to the surface.
I get to take my son to school daily. This is some great time spent together that I am thankful for. This particular day, I asked him two questions I ask two or three times a week.
“What are you looking forward to at school today?”
“What are you worried about today?”
This time he had a specific thing he was worried about. The elementary spelling bee was coming, and he had been invited to participate and was tasked with studying the word list. His worry was that he was not going to do well during the event because he had not been studying. Without really thinking I said, “You don’t have to worry about that. If you haven’t been studying, you won’t do well. So no need to worry, you already know.” This may sound harsh, but he understood what I meant as I went on to explain that if he isn’t studying, he should expect to not do well. But also that if he is worried and knows studying could help, he can choose. He can either not study and expect to not do well or study and be proud he did his best no matter what happens at the Bee. Either way, the worry is dealt with and not just ignored.
I think the lesson here is that we want to remove worry or ignore it, but it is possible that the worry may be revealing some useful information that could help us move to the next level.
So here are my suggestions for dealing with worry in your life and mine, not just removing it.
Listen to the worry. Don’t dismiss it too quickly. You may miss an important indication that leads you to just the right answer you are looking for.
Seek others’ input. We all need people around us to help us in life, especially through difficult times. Find a trusted advisor or mentor and confide in them what is worrying you and see if they can help you gain some clarity about the direction you need to head.
Don’t let the worry turn into fear. I cannot count the number of things I have missed out on because I let worry turn into fear and defeat me from accomplishing something before I even started. I am working hard to reduce the number of times this happens in my life, and I hope you will too.
Make a plan to process the worry. Maybe have a dedicated journal or app to record what is worrying you, and then spend time processing what you might be able to learn from the worry.
Don’t hesitate to ignore worry when it isn’t helpful. Even though there are times this mentality can be helpful, we face a lot of worry in life, and the reality that much of it is not worth our attention is worth recognizing. So when you worry about things out of your control or that are unrealistic, simply say to yourself, “I’m choosing to worry about the things that matter.”
I’ll leave you with this. My son did participate in the spelling bee and he did pretty good, too. He actually did really good! He placed 3rd! Out of nearly 40 students in grades 3-5 at his school, he had the courage, stamina and focus to spell words I’ve never heard of correctly. Was it my comment that made the difference? Probably not as much as I would like to think, but the principle and mental perspective to think differently about what he needed to do, I hope, was helpful.
So what in your life have you ignored or tried to remove that could actually have some benefit or provide you with some insight as to how to take your next step and maybe even what that step should be? Let us know!
Ricky Lewis is our CEO and has been with us since the beginning. As a father of 7, he seeks to help parents and their kids Live Life Better.
“Just be yourself.”
“Don’t let anyone tell you who to be.”
This is simply bad advice. This mentality puts teens on the defensive rather than empowering them to work at becoming who they can be.
If you are pushing back on this already, consider this engagement story and how it is probably different from ones you normally hear.
I asked my wife to marry me, and she said no. What did I do? I left her in a field in West Texas, hoping she would never find her way back to town.
Okay, not really, I waited. And in just a few minutes she came back over to me, apologized, and said she did want to marry me. I was so happy. I was happy because I had not asked her to marry me only because I felt like it, I asked her because I had made a decision. I wasn’t hanging my future on feelings that can change in minutes or seconds. I was grounding my future in a decision that was made after multiple conversations with many trusted advisors. That decision has proven to be the right one because I continue to make it every day.
The same is even more true for teens. We have got to stop telling them, “Just be who you are,” because they have NO IDEA who they are. They need guidance toward who they are becoming – something all of us are doing every day.
So what do we need to tell them instead? What do we tell them in our groups? If you’re still with me it’s because you care enough about teens to have a conversation that matters and invest in who they are becoming which is a beautiful thing to watch.
Seek out input and advice from the right people
The flaw in a “be who you want to be” mentality is that our perspective is extremely limited when it comes to ourselves. We compare what we know inside our head with what we see externally from people around us. This is especially detrimental to teens. They don’t have the life experience to discern the difference between character traits that shape and feelings that cause impulsive, detrimental decisions. In addition, it is nearly impossible to understand the effects or consequences of the decisions we see others make. Especially when many effects of those decisions aren’t realized for years or decades.
This is why it is so important to help teens discern who those people are. What helps a lot is to get them to think about a person they respect and trust. You may get some resistance to this but it is the exception that a teen really has no one they can turn to. This person may be a relative, coach or other role model. The key here is to help them explore who this person is and then create a plan for how they can seek input from that person.
Find something about yourself to change
We are all working each day to become a better version of ourselves. If you decide who you are as a teenager, it implies that you have arrived. This makes no sense. I don’t know anyone that is contributing at life, being a responsible adult and positively effecting the world around them who has stopped asking who they should be. Embrace change. If we encourage teenagers to decide who they are now, it gives them a false sense that the difficulties they face will be easier to deal with. The truth instead is that embracing change is what allows us to keep an open mind about how we can continually become who we should be. We need to be telling them that they will always be figuring out who they are, and that is what life is about!
Make a decision based on facts and truth, not on feelings
Deciding to be someone is a much better approach then being who you feel you should be. I don’t know about you, but I often hear my internal voice tell me how much I suck and how big of an idiot I am. If I listened to this voice, I would not feel like doing my work or caring for my family most of the time. Instead, I have to use self talk to tell myself who I want to be. One of the principles of successful people (not monetary success, simply life success) that I read about often is that they spend time each day telling themselves, often out loud, who they want to be rather than giving in to who they feel like being. This is a huge difference and one that we must encourage teens to embrace.
In a lot of ways the three ideas above can be summarized by choosing a mentality to anticipate rather than react. Living life with an “I can be whoever I want to be” perspective is a reactionary way to live. If you instead anticipate what is coming next (a class in high school, graduation, college, job, marriage, kids) you will be more likely to keep learning who you are rather than getting stuck thinking you figured it out as a teen.
These difficult discussions are why it is so important in our groups to offer the opportunity for students to discuss who the feel they should be. It is extremely important to explore these ideas. But the key is that you are exploring them. Making a decision of who you are because you feel a certain way one day and you decide to stick with that is only going to end in sadness on the day that you realize that’s not who you really wanted to be. If you decide to instead be constantly changing and becoming a better you, not only do you embrace the changes as they come, but you make the world around you a better place because you are willing to adapt and mold in a way that factors in all the input you receive.
So what’s next? How do we shift this cultural norm of encouraging people to “just be yourself” and instead actually help each other to become a better version of ourselves every day?
Ricky Lewis is our Executive Director and has been with us since the beginning. As a father of 4, he seeks to help parents and their kids Live Life Better.
All of us that work with teenagers have a difficult task. How do we sort through the noise of adolescent life and glean the important information students are trying to tell us so that we can be a helpful adult in their life? Of course, there is no perfect answer but as I have worked with teenagers for over a decade, some things have stood out as effective listening strategies. Teen Lifeline even uses more than 10% of the time in our 1-day Facilitator Training to talk about how to listen better.
To set this up, you will need to set aside some assumptions. First, as adults we have to believe that we do not have all the answers. This requires a daily reminder for most of us and for some like me, multiple times a day. I tend to think the life experience I have equals relevant information for the kids in my house or the students I work with. The problem here is there are too many details missing for us to make that big of an assumption. This is not to say that there is no value to our experience, that is a big part of what we rely on to learn from. I do believe it is true though that our experience is not the most important factor but instead how we handled that experience. That said, we must be willing and able to hear what a particular student is going through (really hear it) before we can realize the most important lesson we can share from what we have learned and model for them the “how” of handling things rather then the “what to do” in a particular situation.
Once we have our mindset in the right place, we can move forward with developing our listening skills.
1. Don’t be afraid to admit you missed something. As humans, our brains are constantly processing what is coming our way. This includes engagement in conversation with anyone. The difficulty is that it is hard to stop this process from happening since we are wired that way. Since this is true, it is completely appropriate to admit your brain was thinking about something else and you need the person to repeat what they just said so you can make sure you are catching what they are sharing with you.
2. Intentionally pause 15 seconds once the person stops talking. The key here is to do this intentionally, allowing time for the person to be done with their thought. In addition you can use this time to form a response either to summarize what you heard, ask for clarification or offer advice. If you are intentional about this, you are less likely to fall prey to number 1 above.
3.Limit your comments. This takes a lot of practice because we all want to believe that what we think is valuable. However, it is important to realize that it is only valuable if the people you are sharing it with see it that way. If you decide going into a conversation you are only going to speak things related to the conversation, it will help you listen more intently and offer more helpful, relevant questions and thoughts.
4. Pay attention to what matters, not every word they say. If you have worked with teenagers for longer then 6 weeks, you know that not everything they say is important or helpful to knowing what is really going on. That said, we have to work hard to listen carefully and catch the pieces that are most important to focus on those. Once you practice this a few times, it gets easier and you will find you’re able to listen for words, phrases, inflection or even pace of speech that tips you off to what is important.
5.If you can’t listen now, ask the person to wait. As adolescents, and this applies to younger kids too, there is a tendency to just jump in and start talking whether the person is listening or not. At our house, my wife has started handling this very effectively. She will say “I really want to listen to you because you are important, but I can’t right now. Give me a few minutes, and I will focus on what you want to tell me.” Yea, she is pretty good at this stuff!
So now it’s up to you to decide. Is this helpful? Does it bring up thoughts or questions you want to share? Comment below or reach out to us on social media or by email. We want to keep growing, and we hope you do too. If you did find this helpful, take a minute to forward the email, post it online or tell a friend – you don’t even have to give us credit (though we are okay if you do :).
Ricky Lewis is our Executive Director and has been with us since the beginning. As a father of 4, he seeks to help parents and their kids Live Life Better.
The more I work with teenagers, the more evident is that they are their own worst enemy and biggest critic.
Check out this story from one of our facilitators, Josh Hardcastle, about a conversation that happened in his support group with teenage guys:
A couple of weeks ago, we were talking about the negative influences and negative voices in our lives. Some of the guys in the group spoke up and were talking about how when other people put them down, they believe it. They believe that they…
Can’t get anything right.
So then I threw out the question, “What if you didn’t believe them?”
I had remembered a line from a book I read that said something like, “The names that we embrace are the names that we become.” I shared with them some of the struggles with the names that I had been called in High School by a coach. After hearing it so many times, I began to believe that I was that name.
There was something about this whole conversation and group time that really clicked with them. I could actually see hope and strength starting to resonate with a few of them. They were sitting up straight and absolutely silent. Not because they didn’t know what to say, but because it looked like they were thinking about not believing they were these names that they had been called for so long.
Towards the end of the group time, one of the guys asked, “So does this work with me too? Because I put myself down more than anybody else.”
Man that broke my heart! But we were able to have a conversation as a group about what that looked like and how we can avoid embracing the negative names and voices we call ourselves. I closed out the group by asking, “What do you guys notice about everyone’s pages and what they heard from the important voices in their lives?” A few of them gave me the answers that most everybody had written down their family or best friends, but one of my quiet kids raised his hand and said, “Everyone has more than two important, positive voices who speak into their lives.”
I took it one step further and asked, “So what does that mean?” Another guy jumped in and said, “That we should be listening and focusing on the positive voices and ignoring the negative ones.”
Boom. Nailed it.
Teenagers are surrounded by all kinds of negative and critical voices, but these voices do not just come from outsiders. Sometimes, the worst thoughts are coming from inside their own heads.
So what can we do? How can we help encourage teenagers to think positively and be a better judge of their self-worth? I have a few suggestions for what we can do as parents, teachers, mentors and friends:
1. Ask questions that will allow them to brag.
Instead of bringing up that “B” on a test, or the fact that they were late getting home (…again), ask one of these questions: “What is one thing that you did really well today?” or “How did you help someone today?”
By asking these question, you are prompting their own brain to focus on the positive aspects of the day. You are telling them that they are capable of great things and you want to hear about the things that they are going well.
Let’s help train teens to engage in beneficial bragging! Bragging that fosters a good sense of self-worth and positive self-esteem.
2. Point out the little things.
Did your teen wash the dishes without being asked? Say, “THANK YOU!”
Resist the urge to say something like, “What’s wrong with you?! You never do the dishes without asking!” or “Finally! Now you’re doing the dishes every night for the rest of your life!”
I know this might be a silly example, but by encouraging the little things they do without adding a backhanded dig or sarcastic comment, they will also pay attention to the important role they can play!
Tell them when you are proud. Hang up that last report card on the fridge. Brag about the way they love on their siblings. Teenagers are necessary, helpful, hardworking and FUN – don’t forget that!
3. Encourage realistic goal-setting.
When I am hard on myself or engage in negative self-talk, it tends to be when I am disappointed in myself or feel like I haven’t reached the goal I set for myself. After a busy week, I am upset that the house is a little messy and that I didn’t cook every meal at home. I beat myself up when I miss one tiny detail on a big project, or find a typo in a blog post.
Goals are a great thing to have, but we should be realistic and not sweat over the little things! Encourage teenagers to set small goals. When they reach that goal, help them celebrate and especially if they don’t matter – forget about the tiny things that might not be perfect.
Perfection isn’t a realistic goal. But here are a few realistic goal examples for teenagers:
Be on time to school in the morning – who cares if you forgot to brush your hair or ate a pop tart instead of a well-rounded, healthy breakfast?!
Help with one thing around the house – start small by making the bed, or doing the dishes after dinner!
Improve on the next test – don’t get upset if the next grade isn’t a perfect 100, but strive to do better than that last test!
Once you help them come up with, write down and spend time on their goals, don’t forget to celebrate when a goal is reached!
What do you think of these ideas? How else can we encourage teenagers to engage in positive self-talk?
Karlie Duke was in one of Teen Lifeline’s original support groups and now is our Communications Director. She is passionate about encouraging students to live better stories.