From Small Things…

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Surely we have now come to a place where saying one is a fan of Bruce Springsteen automatically assigns that person (me) to being a member of Generation X or Y, and certainly not one with current, dynamic musical tastes. I have to confess, I continue to enjoy his music and artistry, even as it continues its slow fade from pop-culture awareness. Nonetheless, I was reminded this week of one of my favourite tracks of his, though a lesser-known one: it is called “From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)“, and makes me think of an important fact for us all to be aware of as young people around us are growing up.

A massive new study conducted on nearly 2000 teens and young adults in Australia between 1992 and 2008 found that teens experiencing mental and emotional difficulties, such as anxiety and depression, often carried these into young adulthood. The study recorded all episodes of difficulty, including those which persisted for less than six months, and may have appeared only once during that young person’s teen years. The results provide a startling insight into the degree that such problems can affect adulthood as well: just over 50% of all young women (defined here as those in their 20s) and about 30% of all young men who experienced a defined mental health disorder ALSO experienced at least one instance of this same disorder when they were in their teen years!

Let’s think about the implications of these findings for a moment. In essence, any teen who is experiencing mental or emotional difficulties that go beyond having a tough day or two, and in fact reach the level where counseling has been required or where you know something just hasn’t been right for a number of months, has a significantly heightened chance of those same difficulties being present into the early years of adulthood. A young adult who already has the stresses of developing a career, dealing with the ups and downs of relationships of all kinds, and discovering a true sense of self, may in fact be fighting an uphill battle when combined with anxiety that first appeared back when she was 16, for example, and never really been dealt with effectively. This is especially true for girls, as it turns out.

Young people have a number of ways to let us or people in their lives know that all is not well with them, and it’s also important to be aware of what this might look like. As parents, the messages we will receive are often much different than those our teen’s peers might get. We might observe such behaviours as extreme reclusiveness or, conversely, our teen never being at home, and apparently regarding the home as little more than a place to sleep and eat. Falling marks at school with no easy explanation can of course be a clear sign as well, or even a short temper that seldom if ever reared its head previously.

Though I could go on for a few more paragraphs with signs to watch for, let me give you a guideline that I often provide for parents: if there are unmistakable signs that your teen is just not who you know them to be, and have not been for a period of weeks or longer, there is a good chance something significant is occurring for them. Yes – interests, friends and preferences naturally shift with age, particularly through the teen years, and that needs to be accounted for. However, changes that are more sudden and having an “unhealthy” feel to them could well be indicating something more going on. The all-important question then becomes how to find out the real story. Do you believe your connection and relationship with your teen will allow them to feel comfortable sharing this insight with you? If not (and it’s okay if you conclude that it does not), then who might be able to do so? Siblings, relatives, and teachers can all provide important clues for you in helping to decide what sort of assistance might help moving forward.

Everyone in their teen years faces problems that seem to drag them down, and make life less enjoyable than it should be. Indeed, part of the challenge in growing up is in learning how to face tough times and stresses, and developing a personal resilience that serves us well as we reach adulthood. Allowing our teens to grow and make mistakes, while stepping in with healthy and support at the right times, is a balance that we all benefit from. The wisdom from Bruce that small things turn into big things someday is very meaningful: small problems can become far bigger ones later, or alternatively, dealing with those same small problems well today can make a huge positive difference years later.

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