Are We Failing Our Teens? A Teacher’s Thoughts

I have spent most of my life teaching high school, raising my own kids, helping raise nieces and nephews as well as neighborhood kids and all my kid’s friends whom we have welcomed into our home. I would not call myself an expert on teens, but I have learned so much through my experiences in the classroom, as a coach, as a teen mentor, as a teen health and wellness advocate, mom and friend. As I have reflected upon and deeply saddened by another high school shooting many thoughts come to mind….

While most are looking for something or someone to blame and are insisting for changes in laws and school security measures to protect our youth, it is crucial we recognize there is something happening on a much deeper level. There have always been teenagers, there have always been guns but there has never been a time in our history where teens have taken so many of their own lives or those of their peers through senseless acts of violence. Our teens don’t need band aids to cover up their symptoms, they need help recognizing and healing the source of their pain and suffering. What shows up on the external as a variety of negative behaviors, choices, attitudes and actions is really a cry for help from a generation who does not have the required communication or coping skills needed to thrive. This is especially true for those who are dealing with extreme dysfunction in their environments.

Each day, 120-150 teenage students walked into my classroom. Each one different from the other. Each with unique home environments and challenges. Some dealing with abuse, neglect and loneliness. Some using drugs, alcohol and cutting to cope. Some driven by perfectionism, others by chaos. Some from single parent homes because of divorce, prison, death of a parent or having children out-of-wedlock. Some being raised in traditional families, blended families, by grandparents and in group homes for orphans. There were those who were, outgoing and popular, shy and quiet, loud and attention seeking, angry and rebellious, sad and depressed, awkward and loners and many overwhelmed and shutdown. There were rich kids, poor kids, middle-income kids and even homeless kids. I had students tell me they were up all night because of: fighting or drug dealing in their home, gunshots in their neighborhood, uncomfortable sleeping arrangements on floors, couches or because of bed sharing with siblings, being home alone and scared, stressed over their life, working late, doing homework, peer drama, playing video games or because of social media and texting. Daily, learning was hindered because of worries, challenges and fears both at home and in school.

On top of whatever was going on in the lives of my students, they were also physical challenges. The decision-making frontal lobe of the brain is not fully developed until the twenties. Therefore, many faced the consequences of making rash and poor decisions. Their hormones are all over the place as their bodies transition through puberty, heightening their emotional responses. What may seem like a small setback or problem to adults often seems like the end of the world to a hormonal teen. Keep in mind, these physical changes and the challenges that come with being a teenager have always been present, however, when piggybacked on top of the current state of teen influence they can be a tipping point for disaster.

I have always viewed the teen years as a crucial developmental time to thriving into adulthood. It was my mission to awaken my students to something more, a vision of what resonated deep within. I told my students they were not defined by their circumstances or their past. I taught them about personal responsibility of choice and how it affects the outcome of their lives. I did my best to encourage, support and love them. As much as I wanted to see each of my students thrive, there were so, so many that did not. I was not equipped nor had I the time to individually help them overcome the deep seeded root from their environmental programming. Our schools are overrun with struggling teenagers and the services they need are not available. Unfortunately, we are seeing the horrific consequences of how we are failing our youth.

Here is what I know for sure:

Every student that walked into my class no matter what race, socioeconomic class or gender, all had one thing in common. They wanted to feel like someone cared about them, someone valued and believed in them, someone loved them. I watched as many went to great lengths to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance from their peers and teachers. It is my belief this has always been the case with not only teens but with all humans. Having loving connection is essential to our physical, mental, social and spiritual health. Teens today are in a predicament like never before. Although, they desperately desire loving connections, they are so hindered. The breakdown in the families, in community involvement, poor school legislation, lack of funding for needed programs, a cookie cutter education system that does allow for individualism and the negative effects of technology, all do not support today’s teenager in the ways they need it. Most do not have the coping skills to handle the stresses of their lives. Most do not ask for the help they need in large part because of theirs and their family’s poor communication skills.

We have ignored the cry for help from our teens for too long. We must replace blame with individual responsibility. Everyone must take part to heal the root instead of just band-aiding the symptoms. What can you do?

Teenagers:
Put down your phones and talk to each other. Talk to the loner, your siblings, parents, teachers and friends. Be inclusive rather than exclusive. Value your life and other’s lives. Have the courage to look beyond the surface of life and go within to heal any pain from your past. Ask for help when you need it and then accept it. Have a healthy stress outlet. Choose your friends wisely. Get involved in after school activities or clubs. Do volunteer work through your church or community. If your family does not give you the love and support you need, spend time with a friend’s family or mentor. Set personal boundaries for computer use, social media and video gaming. Get moving, physical activity increases your feel-good hormones. Go for a walk, have a water fight with friends or play a sport. Spend quality time with your family and have a good attitude when doing so. Guard your mind from the negative: thoughts, hormonal emotional swings and music and media that doesn’t promote love for yourself or others. Be grateful when your community holds events for teens and participate. Don’t grow up so fast, be a kid at heart! Recognize that you still need help setting healthy boundaries because your frontal lobe is not fully developed. Don’t conform to what others want you to do or who they want you to be, walk to the beat of your own drum. Be guided by the higher power within you.  Be love in action!

Adults raising teens:
Heal yourself. Your teen does not need the consequences of your life choices dumped on them. Insist they use their gifts and talents and support them in doing so. Turn off the TV, put down your phone and really talk to your teen, not at them. Hug and kiss them. Tell them you love them. Speak blessings over their life. Encourage them to make decisions for their highest good and to use their intuition as a guide. Insist on having quality family time. Monitor their social media. Support the activities and interest of your teens. Set boundaries! Even though they will complain, it makes them feel loved and cared about. Insist your teen gets involved in activities at school, in church or the community. Volunteer with your teen. Support teachers and the school. Let your teen serve the consequences of a poor decision. Be a good role model. Value them and others. Respect and love them!

School districts:
Alternative discipline program which recognizes when a student acts out there is usually an underlying reason which needs addressed. reprioritize classes, making sure students take life skills classes, and have healthy outlets through arts, dance, music, physical education and vocational training. Set aside time in the school day for clubs and activity groups to meet. Implement after school programs. Make counseling services available to all students in need. Make sure there is a better balance of funds and planning to serve the larger student body. Initiate student community service opportunities. Implement mental health training for teachers. Insist teaching staff be upstanding citizens and role models for students. Implement connection teams, where every student is connected in someway to an adult staff member.

Communities:
Volunteer to serve as a school mentor, guest speaker or general volunteer. Support after school programs and local youth groups. Create periodic weekend community events for teens. Attend school sporting events, art shows, music performances and plays. Serve on the local school board. Go out of your way to engage and encourage the teens you come in contact with on a daily basis. They desperately want love and attention. Encourage and show love to them. Demand the educator’s union allow school districts to get rid of dead beat teachers.

Government:
Revamp the outdated education system to better serve the students overall health and wellbeing. Financially support vocational training, the arts and life skills. Set aside added funds for the implementation of in school group counseling sessions, mental health training, family counseling services, on site school counselors and added safety measures. Put pressure on the NEA to loosen restrictions on the rules to eliminate bad teachers.

There must be a sense of urgency to help heal this often, forgotten and struggling generation. Please, make them a priority and do your part before more young lives are lost!

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