By John W. Greene, M.D.
Recently I admitted a bright and attractive fifteen-year-old girl to the hospital for an attempted suicide. She had friends, good grades, and, on the surface, a good home. The real problem became evident, however, when I tried to schedule a family conference to discuss the problem. Her father could only meet before 7 a.m. time. or after 9 p.m., and her mother would be out of town on a buying trip for her job for the next two days. Although their daughter had taken enough medication to have resulted in her death, neither parent could make time during the following two days to even discuss the situation. When careers take precedence over people (especially our own children), it is no wonder some teenagers decide that life is not worth living.
Contrary to popular belief, a child’s need for a parent to be near does not end with the infant/toddler stage. In fact, during adolescence a child needs more, not less, parental availability. Beginning around age eleven in girls and age twelve in boys, the process of puberty (physical development) and identity crystallization (psychological development) begins, causing a succession of rapid changes. During this transition from childhood to adulthood, only a person who is consistently available to listen when stresses arise, can be of real assistance to a teenager, since these changes occur in such an uneven and sporadic manner.
Parents who strengthen their support and involvement during the teenage years facilitate their adolescent’s acceptance of life’s unavoidable physical and psychological changes. Yet that extra involvement cannot necessarily be scheduled in advance. Teenagers talk when they choose to talk, not when a parent has thirty minutes of “quality time” to listen. (It is not uncommon for a teenager to sit completely mute for more than thirty minutes when approached in this manner.) Having someone (ideally a parent) consistently available in the home is key during this difficult time.
Many parents spend more individual time with friends than with their own children, yet they expect their children to show family loyalty and respect. Teenagers often consider this kind of behavior a violation of an unwritten contract which reads: “I will give you respect and show loyalty to your values if you spend time developing our relationship.” When an adolescent feels that expectations of loyalty exceed the time commitment made to them by parents, they may resort to “acting-out” behavior — such as failing in school, using alcohol or drugs, breaking curfew or other ruleswhich maybe viewed as I ‘payback” for lack of time.
It appears that many of the severe problems encountered by teen-agers today are due in part to the fact that no one seems to want to spend much time with them. Teen pregnancies are estimated at one million a year in the United States, with conception most often occurring in the home of the adolescent girl because no one else is home. Adolescent depression and suicide are at all-time highs. Many of the teenagers suffering from these problems say very directly that they feel abandoned.
Much is said today about the need for women to work outside the home for personal fulfillment and intellectual challenge. I invite anyone who is feeling unchallenged to rear my fifteen-year-old for one week. Rearing children – and especially teenagers – is the most challenging of all the tasks I have performed to date, including college, medical school, internship, residency, and my years as a faculty member at a highly respected university. It is much easier to perform many jobs outside the home than to deal with an ever-challenging teenager.
While it may be true that the task of child/adolescent rearing does not pay economically and, unfortunatley, does not gain one a great deal of respect in some circles, it is abundantly clear that more women are needed with the sharp minds, quick wits, and infinite patience that are required to rear adolescents effectively. Women who have the fortitude to go against societal convention and pressure and choose to work (and childrearing is work) in the home, deserve the utmost respect and admiration.
-Dr. John W. Green is an Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Psychiatry and is the Director of the Division of Adolescent Medicine at Vanderoilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Reprinted from Welcome Home, Vol. L, No. 9 (September 1984) with permission of the author.
Guardian of Truth XXIX: 16, p. 497
August 15, 1985