Most of our Shelterwood parents are exemplary. They are, by and large, good, kind, compassionate and loving people. They have tried everything they can at home to deal with the behavioral and emotional issues of their teenager, and yet it hasn’t worked. They have most often also placed their child in counseling. However, by the time they begin considering residential care, they are often exasperated, troubled and even fearful about the trajectory of their teen’s decisions and life, and they find themselves at a complete loss about what to do.
So, you might be asking, “What is happening?” Why are so many “good” families struggling with their teenagers today?” There is much discussion about this issue today. However, in my personal opinion, I don’t see the answer as being any one thing, but as a combination of many factors.
Perhaps you remember the movie, The Perfect Storm. In this movie, several weather related phenomena converged together at the same time to create a monster storm. In a real sense, I believe this is a picture of what is happening with today’s teens. There has been a convergence of several “storms” on this generation of teens that has created a monster storm. These storms include the cultural impact that media, social media, and electronic media have had on our teens.
This storm includes the shift in cultural values to moral relativism over the past few decades. No matter what the kids have heard at home, the culture has told our kids that there are no moral absolutes. In fact, study after study reveals that most teens today think sex outside of marriage, cheating in school, lying, etc., are all acceptable under certain circumstances. We shouldn’t really be surprised, because these are the values that the culture has been promoting.
The storm also includes the impact of Freudian thought on parenting which really began to take hold in the 1960’s. This brought real confusion to parents on effective child rearing, and challenged time-honored beliefs concerning child rearing and family development.
And I believe this storm also includes the lowering of expectations we have for kids during their teen years. The teen years have become, for many teens, an extended period of leisure, which has helped create a sense of misguided entitlement among them and also led many of them into depression and confusion.
These issues, along with others, has created a “perfect storm,” impacting the healthy development of teenagers, and the parents’ ability to help their children navigate the teen years effectively.
I cannot overstate the influence of the media, social media and the Internet on this generation. The competing voices for the attention of our kids has never been louder and more divisive. As Moms and Dads, we are each selective regarding the folks that we will allow into our home. And we are even more selective regarding the people that we will allow to spend “one-on-one” time with our kids. We want to protect our kids from those who don’t share our values and whose influence we believe would be damaging to our children.
Yet, through the electronic media, parents by the millions are daily allowing people into their homes to influence their children whom they would otherwise never allow to even darken the door of their homes. These destructive influences are entering our homes through the Internet, the television, and the phone. And even if we monitor the electronic media in our homes well, and keep these people out of our homes, our kids are still often exposed to them on their friends’ phones or computers.
It is not simply the “content” that is a concern (porn for example). It is the values behind the content that is equally insidious and yet often less apparent.
An interesting UCLA study done a number of years ago showed that the top five values emphasized in popular children’s television shows were fame, achievement, popularity, image and financial success. Our kids today have been brought up in a media culture that has told them that “being famous” is the most important value. Morality, godliness, self-respect and service for others have been replaced by the desire to be famous.
So, in this “Social Media Age” when kids want to be “known” more than ever, kids are actually lonelier than ever. They live in a culture where wearing masks is the norm, and appearance and image is everything.
At Shelterwood, we begin to address this, and teens are disconnected from “the matrix” and electronic media for the first few months they are with us. Their phones, computers, iPads, etc. are all taken from them. The only access they have to a computer is in their classroom at school.
Our teens then learn one another’s stories at Shelterwood. They learn to take off their masks, and to communicate. Very quickly, our teens learn that everyone at Shelterwood is dealing with something, so our teens learn to get very honest very quickly. They also have to learn to work through conflict with one another. Because they are living together, they can’t just avoid issues.
Kids that have been raised over the past twenty years are the first generation of kids to have been raised under this avalanche of electronic media. Their parents were raised with only a television in the home and a limited number of channels. However, our kids have been raised with a electronic media all around them: in their hands, their pockets, and by their bedsides 24/7. Studies are just now beginning to try to understand the influence of electronic media on brain development, and emotional and relational development.
It has been my observation that most teenagers come to us with relationships that are an inch deep and a mile wide. Most teens have not learned how to really develop deep, healthy, and accountable friendships. They have become experts at texting and Twitter, at promoting an “image,” but they are often stunted in their ability to really communicate, and build honest relationships of trust and depth. Yet this is one of their greatest desires, to be really known and loved.
And at Shelterwood, we believe in the value of neurological development as well. Clearly many kids today are struggling with neurological and developmental issues. While all the reasons for this are still being debated, including the potential negative influence of “screen time” on neurological development, what cannot be debated is that there is a growing problem. We have seen tremendous results from our neurological therapy, called Brain Balance. About half the teens in our program are also enrolled in this therapy. My own son, diagnosed with autism at the age of five, has made tremendous strides through this therapy. He is now twenty-two years old, and we have had him in Brain Balance therapy for two years.
Clearly, each teen comes to us with his or her own unique set of behavioral, emotional, educational, relational, spiritual, physical, chemical and neurological challenges. No teens are exactly alike. Therefore our treatment strategy with each teen is unique as well.
Nevertheless, perhaps the most important thing we do at Shelterwood is the tremendous emphasis we place on our young adult staff and their roles as mentors for our teen residents. Teenagers are going to follow someone that they think is “cool.” So, as parents, one of our primary responsibilities is to expose our kids to young adult role models that share our values, who our teens will think are “cool.” You cannot put a price on the value of the positive influence that a healthy young adult can have on the development of a teenager.
When our teens stand up at graduation, they typically thank three groups of people. They thank their parents for making the tough decision to send them to Shelterwood, and for staying the course. They thank the other residents in the program, for they have often developed some very deep friendships. And they thank the young adult staff for their love, service and sacrifice. There are some deep and lasting bonds that are often built between our young adult staff and our teens. The counselors and teachers have a huge supportive role in the development of these teens as well; however, the value of the relationships between our young adult staff and these teens seems to be central in their minds. They do such a fantastic job!