By Sarah Sanchez
I work with the youth ministry at our local church, so I’m around teenagers about twice a week, in addition to talking to them almost daily. As I’ve worked with the local youth, I’ve begun to understand that they have a lot more to deal with than when I was in school.
It’s a lot easier for a teenager to feel overwhelmed with the pressures of today’s society. To us adults, their problems don’t seem like a big deal because we know there is so much more to life with so many more responsibilities that our teens haven’t even dealt with yet. But a teenager doesn’t understand that. When something significant happens, their whole world can feel like its falling apart – which can lead to serious depression or even suicide.
I like to think of a teenager’s life like a table with four legs. If you knock out one leg of the table, it will begin to fall. In comparison, one leg represents one part of a teenager’s life. When you take a part of it away, their world starts to feel as if it’s falling apart, just like the table. If you knock down all the legs, they can feel as if there is nothing worth living for, which is what triggers the depression and suicidal thoughts. So understanding your teenager’s table legs is crucial to being able to help them.
Based on my experience, a teenager’s world consists of the following four table legs (typically in this order of importance):
Leg #1: Friends/Dating Relationships. I put these two in the same category because it’s usually one or the other. If a teenager is in a relationship, it means they are spending all their time with their boyfriend/girlfriend and aren’t spending much time with their friends. But if they aren’t in a relationship, all their free time goes to their friends. Of course, there are a few exceptions.
If your teenager just got dumped or is being excluded from his/her group of friends, it’s a big deal to them because this is their number one priority in life. They can’t just go off and sit with new friends. Have you seen the movie, “Mean Girls?” (“You can’t sit with us.”). I remember sitting in the bathroom and eating my lunch by myself when my high school friends were mad at me, because that seemed better than walking up to a group of strangers to eat with. It doesn’t make sense, but a teenager’s brain doesn’t always make sense.
Leg #2: School. This is where your teenager spends most of his/her day, so it’s actually pretty important. If your teenager is a junior or senior, they have a lot of pressure with SATs (these are insanely hard now!), graduation, and college applications.
If that’s not enough, what also falls under the school category is social status, which is everything to a teenager. A lot of my students struggle with self-esteem issues because they care so much about what their peers think of them. And with teenagers on five different social networks at a time (yes, there are now five of them), it’s a lot easier for their life to be made public. If something in their life is posted on social media by a peer, it can not only jeopardize their social status and cause them to be isolated from their peers, but a mistake can even haunt them for the rest of their life (said in the dramatic voice of a teenager).
An example might be if your teenager decides to go drinking with their friends (oh, don’t act surprised; you were a teenager, too), and someone videos them drunk – that video can end up on any or all social media avenues. One click of the “Post” button can share the unfortunate incident with friends, who can share it with their friends, and so on – perhaps even going viral worldwide. One post can change your teen’s life. Maybe they are even the ones posting the fate of someone else. The guilt associated with either action can really affect a teenager.
Leg #3: Extra Activities. This category is for anything outside of school and friends, whether its sports, theater, work, or volunteering. These activities are very important to a teenager because they’re spending their free time doing them. So whether they are doing it for fun, money, or for their college applications, they are getting something out of it. But with the perks, comes the stress of succeeding in whatever they are pursuing. And don’t forget the stressful competitive competition that goes along with that.
Leg #4: Family. Yes, sadly, family is usually last on the priority list (it’s nothing personal). With school, activities, and friends taking up most the day, there’s not much time left for family. However, even if you hardly see your teen, they are very aware of what’s going on at home. It’s probably my most popular prayer request: parents fighting, financial struggles, family feuds; the list goes on and on – I’ve heard some crazy stories. So imagine your teenager struggling with friends and the pressure of school or extracurricular activities, and then you top it off with them hearing about your marital or family problems. All this can push them over the edge with stress that they don’t need. If they are around this turmoil enough, it could affect them more than any of the other categories.
It’s important to understand how any of these falling legs can affect your teenager’s life. I suggest that you talk openly with your teens, even share your own experiences with them; and don’t take their depression lightly.
In my group of about 15 girls, almost all of them have admitted to being bullied, eight have suffered from major depression (53.3%), and four have admitted that they have either attempted or thought about suicide (26.6%). These are just freshman girls. They just entered high school and have already struggled with serious issues. Luckily, they are getting professional help now.
Is your teenager suffering from depression or suicidal thoughts, too? Are they receiving the love and help they need? Have you taken a step back from your busy life to notice if they’re handling theirs?
Growing up, my dad used to tell me that no matter what I did, he and my mom would never stop loving me. He said that even if I falsely accused him of something and he ended up in jail for it, he would still love me. He told me this to make sure I knew that there was nothing in this world that was worth committing suicide for because I always had two people who would love me no matter what mistakes I made. That statement meant everything to me. Yes, I still struggled with depression and even suicidal thoughts growing up, but when it came down to it, I knew it wasn’t worth it because my parents would love me no matter what I did.
So, please, try to understand your teenagers (and their table legs) and show them unconditional love. You never know if one day it might be too late.