Navigating the Tides of Adolescence

On May 11th, StarVista partnered with Junipero Serra High School to host a panel on Navigating the Tides of Adolescence. This event, the fourth of its kind, was directed towards what parents can do to support their teens through the stresses and pressures of high school and young adulthood.

The panel included:

  • Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of the highly acclaimed book, “How to Raise an Adult“ and former Associate Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education and Dean of Freshmen and Undergraduate Advising at Stanford University
  • Kathleen Blanchard, Gunn High School parent
  • Steven Sust, Stanford University School of Medicine and San Mateo County Psychiatrist
  • Narges Zohoury Dillon, M.A., LMFT, Program Director for StarVista’s Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention Center, and Child and Adolescent Hotline and Prevention Program.
  • Rachel Myrow, KQED Correspondent (Moderator)

Each panelist brought unique expertise to the table. Julie and Kathleen in particular spoke from the heart as parents whose children attended/are attending high performing, high pressure schools in the area. Julie spoke poignantly about how her son’s spirit and energy were sapped from the five-hour homework marathons he endured nightly as a 15-year-old. Kathleen shared that her son JP, a bright and well-liked boy, died by suicide at the Caltrain tracks in Palo Alto in 2009. As Julie and Kathleen shared their parenting mistakes and breakthroughs, the audience of fellow parents laughed and cried along, relating so well to the many challenges of raising a teenager.

As a mother myself, and as a mentor to a teenage girl, I wanted to know what I could do to better support youth in my life.  Here is what I took away from the discussion:

  • See teenagers as whole people. So often we get into the habit of only talking to teens about school. High schoolers are inundated, from parents and strangers alike, with questions about their grades, their SAT study plans, college applications, what major they’ll choose, etc. It sends the message that their only worth is their academic performance. Instead, we should give them space to tell us about their interests and their passions. Steven talked about how all youth have values that motivate their decision-making and their goals. We need to take time to understand what those values are so we can better support them. One size does not fit all.
  • Get to know your kids’ friends (and their parents). Youth reach an age when their friends become their primary confidantes. We will learn more about our kids and become a trusted adult in their lives if we know who their friends are. We can do that by doing the above: seeing them and treating them as whole people. Also, kids may feel more comfortable talking to an adult other than their parent because that adult may be less judgmental or emotional. Build a community with other parents at your kids’ school so that we can all support each other.
  • Let them know you are willing to talk about the hard stuff. Narges gave the audience some helpful phrases to start the conversation, using this panel discussion as a launching point: “I attended a talk tonight on teen mental health and suicide. What do you think about those topics?” Leaving it open-ended gives us a chance to hear what the youth believes, what they’ve heard, and what they’ve experienced. She also suggested following up with “If something like this was happening to you or one of your friends, you can come to me. I’m here.” So often youth don’t reach out for fear that the caring adults in their lives can’t handle these conversations. Let them know explicitly that you CAN.
  • Model self-care and help-seeking behaviors. As parents we want to seem invincible to our children because we are their protectors. But children benefit from seeing the way we deal with setbacks and emotional challenges. Of course we need to maintain boundaries and not spill all the inner workings of our mind, but when we are going through a hard time we can show them that it’s okay to pause to take care of ourselves, and to reach out, whether to a loved one or a professional, to get support. We should acknowledge that pain is a normal part of life, that it can be worked through, and most importantly, that it is temporary.

At the beginning of the panel, I felt overwhelmed and pained thinking of all the challenges and pressures that teenagers are facing today. But by the end I felt better equipped to be a supportive adult. I also felt pride and a sense of community, knowing that so many other adults were invested in this topic, and willing to learn more about teen mental health. It will take all of us to break the stigma and support our youth the way they deserve to be supported.

Written by: Mai Le