At a reading of Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig, an in-depth personal account of the British author’s major depressive disorder, writer Elitsa Dermendzhiyska was surprised to hear that most of Haig’s fan mail came from 13-year-olds.¹ This informal data would have come as no surprise to journalist Katherine Reynolds Lewis,² author of The Good News About Bad Behavior, who opens her book with the statistic that “one in two children will develop a mood or behavioral disorder or a substance addiction before age eighteen.” She notes that this statistic does not represent a rise in diagnosis, but “an actual change in children.” The crux of the problem as she sees it? A decreasing ability to self-regulate. “Children today are fundamentally different from past generations,” she writes. “They truly have less self-control. Simply put, we face a crisis of self-regulation.”
From the work of Dr. Nadine Burke Harris,³ we also know that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) lead to increased health risks in adulthood — up to triple the lifetime risk of heart disease and lung cancer, for example. While the model for ACEs from the CDC study names specific criteria (physical, emotional, sexual abuse; physical or emotional neglect; parental mental illness, substance abuse, incarceration; parental separation or divorce; or domestic violence), I think it is fair and accurate to say that 21st-century teenhood as a whole has become an ACE for any teen who dreams of succeeding as a thriving professional adult with a rewarding life. For an expanded treatment of this topic, please see my article, 21st-Century Teenhood and Toxic Stress.
My concern, based on observation afforded by a decade as a private college planner and another near-decade of university teaching, is that American teens are alarmingly underprepared for the challenges of adulthood, and they know it. The adults in their lives, however, seem not to be paying attention or unable to provide remedies, if they are — even as their children’s adulthood portends to be much less safe and structured than theirs. No wonder 13-year-olds are writing to Matt Haig.
How does today’s college admissions process further compound this situation? Find out more here.