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Saving Our Adolescents


Saving Our Adolescents

Publisher: Pennington Publications P.O. Box 312 Murwillumbah, NSW 2484 Website:

First Published 2010 Second Reprint 2011

Title: Saving Our Adolescence: Supporting today’s adolescents through the bumpy ride to adulthood Author: Dent, Maggie Date of Publication: March 2010

All rights reserved. If a small part of this book is reproduced for the purpose of education and training, school newsletters or to help someone, written permission is not required provided the text is acknowledged and you are acting with integrity and respect. Every reasonable effort has been made to contact the holders of copyright material that has been quoted in this book. The author and publisher will gladly receive information that will enable them to rectify any inadvertent errors or omissions in subsequent editions. The names of some people have been changed to protect their identity in this book.

ISBN: 978-0-9758456-5-3

Layout and Design: Katharine Middleton


Saving Our Adolescents


This book is dedicated to those parents, families and friends who have lost an adolescent through accident, illness, suicide or as a result of crime.

This is especially dedicated to my dear friend and graphic designer, Katharine Middleton who lost her very best friend in a tragic accident before they had a chance to realise their shared dreams; however, not before they became the absolute best of friends.


Saving Our Adolescents

Contents Preface Acknowledgements Introduction Chapter 1: What is a ‘lighthouse’ and why do adolescents need them? Chapter 2: The millennial adolescent Chapter 3: Resilience and why it is important Chapter 4: The adolescent brain: What is going on up there? Chapter 5: Why the emotional chaos and confusion? Chapter 6: Other interesting things about adolescence Chapter 7: The nightmare of adolescent sleeplessness Chapter 8: Adolescent angst and the search for joy juice, buzz rush and transcendence Chapter 9: Parenting today’s adolescents: Bridging the generation chasm Chapter 10: Personality matters on the bumpy road Chapter 11: Secret girls’ business Chapter 12: Secret boys’ business Chapter 13: Sex, drugs, rock’n’roll and cyberspace Chapter 14: How to build optimistic adolescents who thrive (most of the time) Chapter 15: Adolescence: The hero’s journey Chapter 16: Adolescents in today’s schools and possible innovations in education Chapter 17: Letting go: The greatest act of love Conclusion Appendices Bibliography Seminars


5 9 11 15 37 49 63 79 101 119 127 141 169 185 199 217 237 253 267 289 291 293 303 307

What is a ‘lighthouse’ and why do adolescents need them?

Millions [of children] are growing up under conditions that do not meet their enduring needs for optimal development. They are not receiving the careful, nurturing guidance they need—and say they want—from parents and other adults. The Carnegie Report, 1995.

In traditional kinship communities the responsibility of adults to prepare adolescents for adulthood is taken very seriously. Boys are mentored or guided by men, and girls are prepared by women. The tasks and life skills that young people need in order to be capable adults are taught until an adolescent has mastered the required skill and maturity level required by the tribe. Without these skills they’re not initiated into adulthood. Initiations often take place through ceremony, after which adolescents are formally recognised as adults. This rite of passage sometimes requires physical challenge and pain, ensuring this step is not taken lightly. In our modern world we have no formal rite of passage to acknowledge that an adolescent is now an adult, and many of our young people have been abandoned from the guidance required to grow into responsible adults. The development of the modern world has dissolved many traditional family and community structures that provided teaching and guidance for adolescents on their bumpy road to adulthood. This weakening of social capital has come at a high price with increasing numbers of depressed, unemployed and homeless adolescents, and 15

Saving Our Adolescents

a higher death rate from suicide and accidents. Adolescents need adults to help them build their resilience and competence at a time when they’re pulling away from their primary guiding source: their parents. A major contributor to the worsening mental health of Zeds (Generation Zed encompasses young people aged 17 and under) is less support from families, with fewer functioning adults around and a lessened sense of community. Professor Ian Hickie, Executive Director, Brain and Mind Institute, University of Sydney.

This is not just within communities, it is also within families and schools—the two other main support structures for adolescents. Today’s world functions at an unhealthy speed using technology that reduces human interaction. The vital window of adolescence is where the evolving child adapts to become more mature and adult-like. But, it seems the adult world has stepped back and left our adolescents without the guidance and support they need to grow into healthy citizens. You cannot learn about managing human relationships or develop life skills by watching Home and Away—or using Google™ to search for answers! Never have so many people lived so far from extended family, or outside traditional communities where adults served as collective parents for all a neighbourhood’s young people. These developments have reduced our social capital; the relationships that bind people together and create a sense of community. We must find ways to deal with our profound loss of social connectedness. Father Chris Riley, Youth off the Streets.

Father Chris Riley works daily with adolescents and young adults who are lost. They are not bad, damaged or useless—they are lost. Their bumpy ride to adulthood was a journey without enough loving support and they have been scarred by their choices. Father Riley was asked, ‘How can you help these nohopers?’ He replied, ‘It’s quite easy to help these young people. They all improve with compassion, kindness, food and a safe place to live.’ This is exactly what kinship communities offered when adolescents stepped away from their parents in their effort to claim independence and autonomy. There were other adults to keep an eye out, guide and support them. These other supports can be extended family, it can also be people who care enough to be there. I call them ‘lighthouses’. A lighthouse represents something that is strong, reliable and immovable, and shines a light showing safe passage. It does not tell you to do something, it simply shows you a safer way to go. A lighthouse says, if you want to do something really risky and smash on the rocks below where I stand, then be my guest, but 16

What is a ‘lighthouse’ and why do adolescents need them?

I won’t rescue you. I will keep the light shining so that next time you remember how painful your last choice was and you might choose to follow the safer way where my light shines. Key attributes of a lighthouse • • • • • • • • •

Solid and reliable. Offers protection. Well informed about adolescent development. Friendly. Shines a light in the darkness. Models healthy adulthood. Offers silent guidance. Gives hope. Committed to the greater good of all, not just the pursuit of self.

Lighthouses have to be able to develop a relationship that allows them to sow seeds of potential and shines a light on the invisible sign that hangs around every adolescents’ neck:

Many adolescents feel invisible, unheard or that they just don’t matter. It took me a while to realise this when I was teaching. It started to dawn on me when I noticed that some mornings as I headed from the staff car park to the English office, a student or two would be leaning on the brick wall that was on my route. These were students I had approached separately the previous day at lunch. They were not in any of my classes, but I had noticed how lonely they looked eating lunch by themselves. Recognising this reaction, I searched for the students who sat alone, had obvious physical challenges or appeared to be avoiding their mainstream peer groups. I learned their names and made sure I smiled when I saw them, and I even acknowledged them in the street. It didn’t take long before the row of students who greeted me every morning grew to more than a dozen—some days up to 20. The simple act of being noticed made these students feel better. It may not have seemed like a big thing in the scheme 17

Saving Our Adolescents

of the curriculum, but it was huge for the students. This is an example of how we can all pause a little in our busy lives and shine that light. Every adolescent needs a lighthouse to help them navigate the uncertain waters of adolescence. Lighting the flame of potential, while being realistic about adolescent development, is extremely important. Young people are hard on themselves and adept at self-criticism and self-sabotage, and often get stuck in patterns of limitation. Lighthouses can help them see beyond these limitations. Lighthouses do not rescue, advise or make judgements on an adolescent’s behaviour, instead they act as a mirror so the young person can see the world from a different perspective. The benefits of a lighthouse Many adolescents learn how to be trustworthy from the lighthouses in their life. These adults are helpful in the role they play by using good communication, helping to build life skills and having the courage to connect deeply. Lighthouses shed light on the pathway to adulthood and beyond. They are respectful, reliable, responsive and reciprocal. They provide an open door and retreat, no matter when, what or why. During times of conflict lighthouses shine a light of reason, encouragement and acceptance. Adolescents often have poor skills around life management, planning for the future and coping with their chaotic emotional worlds. Lighthouses are like a personal life coach. In my staff seminar I challenge teaching staff to take on a special ‘project’ every year. I encourage them to aim to connect with and shine a light on a student who has a bad reputation, or is obviously struggling on the bumpy road to adulthood. Immediately I see the looks on their faces as they recall a student whom they have helped in the past—and they know how good that connection made them feel. In the parent seminar I challenge parents to do the same for a niece or a nephew, a neighbour or any adolescent with whom they connect. Step forward and shine that light. You will be staggered by the potential it can activate in an adolescent who thinks no one cares. People who have had a strong connection with a strong positive role model during adolescence are much more resilient throughout their life. Bahr, N. and Pendergast, D., The Millennial Adolescent, (2007).

Lighthouses can be people who play a large role in an adolescent’s life like a coach, teacher, aunty or family friend. Sometimes they appear only for a short time, but in that time manage to sows seeds of potential, give ideas or show through their actions and words something new and helpful. 18

What is a ‘lighthouse’ and why do adolescents need them?

A farmer approached me after a seminar one night and thanked me for helping him realise something important. He told me that many years ago a neighbouring father died suddenly, leaving behind a wife and three children—two girls and a 10-year-old boy. At times he would take the boy on long truck trips to Perth where they listened to whatever sport was happening—cricket or football. They would eat junk food and chocolate, drink soft drink, and fart and burp like young boys. The farmer would also take him to local sporting events, and sometimes just take him for a ride on the quad bikes. He never mentioned the boy’s Dad or asked how he was coping, and for years had felt he had not done enough. When the boy left the farm and went to university he would still call occasionally and visit. He would throw a swag on the floor, stay a few days and ride the quad bikes or drive the trucks. Then he would leave again. The farmer finally realised he had been a lighthouse in this boy’s life, and the fact the young man came ‘home’ occasionally just to spend time with someone who had cared meant the world to him. How important was that relationship in that boy’s life? I’d say life saving! It’s often not the big stuff, but the small stuff that can make a difference. Human connectedness is a profound influence in all our lives and it’s even more important during the years of adolescent change. Our individualistic material world has made it very difficult for adolescents to find their true selves because they have so many distractions overloading their mind. Having stable, charismatic adult mentors can make the difference between thriving and flourishing, or struggling and failing. The influence of a potential role model is increased when, in the eyes of the young person, they fulfil the following criteria: •

Attractiveness—physical and emotional.

Social power—reward and punishment.

Status—perceived importance of the role model.

Competence—specifically in the areas of shared interest.

Nurturance—perceived concern for the observer.

Interaction level—degree of contact.

Similarity—characteristics in common or expected due to similar life experiences or genetic heritage.

Bahr, N et al. The Millennial Adolescent (2007)


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Profile for Katharine Middleton

Saving Our Adolescents  

Saving Our Adolescents: Supporting Today's Adolescents through the Bumpy Ride to Adulthood answers so many questions about why adolescents g...

Saving Our Adolescents  

Saving Our Adolescents: Supporting Today's Adolescents through the Bumpy Ride to Adulthood answers so many questions about why adolescents g...