Growing up Healthy

Adolescence is a shared human experience full of transitions, experimentation, and growth. It is a rite of passage defined in many ways, whether through religious rituals or legal rights, at one of the most critical developmental stages in a person’s life. In society’s best effort to raise healthy kids, we’ve attempted to place structure around the process of “growing up”—we try to standardize the goals we set, achievements we reach, and skills we acquire. However, as adults continue to more closely and carefully usher adolescents into adulthood, we have to wonder: have we over-defined expectations? Are we interfering too much with the ultimate, shared experience of adolescence—learning how to shape your own identity?

Among the Speakers taking the Stage at TEDMED this November are four experts who have studied various facets of adolescence and how the expectations that today’s youth face—whether self-imposed, parental, peer, or cultural—can impact their mental health and their ability to adjust into healthy adults.

In 2017, the World Health Organization reported that young people around the world are suffering from serious depression and anxiety disorders at record rates—and the growth trend doesn’t appear to be slowing down. Thomas Curran, of the University of Bath’s Department for Health, has been studying the rise of perfectionism and how it might be contributing to these near-epidemic levels of serious mental illness among young people. In a longitudinal study, Thomas found an alarming increase in all dimensions of perfectionism among young people. He found that “socially prescribed perfectionism,” the area of perfectionism associated with excessively high social expectations and the dimension with the largest correlation to a variety of mental health issues, is growing at twice the rate of other dimensions. With his work, Thomas hopes to shed light on the burden of perfectionism and how we can help lessen the stresses felt by young people today.

Niobe Way, Professor of Developmental Psychology and the founder of the Project for the Advancement of Our Common Humanity at New York University, also studies the social pressures that many young people face and how it affects them. Niobe is particularly focused on young men and the detrimental impact of expecting boys to be less emotional and caring than their female counterparts. Through her research, Niobe found that stereotypically feminine traits, such as emotional openness, are necessary for boys’ health and well-being, and that we all share the very human desires for emotional intimacy and connection. Furthermore, her first-hand experience as a counselor at an urban public high school reinforced the importance of the need for connection among boys. As a counselor, Niobe saw the positive impact of listening to boys talk about their deeper feelings on friendships and relationships. This experience drove her to begin the research she continues today and to advocate for how to best support the development of healthy young men.

For youth developing and exploring their gender identity, there are many difficult questions to answer. Unfortunately, society often forces young people to live in a binary male/female world where not everyone feels that they belong. sj Miller’s work centers on how these binary norms can be harmful to a person’s mental health and how in today’s evolving culture, we must work to adopt an inclusive way of defining (a)gender. As a professor and consultant on professional development for teaching, affirming, and recognizing trans*+ and gender creative/expansive students, sj helps to expand how we think about gender, our relationship to our own (a)gender identity, and how we can best support adolescents in accepting their own identity. Using schools as a primary vehicle for creating safe spaces for trans*+ and gender creative/expansive students, sj’s research illuminates a path toward broad social change and a society that is more accepting of all people.

Adolescence is also a time where many people begin to explore their sexuality. And while many adults today are taking an increasingly hands-on approach in guiding their children through the various challenges of adolescence, the topic of sex remains a difficult conversation for many families to have. In the absence of sufficient information on the subject, Emily F. Rothman, a public health scholar and professor at Boston University, has found that youth are turning to pornography to learn about sex. Emily is adamant that if young people are going to watch pornography as an educational tool, then they must be able to watch it as critical thinkers, not passive consumers. Furthermore, Emily argues that it’s important to help teens become pornography literate—capable of analyzing what is healthy and what is not in consensual sexual interaction—so that they can have genuine conversations about their views of sex and pornography. Having written a pornography literacy curriculum that is being implemented in several after school programs in Boston – and soon to be implemented in programs around the country as well – Emily and her team are now working to find the best ways to help young people think critically about sexual interactions, with the intention of reducing the potential for dating violence and abuse in their relationships.

Adolescence is a period of simultaneous Chaos+Clarity, where individuals break down their identity and rebuild it over and over again. While this developmental period is fraught with the challenges inherent in any transition, today’s youth face an especially complicated set of issues and pressures. As we learn more about the work of 2018 TEDMED Speakers Thomas, Niobe, sj, and Emily, we come to see that keeping non-judgemental communications lines open with young people is one of the best ways to support them through this difficult time in their life. After all, adolescence isn’t meant to be perfect. Instead, it should be a time where burgeoning young people are encouraged to ask questions, make mistakes, and learn to deal with life’s struggles in a way that helps to prepare them to become happy, healthy, well-adjusted adults.