ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Growing up is hard to do.
“It’s messed up. There are problems,” says Alonzo Astorga, a senior at La Academia de Esperanza on Old Coors SW. “But I’m going to graduate. I want to go to college. I’ll find a way. I’m a fighter. I try for things.”
After a visit to New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology with a group from school, Astorga dreams of being an engineer.
On the other side of town, Allison Harrison Ogawa, a senior at Albuquerque Academy, has different problems, but is stressed just the same: “It’s a struggle between what you want to do and what will look good on your college application and what your parents want you to do. I calendar everything on my phone. It’s tough to get it all in.”
Ogawa wants to be an integrative medicine physician, inspired by her father’s struggle with cancer and her yoga practice with children. She’s on her academic journey after being accepted to Amherst College in Massachusetts.
It’s easy to find proof of growing pains, from other kids, who act out their stress in risky behaviors.
Still, it’s good to know that fewer teenagers across the state are binge drinking, smoking, and drinking and driving than were engaging in those behaviors 10 years ago. Fewer students succeed in killing themselves or think about it as a solution for their problems or fight it out with other teens than in past surveys, according to the New Mexico Youth Risk and Resiliency Survey, sponsored by the state departments of health and education, with assistance from the University of New Mexico.
Dan Green, a state survey epidemologist, says the take-away message from the survey that’s conducted every other year is “what parents and teachers do really matters. Kids do notice what’s going on around them. The time we spend with our children really pays off.”
Green says time with parents, teachers and other supportive adults is a protective factor from risky behaviors. Community service, activity with clubs, other groups or their churches, were also factors that protected teens from harmful behavior, he says: “The survey is very clear about that.”
Teenagers from all walks of life have stress in common, says psychologist Miquela Rivera, who specializes in children and families at Samaritan Counseling Center.
Much of it comes from the human developmental task of defining themselves as distinct individuals, separate from their parents: “At a certain point, teens need to exercise their own will and judgment.”
Many things can make the task more difficult, such as divorced parents, trauma or illness, domestic violence, a lack of grandparents or other closely related supporting adults nearby, economics and even their inherent temperament.
“Every human being is born with a temperament,” she says. “Some are highly adaptable and others are not. Those who are less adaptive need the same routine. It’s stressful for those who need routine, but don’t have it, because they are missing protective factors.”
It’s hard for even the best parents to navigate adolescence.
“Parents have to make the shift, so they are parenting developmentally appropriately,” Rivera says. “It’s hard for parents because one day teenagers seem so grown up and independent and the next day they aren’t. It isn’t a straight line. Often it’s one step forward and one step back.”
But some parents don’t shift well, she says, doing the same things over and over, even though they aren’t effective with their teenagers any longer.
Rivera says she’s seen that community service groups, sports teams and clubs can help teenagers learn who they are in a safe environment, without taking unnecessary risks.
“One of the smartest things I’ve seen is schools that have a internship or something like that at the end of the senior year, depending on the school. That’s a very good way for a child to transition from high school to the adult world,” she says, adding the students need to be prepared and the placements for community service or work need to be appropriate: “It needs to be a good match.”
Otherwise, “they start emancipating themselves and get into trouble just before they graduate. The wheels come off the wagon,” she says.
“If you don’t belong at home, you need to belong somewhere because that’s the task of being a teen. We need good places for them to belong,” she says. “That’s why sports teams and clubs are important, because they are a protective factor. It’s a family, away from family.”
Rivera says if the placement is a good one, the benefits can exceed far beyond the time spent and help shape their choices as an adult: “It’s a child’s place that is all their own. It’s a place for them to carve an identity.”