Building Self-Esteem in Teens - Working Together to Find Community Solutions by Kathy Masarie, MD
I am a pediatrician who has become passionate about encouraging the “adult” people of our society to help the young people of our society. Clearly, there is a lack of structure for our youth to grow on. As a result, the “lucky ones” get too much, too fast, with too many activities. The unlucky ones just struggle to survive. More kids than we suspect are homeless or abused by drug-addicted parents. Too many kids are being raised by appliances: TV for four hours a day gives distorted ideas of sex and violence; kids are learning how to treat each other from sitcoms.
In the course of over ten years in pediatric practice, I have seen many patients and dealt with many symptoms. But patients aren’t just symptoms, they’re people with life stories—and I have noticed some changes over the years that alarm me. Parents seem to be more and more frantic about their kids, wanting a quick fix for long-standing behavior problems that have reached crisis levels. Younger kids who used to be calm and sit patiently while I talked with their parents now climb the walls, grabbing at equipment. Most difficult of all are the teens.
As a female physician, most of my teen patients were female because they preferred a woman doctor. Over the years, I noticed a deeply disturbing pattern among adolescent girls. I was seeing far too many of them with depression. It used to be unusual to see complex problems, but as time passed, it became more the norm. I found myself asking the crucial question: what are the conditions created by our society that make this so prevalent? The child mental health professionals couldn’t keep up with the demand, so I ended up managing their anti-depressants.
I noticed certain patterns in the life stories that my young patients presented. One example is a girl from a relatively intact family who came in with purple hair and a pierced body. She thought I was completely out of my mind when, in the course of our dialogue, I suggested that she might get passing grades. “Only geeks get good grades. Why would I want to do that?”
Another example I found tragic was when one of my favorite teens told me she wanted to get pregnant so she could “nab” her 19-year-old boyfriend and live happily ever after. Ultimately, she accomplished that part of her plan that set her up for a difficult start on adulthood: she got pregnant and had the baby. Predictably, she lost the boyfriend, and now faces being a single mother without the support system in place to make that work well for her. It’s a typical scenario.
I became discouraged in my practice. As I saw it, the enemy my patients faced wasn’t viral or bacterial—it was societal. I got very frustrated trying to help them in short office visits.
A New Approach A couple of years ago, two people changed the course of my life. First, I spent a week at a family camp with Vicki Robin, author of Your Money or Your Life. She taught my family about “voluntary simplicity,” living more with less, how to cut back on spending money and the importance of focusing on what we truly valued in life.
Shortly after that, I went to a talk by Mary Pipher, a psychologist and author of Reviving Ophelia, Saving the Selves of Our Adolescent Girls. Her message was clear. Kids today, especially girls, are in trouble for a multitude of reasons. The teenage female today must contend with forces that virtually ensure damage to her sense of worth. She must be thin, bordering on anorexic. She must be pretty. She must spend hours on make-up and clothes selection. And she must be popular, even if it means using drugs, having sex and playing dumb. Something needs to change.
Mary Pipher’s message really hit home for me. I knew from personal experience how hard adolescence could be. When I was 12 years old, my family moved from a small army base to Medford, Oregon, where I was ostracized for being so “out of it.” I had a stormy adolescence, but I recovered by college. At the time I met Mary Pipher, my own daughter had just turned 12. What kind of adolescence was she facing? I was panicked. I decided to do something about it.
Taking Action I started by inviting a few people together with the purpose of sharing a video of Pipher’s, followed by talk about our perceptions and a discussion of local resources. It was a success, and I planned another. The meetings grew. A flyer announcing such an event in my office brought a record 60 people to our waiting room for an evening discussion. Everywhere I went with this talk, the response was the same, and everywhere, people wanted more: more information about the problems, more information about solutions. I have now shown it to over 1000 people.
Something had to give: my job, my family, or this new volunteer project. With our newly honed “voluntary simplicity” perspective, my husband and I felt we could make it on one salary. In March of 1997 I left my practice to start Full Esteem Ahead, a program of Children First for Oregon.
My goal is to build healthy self-esteem in teens, with a profound focus on girls, by sharing information with parents, health professionals, educators and adults who care enough to work on solutions together. These days I give seminars regularly at Emmanuel Hospital, write a newsletter, Wings, and give out information by way of handouts and my web site.
In the course of this work over the past year and a half, I have met many great people of our community and I have learned about other community projects created to address this problem. I believe that there is the possibility of an expanding network of solutions that we can all participate in.
There is no simple solution to the difficulties young people face. We as adults can only do our best. Grassroots efforts with all of us getting more involved in the lives of all teenagers will make a difference.
Mary Pipher tells a story that tells it all: “There was a town where young people were falling off a cliff. The elders got together to decide if they should build a fence at the top or an ambulance service below.”
You’re an elder. What choice would you make?
Kathy Masarie lives and teaches in Portland, Oregon. She recently left her practice in pediatrics to devote herself full-time to Full Esteem Ahead, the non-profit organization she founded to address her concerns for young people. You can reach her in the following ways: Phone: (503) 296-6748; Address: 6663 SW Beaverton-Hillsdale Highway, Suite 214, Portland, OR 97225; Fax: (503) 297-8742; Web: www.europa.com/~kmasarie. You can send for a sample newsletter “Wings” today. “Wings” is published three times a year for $10.