Youth Culture Window

Dangerous Ties

Dynamic ImageDepression. Isolation. Self-injury. Some adults dismiss these adolescent experiences as nothing more than a “phase” kids endure. But what if the consequences include drug abuse or suicidal tendencies?

New research suggests that very reality…in stark and destructive terms.

The Sins of Our Youth?
The kid in middle school who overeats and never exercises is likely to become an obese adult in middle age. After all, the habits and experiences from childhood usually take their toll on us later in life. If new studies are to be believed, some of the problems we face as adults are the result of – or are at least linked to – the challenges, setbacks, and behaviors of our adolescent years. While this might not be earthshaking for many parents and youth leaders who were once teenagers and now lead teenagers, there is some fairly definitive data that suggests who we are and what we do when we’re young has an impact on who we become and how we live in the future.

Below, several new pieces of research from America (and other developed nations) will be quickly explored. What they have in common is simple to see: early life experiences oftentimes have long-term effects. Here are four of them, ranked in order of increasing severity.

Stress and Brain Changes
A growing number of doctors, teachers, and therapists are now studying the effects of “toxic stress” on the brains of children and adolescents. Many wonder if children who endure poverty, neglect, abuse, and other traumas are affected by those conditions during later stages of life. Tina Hahn, a pediatrician from Michigan, has her mind made up: “The damage that happens to kids from the infectious disease of toxic stress is as severe as the damage from meningitis or polio.”

According to new data, brains and immune systems aren’t fully formed at birth which makes them even more susceptible to hardships experienced early in life. The most crucial era of development is the first three years of life…and to compound the problem, kids without caring parents (or similar relationships) are most likely to suffer. So far, the research is consistent with the findings of the Adverse Childhood Experiences study performed during the mid 90s which found a number of health problems in adults who experienced trauma as children.

Consensus on the matter among experts has yet to be achieved, but “trauma-informed” practices are becoming more frequent in communities around the nation.

Depression and Marijuana Use
Researchers from the University of Washington think they may have discovered a link between adolescent depression and an increased likelihood of marijuana-use disorder later in life. Noting that marijuana use and depression often plague young people during the same stage of life – though the relationship between the two is unclear – the team selected 521 students from middle schools in the Seattle area to study correlations between the two.

Annual assessments between 12 and 15 years of age, and then again at age 18, found that there was “a statistically significant link between cumulative depression during the early teenage years and a higher chance of marijuana-use disorder later.” Remarkably, even a slight increase of depression in early adolescence could translate to a 50% greater chance of marijuana-use disorder down the road.

The data hasn’t garnered the support of everyone, largely because of the different ways depression affects young people, but researchers are hopeful nonetheless. Dr. Isaac Rhew, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, says, “The findings suggest that if we can prevent or reduce chronic depression during early adolescence, we may reduce the prevalence of cannabis-use disorder.”

But depression isn’t the only problem linked to controlled substance use….

Self-Harm and Substance Abuse
Researchers in Australia have released the findings of their study on adults who reported instances of self-harm during their teenage years and it’s not encouraging. Adults in their mid 30s who self-harmed during adolescence experienced social disadvantages, anxiety, and drug use more frequently than those who did not injure themselves as kids. In fact, young self-harmers were more than twice as likely to be marijuana users by age 35.

While self-injury wasn’t the only contributor to problems experienced down the road – mental health issues and substance abuse of other kinds also played a role – self-harm was “strongly and independently associated with using cannabis on a weekly basis at age 35.” The researchers came to view the destructive tendency of self-harm as a marker for overall distress that required attention, not dismissal.

Sadly, it just makes sense that a young person who’s willing to be self-destructive as a teenager would continue to be self-destructive as an adult. Granted, this research comes from Down Under, but in our own country, 1-in-5 girls and 1-in-7 boys admit to self-injury each year. Tragically, 90% of them begin the pattern of harm in their teen or pre-teen years.

But self-injury isn’t the worst they can inflict upon themselves….

Isolation and Suicidal Thoughts
Researchers in Japan, another developed nation, intrigued as to why 8.5% of their young people’s deaths were caused by suicide, decided to study whether correlations existed between suicidal tendencies and social isolation. Over 18,000 students from middle schools and high schools participated in the massive study that cross-referenced personal preferences for solitude with the number of close relationships a child had, what view of self-worth they possessed, and whether or not they’d ever tried to hurt themselves in the past.

They found that “solitude was associated with increased odds of suicidal ideation or self-harm.” They also discovered that students who desired solitude experienced more social isolation, meaning, they got what they were chasing. Obviously, the students who “wanted” to be alone – and were actually loners – were those who were at the greatest risk of suicidal tendencies.

It’s impossible for us to dismiss this as an Asian problem. Just one month after these reports from Japan were published, we read headlines at home that claim “America sees alarming spike in middle school suicide rate.”

Impacting the Future…Today
Only time will tell how accurate these studies will be concerning their conclusions. But we don’t have to sit idly by waiting for answers. Parents and youth workers are poised to change the future of millions of kids…today. It’s not difficult, but intentional actions will be required. Here are two very simple ideas:


  1. Fight the “it’s just a phase” mentality. A lot of times, that line is little more than an excuse given by an adult to avoid confrontation and correction. However, even if a certain behavior has a clearly defined beginning and end, the above reports show that those “phases” are exacting a crushing toll on our young people’s future. No, we don’t have to over-react at every mistake or bad choice, but we have to take “doing nothing” off the list of strategies.
  2. Be proactive in your relationships. Whether we work with teenagers a few times per week, or they live in our homes, we have tremendous influence in their lives called “relationship.” Take every advantage of that reality and use it to help safeguard them now…and later.
    • Show enthusiasm in their choices, activities, and interests.
    • Reveal your care in unmistakable ways.
    • Dialogue more frequently, with a focus on limiting distractions and asking questions.
    • Display genuine empathy – not just sympathy – in their situations and struggles.

Yes, who kids become tomorrow has a lot to do with the decisions they make today. But it also has a lot to do with the decisions we make today, as well. Make them right, and make them right away.

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David R. Smith

David R. Smith is the author of several books including Christianity... It's Like This and speaks to parents and leaders across the U.S. David is a 15-year youth ministry veteran, now a senior pastor, who specializes in sharing the gospel, and equipping others do the same. David provides free resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.

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