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Canaries in the Coal Mine: Using Metaphors to Understand Adolescence

By Bret Stephenson  Posted by Rob Kall (about the submitter)     Permalink
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I use a lot of metaphors in my work to help adults understand the current, modern world of adolescence. I 'm also different than most youth workers in that I 've seen, worked with, and studied adolescents from more than 100 countries. This has helped me immensely understand the overall, multidimensional process of adolescence as it should be, or as it was designed, compared to the version we are all currently familiar with. With adolescence the second greatest developmental growth spurt we ever go through in this life, it never fails to astound me that we treat the process like unwanted relatives. Frankly, I spent the past ten years trying to figure out how America went from a culture with no need for incarcerating or medicating its teens to a society riddled with such approaches, and apparently growing more reliant on them even though they don 't seem to be working very well.

Put simply, America dubiously leads the rest of the world in teen violence and dysfunction. For example, nearly one million adolescents between 12 and 19 are victims of violent crimes each year. Looked at another way, the homicide rate for kids 14 or younger in the US is five times higher than for the other 25 industrialized countries combined. During my interactions with hundreds or thousands of adults yearly in my consulting, trainings and workshops, I 've come to believe that too many Americans now accept these typical teen statistics as one of the prices for modern society.

I hope most folks reading this column will remember what "canaries in the coal mine " were originally used for. Miners used to take a caged canary into the mine with them as a low-tech safety mechanism. If the canary dropped over dead, or looked poorly, there was a good indication some unhealthy gas was leaking in. The canaries were disposable alarms, and the adults had to react quickly and appropriately to keep the bulk of the community (miners) safe.

For the last 3-4 years as I work more and more across the country in a variety of settings, I keep using the "canary " metaphor in each presentation I 'm involved with. Essentially, I ask my audiences what I 'm about to ask you: If our teenagers in America were the canaries in our cultural coalmine, how would they be faring? The vast majority of adults quickly comment: "Not well! "

Another universal question I ask is how well most youth models are working. For example, does anyone believe that the $20 billion spent annually for 20 years now on drug and alcohol prevention has made drug & alcohol issues among American teens any better? Even a little bit? Once again, over the past few years I 've yet to find one person who feels our teen chemical issues are getting better, even with so many resources being tossed at them. How many more New & Improved crime bills will we hope/believe will save the day? Will we continue to incarcerate and medicate our teens in record numbers, or realize that a while back we as adults took some wrong turns in our understanding of working with teens and go back to healthier approaches?

These are some very difficult questions, but the health of our children is at stake. I eventually had to write a book on these issues, so I could bring up the overlapping and interconnected threads in a form that helped adults see how deeply ingrained our negative teen thinking is at this time and place in history.

Thus, while most people do not realize it, adolescents hold a valuable and sacred spot in our community. On the cusp of adulthood, their job, via the testing and rebellious process, is to mirror back to us adults all the things they believe are wrong with the world. While it is not our job as grownups to simply change everything teens feel are not ideal, we are required to listen and adjust where appropriate.

Teens are the 'check & balance' for the adult world. Like canaries in a coal mine, they tell us when things are out of balance, when the coal mine we call everyday reality has become dangerous and toxic, yet every day we send our children back to face more. In future columns we 'll continue to occasionally look at "bigger issues " as well as daily nuts & bolts information to help you have a more successful relation with your teen or pre-teen.

Bret Stephenson bret@adolescentmind.com is an adolescent specialist who's experiences with teens from more than 100 countries and six international youth conferences has altered how he looks at and works with American teens. Utilizing archetypal, cross-cultural and universal models that have worked for millennia, he successfully works with at-risk and high-risk teens in a variety of settings. Bret is author of Slaying the Dragon: The Contemporary Struggle of Adolescent Boys-Modern Rules in an Ancient Game. More information can be found at http://www.adolescentmind.com or his nonprofit site at http://www.labyrinthcenter.org


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