Lots, actually. The most current research paints a picture of the risks that teenagers deal with, including family issues, physical and mental health concerns, and developmental factors that underscore how important mature, steady adults like youth workers are to help provide direction, encouragement and stability in their lives. Here are some of the issues:

Young people are experiencing family breakdown. According to contemporary statistics, 51% of first marriages in 2006 ended in divorce, and 50% of all divorces involve children under 18. In 2007, 22% of all families with children under 15 years old were one-parent families. This has increased substantially over the last two decades. One in five children less than 15 years old live in one-parent families, the vast majority of which are headed by mothers. What all this means is that huge numbers of young people are coping with switching locations, switching from one parental world view to another, managing conflicting values and divided loyalties.

Young people’s physical health is deteriorating. The American Pediatric Association reports that around one in four 15-19 year olds are either overweight or obese, and notes a significant increase in these rates since 1995. America is among the top countries with the highest rates of type 1 diabetes among children. According to the 2004-2005 national health survey, over 60% of 15-18 year olds did not meet daily fruit consumption guidelines, and only 16% ate enough vegetables! Only half the 15-24 year olds surveyed participated in levels of physical activity recommended in national guidelines to provide a health benefit.

Young people are engaging in risky behavior. The 2007 SAMHSA survey reported that one in five males aged 15-24 engaged in binge drinking at least once a week – double the rates for those older than 25. The rate for females was lower, but was three times the rate for females over 25. Just fewer than one in five 15-24 year olds have used marijuana, one in ten have used ecstasy, and 1 in 20 have used heroin.

Young people have mental health problems. The 2004 APA found that 20% of young women and 12% of young men reported high to very high levels of psychological distress. The same survey revealed that mental and behavioral problems were reported by one in five Americans aged 15-19 in 2004-2005. Suicide is a leading cause of death among young people, second only to fatalities from motor vehicle accidents. Rates among 15-24 year old males have tripled between 1960 and 1990. Young males in remote and rural America are twice as likely to take their own lives as compared with males living in urban settings. Studies have found that between 22.5% and 49% of teenagers have thoughts of suicide at some time. Hospitalization rates for self-harm have increased by a third for females aged 13-19.

Young people have poor self-image. NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) reported that body image is the number one issue of concern for 11-24 year olds. Family conflict was the next top concern, and coping with stress came third. National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) report that 1 in 100 adolescent girls will develop anorexia and, though official rates of bulimia across the population are around 5%, the true incidence among students is thought to be as high as one in five. The organization reports eating disorders among boys are also on the rise.

All of these difficulties are perhaps not surprising, given what we’re discovering about adolescent brain development. The sort of physical changes that occur in the brain during adolescence rivals the magnitude of change that occurs in the first two years of life! During adolescence, the extensions of neurons in the frontal cortex of the brain continue to be coated with a fatty substance that speeds electrical brain signals, continuing their increased capacity for processing information and making decisions. There’s an increase in what’s called “synaptic density” in early adolescence, followed by “synaptic pruning” after puberty, all of which are meant to improve organization of thoughts, language mastery, abstract thought and hypothetical if-then thinking.

All this sounds good. On the other hand, researchers have noted an increase in grey matter in the frontal lobe during pre-adolescence, peaking around the onset of puberty, which then declines in post-adolescence. This correlates with difficulties with self-control, emotional regulation and executive functioning (controlling and coordinating thoughts and behavior). Adolescents display higher activity than adults in the central part of the brain that’s responsible for “gut reactions” (the limbic region) which results in emotional and behavioral responses being essentially unmediated by judgment and reasoning (Kelly Schwartz (2008), ‘Adolescent Brain Development: An oxymoron no longer (Spring), p.85-93).

Add all this to the usual issues of puberty, peer pressure, homework, parental pressures, self-imposed pressures and cleaning up your room … it’s a miracle that teenagers make it through the day! In fact, many of them wouldn’t without your presence.

The work we do is of the utmost importance to our kids, their parents, and ultimately, to our God. It’s a transcendent work. It’s kingdom work and I wouldn’t trade it for all the gold on the earth.

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