Teen Mental Health

3 Birchrock campers smiling on the dock

What do you think about independence for children? And have you tuned in yet to the Japanese reality TV show Old Enough!? A hit show for three decades in Japan, it’s new to Netflix and American viewers. The premise is shocking here in the US—tiny Japanese children run errands all alone for their parents on the streets of Japanese towns (followed by a film crew, of course). The preschoolers manage to bring groceries home to parents proud of their precocious independence.

American pundits are having a field day with this parenting lollapalooza. What is unthinkable (and perhaps actionable by child protective services) for American moms and dads is desirable in Japan and for that matter, many societies around the globe. So once again, American parenting norms and the impact on our children is up for debate. Our young people’s independence, or lack thereof, is again facing scrutiny, particularly in the context of mental health.

Chances are you’ve seen the recent distressing headlines: American children and teenagers are facing a mental health catastrophe. According to a new CDC study, from 2009 to 2021 the number of high school students who experienced “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” rose from 26 percent to 44 percent. While this trend wasn’t caused by the pandemic, COVID has undeniably exacerbated mental health problems for our young people.

In an April 2022 article entitled “Why American Teens Are So Sad” in The Atlantic, Derek Thompson identifies four factors behind this state of affairs. He cites social media, loneliness, and the tsunami of terrifying news as drivers of sadness in young people. Finally, in the past few decades American teens have grown markedly less independent. Parents have doubled the amount of time they spend ostensibly helping their teenagers by coaching, tutoring, chauffeuring and so on. Thompson concludes that anxious moms and dads, clinging ever more tightly, have limited their kids’ freedom and magnified their anxiety.

What can be done to protect kids’ mental health? Savvy parents favor an old-fashioned approach—sending them into the woods! The best traditional boys camps like Birch Rock provide a tried-and-true antidote to emotional malaise. Character-building summer camps exist to guide kids toward independence and self-esteem. Time away from parental micromanaging frees a child for self-mastery and pride. As a Birch Rocker adjusts to radically novel things—sleeping in a cabin with new boys, eating unfamiliar food, learning challenging activities, heading out on wilderness trips—he learns how to tolerate discomfort bit by bit, summer after summer. In building this tolerance, the camper develops emotional regulation, the holy grail of growing up.

Understandably, parents long to protect their child from unhappiness, discouragement and failure. But if the ultimate goal is to prepare him to fly the nest, we have to let him spread his wings and venture away. That means letting him learn from mistakes, grapple with anxiety, accept responsibility for himself, and experience freedom from parental oversight. Birch Rock is dedicated to nurturing a boy’s emotional growth, and helping him grow in optimism and confidence.

By Francie Campbell

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