Toward Supporting Adolescent Emotional Health

[This writing is my opinion, it is not meant to upset or judge anyone.]  Many times we (Americans) identify that a problem may exist with some aspect of our society, be it diet, emotional health, interpersonal communication, or whatever.  Then, some expert in the field proposes a fix to the problem, a fix that isn’t always known (through long experience) to resolve the problem and sometimes might even make matters worse.  I am a proponent of this:  when a problem is identified, look to cultures that don’t have that problem, and then find the attributes of that culture that prevent the problem.  This may sound obvious, but virtually no one does this.  Usually in the United States, someone proposes a solution based on a fact taken in isolation and extrapolated to the absurd.  Then, we sit back and wait to see if the situation improves (using those suffering from some ailment as Guinea pigs).  Ultimately, the situation becomes far worse for later generations.  One quick example of this:  arterial plaques are composed (in part) of cholesterol --> saturated fat contains cholesterol --> label cholesterol as a bad substance, restrict fat in the diet, and control cholesterol through medication.  Reality:  the arterial plaques are in fact healing patches that are repairing damage done by other factors, including oxidized vegetable oils (said to be good for our health).

Ok, so here is the issue:  many children in this country are not emotionally healthy.  I don’t think that anyone should have to defend that statement, but if you are not convinced, please be aware that 1 in 5 high school students have suicidal thoughts and that 1 in 10 actually make an attempt of their life.  Suicide is the third leading cause of death for American teens.  So, what should be done about this?  Medicate them?  Have them talk to psychiatrists?  These are standard American practices that respond (i.e., react) to the problem.  What is needed is pro-action.   What we need to do is examine cultures where well-adjusted and emotionally healthy teens are the norm, where teen suicide is virtually unknown.  Does such a culture exist?  Yes, lots of them.  Well, at least lots of them used to exist.

There has been an increased focus on studying the remaining hunter-gatherer children and young adults in the past few decades (a group traditionally ignored in anthropological studies).  The results of these studies have uncovered some very useful information.  Mood swings and identity crises, which are normal here in the United States, are uncommon in hunter-gatherer adolescents.  Suicide is non-existent in intact cultures.  So what is it that they do so differently?

Almost everything.  But let’s provide a few concrete examples (aside from diet).  Hunter-gatherer children are responded to almost immediately when they cry (i.e., parents and caregivers respond quickly and diligently).  No Ferber method of crying it out, a method that teaches your child that their communication is ineffective and that their caregivers aren’t responsive (therefore, why communicate at all and why trust your caregivers).  Hunter-gatherers also keep their children in close contact during the early years.  Physical connection is deemed very important.  In one tribe studied, 80% of the interactions with the child were physical (e.g., petting, holding), the other 20% were verbal.  The anthropologists then examined people living in a Massachusetts city for comparison:  20% of the parent’s interactions with children were physical, the other 80% were verbal.  This difference may have a huge effect on intimacy (both platonic and sexual) later in life, including our relationships to other-than-human persons.  Hunter-gatherer children even secure some of their own calories through, you guessed it, hunting and gathering.  Even though there was no expectation and no requirement for them to work, they still did so and brought in as much as 50% of their daily calories.  Now you must decide what you would rather your child do:  connect with nature or connect with the video screen.

We can’t all become hunter-gatherers—that’s not what I’m advocating.  The land base has been altered and fragmented too much.  However, we can understand that these “primitive” groups have much to teach us about diet and lifestyle (remember, we come from this lifestyle--we all have hunter-gatherer ancestors).  We can emulate their practices, including child rearing and rites of passage, to create healthy children.  Those healthy children can then go on to be successful members of our society—rather than strive to be cooperate parasites that further damage our world for their economic gain.  We can’t expect people who were born in captivity under the influence of various birthing drugs, raised in isolation from their parents, fed processed and synthetic food, and lived without nature connection to understand why a clean environment matters for anyone.  But we can expect this of children who were born naturally (i.e., without the obligate use of drugs), grew up with responsive parents, ate real food, and lived lives with abundant exposure to wild places.