Our children are getting sicker. In 2001 a group of experts on child development and health surveyed the state of America's children. The results were frightening: One of every four adolescents in the U.S. is at serious risk of not achieving productive adulthood. According to the study, 21 percent of children aged nine to 17 had a diagnosable mental or addictive disorder; 20 percent of students reported having seriously considered suicide in the past year. The report concluded that this generation of young people is more likely to be depressed and anxious than its parents' generation was.
The report by the Commission on Children at Risk, 2003, called Hardwired to Connect, was cosponsored by the YMCA, Dartmouth Medical School, and the Institute for American values. The Commission for Children at Risk is a panel of 33 doctors, neuroscientists, researchers and youth services professionals.
The report found rising rates of depression, anxiety, attention deficit and conduct disorders, suicide and other serious mental, emotional or behavioral problems among children and adolescents. Since the 1950s, death rates from disease or injury have fallen by about 50 percent among youth -- while the homicide rates rose by more than 130 percent. Suicide rates rose by nearly 140 percent. Suicide is now the third leading cause of death among young people in the United States.
While medicine -- antidepressants, anti-anxiety meds, and other such -- is improving, the report found that we have a bias against recognizing that parts of the problems are caused by society and parenting itself.
The report looked at the latest findings from neuroscience and accepts the idea that we are biologically primed to connect with other people. But how we connect with them makes all the difference. Our brains are designed to develop in response to communication with another brain in a process called limbic resonance. This relationship, this limbic resonance, can facilitate growth development and health. But it can thwart it, too, twisting development and pushing the child down a path of lifelong pain, psychiatric disorder, and isolation.
Although oxytocin researchers are leery of applying their findings to humans, the commission had no such fear. The report makes the case for the role of oxytocin and vasopressin in bonding. It describes the way neurochemicals including dopamine, prolactin, endogenous opioid peptides, as well as estrogen, testosterone and progesterone, help trigger parental care, which in turn helps to trigger the release of more attachment hormones, in a virtuous circle that creates the bond we know as love.
The report says, "The human child is talked into talking and loved into loving." It points out that the drive for connection with other people can help guide a child's willingness to behave in response to the parents' wishes.
Steve Suomi of the National Institutes of Health did studies of rhesus monkeys showing that the inherited risks of anxiety, aggression, impulsivity, and alcohol usage could be mitigated by a family environment. On the other hand, a negative family environment can trigger a kid's potential for depression, violence or substance abuse into active behavior.
At adolescence there's another period of brain growth maturation and remodeling which will extend into the third decade of life. At this time of change and transition, there's increased risk-taking and novelty seeking, while friends become more important than the family. There are alterations in levels of activity of the neurotransmitter dopamine in parts of the adolescent brain, which can lead to what the report calls a reward deficiency. While traditional culture cultures mobilize to define and help adolescents accept social standards of sexuality and strength, shaping them to grow in ways that will be pro-social, our culture has lost that. We have no rites of passage or rituals to guide and fortify children as they pass into adolescence and adulthood.
It's up to parents to clean up their own issues and take responsibility for helping shape their kids' brains and their lives, helping them succeed not only at sports and academics, but at loving.