Monday, September 11, 2023

Six Wrong Assumptions We Make About Teenagers (That Make Their Problems Worse)

Student wellbeing activist David Magee says we can’t help our children cope with the multiple crises they face until we realize our “wisdom” comes from a world that bears little resemblance to theirs.


           Oxford, MS (September 2023)—It’s no secret our young people are in trouble. The challenges they face are brutal: a substance misuse epidemic; mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and eating disorders; social media overload; intense academic pressures; and (let’s face it) an incredibly uncertain future. With addiction and overdoses on the rise, and a spike in suicidal thinking by teenage girls, parents are desperate for answers.

           Unfortunately, says student wellbeing activist David Magee, we tend to make assumptions about our children’s lives that are flat out wrong—and that leads us to behave in ways that are not helpful.

           “Life for today’s teens bears little resemblance to our own teenage experience,” asserts Magee, a student wellbeing activist and author of the book Things Have Changed: What Every Parent (and Educator) Should Know About the Student Mental Health and Substance Misuse Crisis (Matt Holt, August 2023, ISBN: 978-1-6377439-6-6, $22.00). “There’s always been a divide between parents and children, but now the gap is wider and more precarious than ever. This leads us to misdiagnose the issues—and our wrong assumptions can make things worse.”

           Magee is no doomsayer. Despite his own personal tragedies—he lost his son William to an accidental drug overdose, a story he shares in his award-winning book Dear William: A Father’s Memoir of Addiction, Recovery, Love, and Loss—he believes there is hope for creating mentally healthy children, even in chaotic times. 

            He insists, though, that it will take parents, educators, and communities working together to solve the complex knot of problems our young people face. This is why he created the William Magee Institute for Student Wellbeing, which seeks to understand how best to prevent or break the cycle of unhealthy habits and addictions that plague so many college students at the University of Mississippi, and the William Magee Center for AOD and Wellness Education.

          The first step for parents, says Magee, is to challenge your assumptions. For example:


ASSUMPTION: I know what my teen’s life is like.

REALITY: You don’t. Today’s young people are exposed to alcohol and drugs at an early age. They’ve consumed far too much social media. Their traditional support networks have been dismantled. They face stress and loneliness. As parents, we really can’t relate, however much we want to. “It’s not that the older generations didn’t have problems,” says Magee. “We did. But they were very different problems. Our life experience doesn’t equip us to solve theirs.”


ASSUMPTION: I figured it out. So will my child.

REALITY: “We give teenagers far too much credit,” says Magee. “We assume they can handle all the unprecedented pressures today’s world throws at them—high expectations around performance, full access to social media, unfettered freedom that can lead them into making the wrong choices. It’s all too much for them to handle. We need to be deeply engaged in their lives and constantly communicating with them.”


ASSUMPTION: My teen seems happy, so everything must be okay.

REALITY: “Our children desperately need our help, and it is urgent,” says Magee. “Even if they smile and tell us they’re fine, the truth is they are not okay. This is not someone else’s problem. Even ‘nice’ or ‘strong’ families, whatever that means, are no match for this tsunami.”


ASSUMPTION: A lot of the issues young people face are due to the pandemic.

REALITY: “While the pandemic certainly didn’t help, we saw the substance misuse and mental health crisis trends long before then,” says Magee. “Even as life becomes more ‘normal,’ we’re far from out of the woods.”


ASSUMPTION: If I yell long and loud enough, my child will eventually hear me.

REALITY: First, yelling and preaching don’t work. Ever. Good communication does. That means broaching conversations that make you uncomfortable, asking open-ended questions, and doing a lot less telling and a lot more listening. (NOTE: To learn how to get through to a teenager, click here.)


ASSUMPTION: Adults have all the answers.

REALITY: Peer-to-peer education works best, says Magee. Education and storytelling are the magic mix. That’s why his work with the University of Mississippi includes training students to use storytelling to help college, high school, and middle school students cultivate joy, promote mental wellness, and increase social connections. “Of course parents have their place,” he says. “But students get students on drugs, and students get students off drugs. That’s just the reality.”


           The problems young people face are so complex and overwhelming that we’re still figuring out the best approaches to solve them. But—for sure—our starting point must be the realization that everything has changed.

          “Young people are incredibly resilient, but they can’t be expected to handle the pressure cooker of today’s world on their own,” says Magee. “We owe it to them to educate ourselves, advocate for our children, and empower them to ask for help when they need it. And we need to give them the tools they need for wellbeing, like sleep, exercise, and a solid foundation of faith.

           “Understanding the world our teens live in takes a lot of time, effort, and commitment,” he adds. “But they are more than worth it.” 

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About David Magee:

David Magee is the best-selling author of Things Have Changed: What Every Parent (and Educator) Should Know About the Student Mental Health and Substance Misuse Crisis and Dear William: A Father’s Memoir of Addiction, Recovery, Love, and Loss—a Publisher’s Weekly bestseller, named a Best Book of the South, and featured on CBS Mornings—and other nonfiction books. A changemaker in student and family mental health and substance misuse, he’s a creator of the William Magee Institute for Student Wellbeing at the University of Mississippi and a frequent K–12 and university educational and motivational speaker, helping students and parents find and keep their joy. Learn more at



About the Book:

Things Have Changed: What Every Parent (and Educator) Should Know About the Student Mental Health and Substance Misuse Crisis (Matt Holt, August 2023, ISBN: 978-1-6377439-6-6, $22.00) is available at bookstores nationwide and from major online booksellers.

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