Relating to kids about individual resiliency in a cyber-pressured world

Monday, June 25th, 2012

Adam Johns, featured in his La Crosse uniform, Granite Bay, Ca.

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By the time Adam Johns turned 18 years old, he was a well-liked, affable young man whose adolescent and childhood challenges developed for him into an inescapable, hopeless future. He became locked-in to a belief, an all consuming logic that drove him to take his own life in May 2011.

According to Adam’s mother, Deborah Johns, in hindsight there was a perfect storm brewing for Adam whose childhood circumstances and the pressures of being a kid today made it feel like there could be no future for which to live.

Adam was the youngest of three (he is survived by two brothers Benjamin and William), and according to Johns, he had a genius level IQ and was incredibly sensitive and insightful beyond his years.

“He spoke two foreign languages, Japanese, Spanish; and in the fifth grade he was doing ninth grade math,” Johns said.

Andrea Barrett and Noor Abasi, Granite Bay High School seniors prepare for the Walk to Make Difference for youth.

Walk to Make A Difference

Nine months after Adam’s suicide, another 18-year-old, Jeff Fehr, of Granite Bay took his life. By most accounts he was a well-liked high school student, but like Adam his perception of the future was inconceivably hopelessness.  He was openly gay and had been bullied as a younger child.

On April 17, the students at Granite Bay High School organized a “Walk to Make a Difference” for youth issues in response to two youth suicides in less than one year.

The event was organized by Andrea Barrett and Noor Abasi, co-founders of the Angels and Doves local chapter at the high school that promotes anti-bullying messages.

According to Barrett and Abasi bullying has become too common making it difficult for peers to support one another with other youth issues. “People on campus can be very mean,” Abasi said, as she described some of the ways students are using Twitter and texting to gang up on individuals making the campus a very hostile and unfriendly place at times.

17-year-old Michael Berry took his life in 2008 in response to relentless cyberbullying.

Lisa Ford-Berry, founder of B.R.A.V.E. Society, a Carmichael, Ca. non-profit dedicated to peer abuse prevention and education, also attended the event. She wants parents to know that peer abuse is serious business today. Her son Michael Berry took his own life in 2008 on his 18th birthday. “Someone found out he was saving himself for marriage and started a rumor that he was gay,” Ford-Berry said, adding that the feeling of isolation can feel un-survivable.

 “The counselors and administrators at school did not respond to his requests for help,” Ford-Berry said. “He was well liked, a good student and came from a solid family.” Ford-Berry  and her husband Robert Berry have been married 23 years; Michael is also survived by his brother Robert.

“When pushed hard enough, people can break,” Ford-Berry said, “The things they were saying about him were so humiliating, all consuming and relentless, he could not bring this issue to me and his Dad; and we talked about everything. He must have felt so alone. He shielded me from it and sought help from school administration to no avail. I had no clue until it was too late.”

Lisa Ford-Berry (Photo: courtesy)

More “hyped” life stressors have bullying impact 

Dr. Dennis Harding, Upper Cervical Specialist, Auburn, Ca.

Compounding the peer abuse intensified by cyber communications is the overall stress for academics and performance during high school.

The stressors of our youth today are what Dr. Dennis Harding, an upper cervical specialist in Auburn, Ca., refers to as the “backpacks” our children carry which strain the endocrine system. Harding sees increasingly more adolescents suffering from anxiety, panic attacks, and sleeplessness because children are pushed to the brink,  forcing the atlas bone and spine out of alignment thus compromising support to the endocrine system.

While teen stress over grades is not new, the level of hyperbole over performing  academically to get into top universities, to excel in sports and other extra curricular activities is a modern phenomenon.

To this end, recent surveys of seniors and freshman at Granite Bay High reveal a common theme of unrest described in documentary film critiquing the current United States education culture: Race to Nowhere. (See 2011 Spring edition of Banana Moments).

Managing expectation gaps

I have found through personal experience and working with youth and community leaders on substance abuse prevention over the past five years, that children are more critical of themselves than we realize.

Conversations and events with youth, and comparing to my own personal experience as a teenager and a mom, it is clear to me that by the time they are in their teen years parents can become simply “sets of expectations” rather than as a trusted resource. And the larger the gap between the expectations that children perceive parents have and their results and/or their own desires, the greater the stressor.

This fear of disappointing parents and dealing with the issues of finding acceptance in peer communities can be overwhelming.

 “Whether it is meant this way or not, it feels like whatever you do or fail to do in high school determines the rest of your life,” said one class of 2010 Granite Bay senior who further explained that binge drinking and ecstasy are huge releases. “Students work hard and party hard,” declared this same teen.

This “you bet the farm mentality” according to performance if not balanced opens the door to myopic perspectives that lead to anxiety, depression and hopelessness witnessed by professionals like Dr. Harding and other psychologists and counselors.

Recent surveys of teenagers in my community revealed that the academic pressure, combined with fears about the future because of a weak economy and a belief that having a secure future rests solely on where they attend college is fueling an undercurrent of frustration, fear and for some hopelessness.

Adam’s mother Deborah Johns, a single mother who still receives regular visits from his friends, wants parents to know that the pressures our children feel today are so intense and our lifestyles give little opportunity to decompress. “It’s not a single parent problem, as some have suggested,” Johns said, “We all need to find a way to give our kids a break, find the downtime; ask your teens what they need from you. And be open to the possibility that you may be under or over involved.”

Deborah Johns, who lost her son Adam to suicide in May 2011, attended the Walk to Make a Difference for youth.

Johns also encourages parents to be aware of what pressures we place on our children because of our own fears; our fears for their future.  “Most of the time kids know what they are supposed to do, and if they are not doing it, there is an opportunity to get to know your child,” Johns said. “Sometimes not doing something you are supposed to do is a way of asserting control when you feel hopeless or oppressed.”

More on youth stressors and what youth say they need from parents and educators

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About Joanna Jullien

Joanna Jullien

Joanna ( and her husband have raised two sons in Roseville, CA. She has a degree from U.C. Berkeley in Social Anthropology (corporate culture). Her honors thesis was awarded the Kroeber Prize and funding from National Science Foundation grant. Joanna writes to help parents with the modern-day leadership challenges of raising children. She is a contributing writer for The Granite Bay View, the Press Tribune, the Sacramento Examiner, and editor of Banana Moments.