My daughter is turning 18 in less than a month. She’s been accepted to a college and can’t wait to start making more decisions for herself and living her own life. I remember when she started Middle School at the ripe old age of 12. I told her, “Middle School sucks for everyone. Nobody knows what they’re doing and many teenagers are cruel. It sucked for me. You just have to figure out how to be successful in school over the next two years so you can go on to high school and then leave there with as many choices as you can have when you graduate. ”
I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s had such a talk with their teen child.
What kind of message is that? I thought I was protecting her, but I really was setting up an awful expectation.
In the US children are precious and must be protected. Adults have civil rights and enjoy the full protection of the law. What about the time of life in between? If you ask most adults to characterize teenhood or adolescence, they’ll likely tell you that it’s awkward, frustrating and confusing. We tell twelve year olds the same thing, and they enter this phase of their lives with dread and an expectation of suffering and struggle.
Why are we surprised when they stop telling us that they’re having problems? Most of their decisions are seen as having enormous impact on their futures. Every grade they earn, person they date, sports team they make, club they decide to join feels like a life changing event.
Many adults, when asked about what they were like as a teenager, wince and say something like, “Oh God, I was a mess. I had no idea what I was doing. I was awkward and didn’t have a girl/boyfriend and I wouldn’t go back to that time in my life for anything!” We just seem to exclaim, “Whew!” and then start living our lives in a post-adolescent world and try to ignore or not deal with all the important events that shaped us during that time. A.S. King described adolescence as a kind of “hazing” that has to be survived, and I think that’s tragically accurate. As with any type of hazing, those going through the process do so in isolation and are expected to prove themselves by surviving horrible conditions. That’s what our teens and young adults go through every day. This unavoidable lonely struggle is a great myth that is reflected in our Young Adult literature which more often than not, features parents and other adults as mere background figures who have little influence the teen characters’ lives.
There’s a catch 22 here that leads to much more suffering than is necessary. Teens enter adolescence knowing that suffering and unhappiness is inevitable. When they encounter difficulty they think that it’s nothing exceptional and is just what is to be expected, so they don’t even report it. It’s not newsworthy. It happens to everyone. As adults (parents, teachers, family members, or potential allies), we let ourselves off the hook at the same time. If the suffering is unavoidable, what can we do about it? We can help them to get help once they’re adults.
Adolescence shouldn’t be equated with suffering. Yes, it’s a time of growth and change and of figuring out your identity and where you fit in the world, but I feel like my whole life could be described that way! We need to rethink our cultural view of teen development and not view it as an inevitable and “untreatable” disease or stage that must be merely survived and give our teens hope that they can thrive through their teen years on their way to becoming amazing adults.
My two sons are entering this stage in their lives. I will tell them something very different from what I told my daughter. Being a teen is exciting and can be confusing. It’s a time to be patient with yourself and with your peers as you learn how to make your way through school and to your first steps into adulthood. No mistake you make will ruin your life forever. I will be here to listen and to help you as much as I can. If you have a problem, we can work it out together and get help when you need it. You are a fantastic person and are only getting better.