I grew up in the era of giants: adults of supreme confidence and unquestioned sovereignty.
The unbreakable network they represented put FB and social media to shame—eyes were everywhere and the idea that our behavior was being monitored and would be reported to the appropriate authorities* (*our parents) if need be was accepted as inevitable fact.
The upside of this was that we always felt safe; grown-ups were omnipresent witnesses, experts, protectors and champions. The downside, I realize in retrospect, is that a few of them had no idea what they were talking about much of the time and all of them were clueless at least some of the time.
What this means is that we were taught some lessons by the people we trusted the most that were blatantly untrue. It also means that many of us were told that our thoughts, feelings and experiences were “wrong” or “invalid” because we were “just kids”. That’s a difficult message to forget once learned and it also falsely implies that once we are grown-up ourselves we will “have all the answers”.
As someone who is officially a grown-up and then some, I can assure you without a doubt that it doesn’t work that way by a long shot.
As the world and how we relate to each other has evolved, this idea that parents, teachers and adults in general need to feign invincibility has definitely diminished. Most of us feel comfortable telling our children, students, co-workers, etc. “I don’t know the answer to that” when this is the case. When the stakes are not terribly high, we might go ahead and wing it, but generally with a disclaimer. The line between “those in charge” and “those who must listen to those in charge” has definitely softened and blurred over time.
This is a good thing, in my opinion; in vulnerability we are best able to collaborate with and even guide others. When we think we know it all, that doesn’t leave us much reason for growth or compromise. But the place where I think we are best served by our willingness to admit our ignorance and even our struggles is in our relationships with children and young people.
Most kids today are not under the sole influence of their parents and other chosen guardians for very long; access to the internet and 200 + channels on cable TV have made it very difficult to be in complete control of their input, especially as they get older.
Also, the access kids have to each other now is unparalleled, and communication and sharing is happening at lightning speed. How do we monitor keep up with all of the variables that contribute to our children’s mindset and well-being (or lack thereof?)
Open lines of communication between kids and their adult influencers is critical to maintaining a sense of security for both; these relationships need to be a safe space. That doesn’t mean there is no place for discipline, restrictions and consequences—in fact, all of these things, when judiciously administered ADD to a sense of safety for young people.
Rules, boundaries and structure can be very comforting in an otherwise extremely confusing time of life.
However, the key to creating a healthy environment where anyone who is seeking mentoring or counsel can feel comfortable in sharing thoughts and experiences that are disorienting and undermining to a stable sense of self is VALIDATION. Often all we need to hear are the words “You are okay.”
This is different from “It’s going to be okay”; the latter can feel like a dismissal.
Studies have repeatedly confirmed that the teenage brain is very different from that of an adult and that their tendency to “overreact” is a natural part of this incomplete wiring. Sure, we as “grown-ups” know that much of what they view as a five-alarm fire is actually a tempest-in-a-teapot, but diminishing how they feel (and can’t help feeling) is going to alienate them even further.
I can remember as a teen sobbing my eyes out over the death of a beloved TV character and my Mom holding me while I cried without judgment; her ability to comfort me over something “silly” increased my trust that she would support me with things that really mattered.
Just because we understand through the wisdom of experience that many of the “crises” of teenaged life are ultimately inconsequential does not mean that how these kids are feeling about it NOW doesn’t matter. To them, it can feel like the whole world hinges on the successful resolution of whatever challenge they are facing. And in some cases it does. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people ages 10-24.
It is crucial that we recognize that in order to be the support our children need we have to be able to look into their eyes and say things like “You matter,” “How you are feeling is important,” “How can I help you?” and perhaps most importantly, “I don’t know what to do either, but I will leave no stone unturned until we figure it out.”
We need to be vulnerable enough to admit our ignorance and resourceful enough to be a strong support system in spite of it.
Not only do I know absolutely NO ONE who has ever expressed a desire to be a teenager again, whenever the topic of those years comes up the one consistent refrain I hear over and over is how much HARDER it is on kids today than ever before. This thanks to the “fishbowl” provided by the internet; at least people of my generation were able to suffer our indignities and humiliations in relative privacy. We cannot underestimate how excruciating it must be to have your perceived flaws and screw-ups broadcast to your peer group at the speed of light.
Even the teenager with the healthiest self-esteem will not be immune to the effects of group shaming; as adults, we have to be vigilant to make sure we are not part of the problem. Walk it off and you’ll get over it are relics of a very different time. We do not enable weakness by validating a teen’s distress; conversely, we reinforce confidence.
Confidence that we take them seriously as people and their feelings are important—two of the so many more than #13ReasonsYouBelong.
As adults, we can no longer pretend to be giants—invincible, unfailing and all-knowing. The most important aspect of our own vulnerability is that it teaches young people that this is not a bad quality.
Life is not about developing a suit of armor that protects us from all potential harm; it is about opening ourselves up with the understanding that our value is intrinsic and immutable. This is what we need to teach our children and this is what we need to learn.
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