I Believe In The Power Of Teenage Outrage

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Like the rest of the country, I’ve been following Emma Gonzalez and the other Parkland, FL high school kids. These teenagers, though still staggering around in stupefying grief after losing their friends to gun violence, mobilized #neveragain, a substantive movement targeting the NRA. Their audacity is pure and uncynical. These kids mean business. 

For the first time in too many months, I feel a palpable sense of hope for our future.

This movement has galvanized us here in the States as well as around the globe in just a few short weeks, a mind-boggling pace. Some of the swiftness of the movement makes perfect sense. These teens are internet-savvy, having marinated in social technology platforms since they were teething. They are uniquely poised, as the most recent victims of a mass shooting, to speak to the disaster that is our nation’s gun policy situation. But beyond all of the conditions that teed up this moment in history, the most powerful tool these teens have in their quiver is their unfiltered, righteous outrage.

They’ve been watching from the wings and have seen the anemic, nonsensical ways adults dealt with the unspeakable tragedies at Sandy Hook, The Pulse, Las Vegas, and the countless other public acts of violence at the hands of easy-access weapons and the most ruthless and expensive legislative lobbying operation in the world. And they’re TEENAGERS. But of course they are. 

Teens don’t know a lot about limits or boundaries, so they perform exhaustive tests and inquiries. This is how kids learn, how they locate themselves in larger systems (like families and schools and friendships). Parents often find themselves unwittingly involved in these experiments and worry that their child has strayed from the values of the family. They don’t recognize this testy Other, this exotic and irritable creature.

A parent typically responds to these tests based on messages from their own upbringing; defenses slide into place, tensions mount. Still, this push-pull is vital to growing up: it’s the main ingredient of individuation, the process of forming a stable personality. And it’s what brings many parents of teenagers into my psychotherapy office. I hear their fear and frustration about their children. I see the tears and the struggle to comprehend. Who is this kid? Why are they acting like this? We’ve done everything for them… how can they treat us this way? Parents feel helpless and embarrassed that they don’t have control over their teen. They fret about the amount of time their kid is hidden away in her bedroom (not to mention all of the science experiments taking place in old cocoa mugs under the bed). They miss seeing their kid, miss being included on details. They worry that their child is lost.

But the whole point of this experiment is to impose distance between parent and child, a way for the kid to discover what is meaningful to her – despite what her parents think. Teens fight for this right to discovery. They get snarly and pissed and don’t respect boundaries. This is human passion compressed into an awkward, budding frame. It’s magical and beautiful and deserves to be heard and celebrated.

We herald the passionate voices of the #neveragain movement – the voices of teenagers who are in deep shock and confusion. To them, we can look to find evidence of the strength and talent in all of our kids.

KB

 

 

 

Secure Your Mask First: Why Parents of Teens Need to Put Self-Care on the Family Calendar

By Kristin Beck

One would think that all adults would be experts on teens, confidently dispatching advice, tenderly understanding the rough days. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that we were there. And yet, we wander blindly along with our children into adolescence, unaware of the tests ahead. When the chaos hits (and it will; adolescent hormones will make sure of it), you’ll reach into your quiver expecting to land a bullseye, only to discover there are no arrows. What you’ll find instead is a deflated bag of unprocessed injuries, confusion, good intentions, and maybe an empty Snickers bar wrapper.

Teens are raging, awkward, hormonal, fumbling, permanently embarrassed, hilarious, beautiful monsters. They save their worst for family time, when they let down their guard and dispense with the courtesies they’ve afforded the real world. We ache to help them navigate this time in their lives, only to be reminded that we “don’t get it.” Or worse, that we never got it, that we're failures at life. Meanwhile, we’re inevitably dragging around baggage from our own treacherous teenage years.

It’s a tough ride for everyone.

You talk to other parents of teens, who offer kind solidarity. But just knowing that others are suffering as well isn’t enough to steady you for the rollercoaster ride. So what is a parent to do?

Recall the safety instructions flight attendants review upon takeoff: “If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask first, and then assist the other person.” Why? Because you can’t help anyone else breathe if you, yourself, can’t breathe. The same goes for parenting teenagers. Containing the maelstrom that families find themselves in during the teen years requires patience, compassion, and strength. If we as parents are bogged down by crappy self-talk, bitterness, or rigidity, we will not be on our game enough to properly administer the support our kids need. We need to strap on that mask and breathe deeply before engaging.

The oxygen mask as a metaphor translates as, simply, self-care. What is self-care? It could mean daily walks, or regular check-ins with trusted allies. Prioritizing sleep (however difficult a task that can be) keeps you grounded. Taking the time to journal your way through the intensity of the teen years is useful – and has the added benefit of providing you with a record of the triumphs, for you to return to and celebrate, and the bummers, for you to later unpack if needed. Working with a psychotherapist and talking it out helps. Compassionately asking the difficult questions of yourself – and trying to love yourself through the answers – is a great form of self-care.

Imagine what you’ll be modeling for your kid when you bravely fight to take care of yourself. However you go about it, do it regularly, and do it humbly. Your teen might not notice the difference, but you will. And the next time you catch a violent eye roll or a groan of disgust, it won’t be so destabilizing.

 

 

 

 

 

You Don't Know What It's Like (And That's Okay): Talking with Teens

By Jennifer Reisberg

A very useful thing I’ve learned as a therapist working with teenagers is that they don’t want you to pretend that you know what they’re going through, because frankly, you don’t. Even if you’re not pretending and feel certain that you do know exactly what your teenager is going through, chances are, you don’t. Think you know what your teen’s experience of depression is like because you were depressed when you were a teenager? For better or worse, you don’t. You weren’t 16 years old in 2016. You didn’t occupy the same social spaces that they occupy. You haven’t had all of the same thoughts that they’ve had. You don’t have the same particular constellation of personality traits that they have. And neither do I. But fear not! Here’s the good part: they don’t expect you to already know what it’s like, or even want you to.

One of the biggest mistakes that therapists make (and I’m most certainly no exception) is going into a situation as though they already know the whole story, and therefore aren’t open to hearing a different ending. For instance, if I learn that one of my clients has been struggling in school, and I go into the session assuming that I’ve figured out what’s going on and how to fix it, I won’t be open to learning something new. I will have shut down a myriad of other possibilities in favor of the one I’m familiar with. Aside from being an ineffective catalyst for change and progress, it also sends a dangerous message that my mind is already made up – what’s actually going on in the client’s life isn’t of any particular importance to me. Why would anyone, teenaged or otherwise, feel comfortable really opening up to someone who comes in with all of the answers? Add in the hyper-self-consciousness of adolescence and you have a recipe for alienation.

So, what can you do in the face of all of this unknowing? First, be honest and transparent, with discretion. There have been times when my clients have brought up things that I know nothing about. If I respond with, “I don’t really know what you’re talking about. What is that?” they respond a lot better than if I were to pretend to have the subject (and, by extension, my clients) all figured out. If I level with them and let them know that I don’t already know the whole story, I can invite them to tell it and communicate to them that I’m all ears.

I also ask lots of questions. Curiosity is absolutely key. Sometimes I’ll preface my questions with something like, “I’m asking this because I’m trying to get a better sense of [insert the topic at hand].” We often perceive and portray teenagers as bumbling idiots (and don’t get me wrong – they sometimes are, just like the rest of us), but they are undoubtedly experts in one arena: their own experience. No one knows what their lives are like better than they do. When you enter a conversation with a teenager from a place of open curiosity and a genuine desire to get a better picture of what it is that they’re going through, they’re much more likely to let you into their world.

If you really have a hunch that you might be onto something or that you can relate in a valuable way, always check in and see if it fits. I say things like, “I think I might have some idea of what you’re talking about. Is it like this…?” or, “Okay, let me know if I’m wrong, but do you mean…?” This shows the person sitting across from you that you’re actively involved in the conversation and are trying to relate it to your experience in a way that doesn’t overshadow their experience. Checking in to see whether or not you’re on the right track also shows that you respect the other person enough to want to make sure that you’re both on the same page.

This leads me to my next point, which I’ve found to be very important: give teenagers space to correct you, or to reject your interpretations all together. If you throw something out there and it doesn’t quite land, your teenager should feel comfortable letting you know, and then helping you to come to a better understanding. You can do this by leaving room for a different description or interpretation. It’s ideally built into the statements you make and questions you ask when you’re checking in. This step can also require a significant amount of patience, flexibility, and humility. It’s not easy to be challenged, and matters aren’t necessarily made easier when the person doing the challenging is 14years-old. But it’s worth it if you can ultimately come to a better understanding of your teen.

Make it obvious that your understanding is based on what they’ve shared with you of their experience. If your teenager has just opened up to you and described what something was like for her, she might feel like she’s been talking to a brick wall if you reflect something back to her that wasn’t rooted in what she was talking about. It’s fine to add other thoughts to the conversation, but it’s important for the person you’ve been talking with to feel sure that you’ve been listening to them and take what they have to say seriously.

I hope it’s obvious by this point that these ideas also apply to parenting and other situations where you’re living or working closely with a teenager. In fact, these steps can be considered as good practice regardless of the age of the person with whom you’re in conversation. Just bear in mind that, as with so many other areas during that tumultuous period of life, a teen’s sense of being misunderstood tends to be heightened, as is their need to feel heard. As I’ve mentioned, a considerable amount of honesty, curiosity, flexibility, and patience go into really getting a better understanding of where your teenager (client, child, student, or otherwise) is coming from. This investment, though, can offer rich returns.