The Teen Years: 6 Keys to Survive and Thrive
The other day, after fixing one of his broken toys all by himself, my four year old son exclaimed, "Mom, I did it! I'm soooooo smart!" I laughed and agreed with him that he was, in fact, very smart. Then I started to think about how I hoped he would always see himself the way I did. In an ideal world, he would keep that four year old confidence and boldness all through his life, but I know from working with teenagers for almost twenty years now that making it through those teen years and coming out the other side with self assuredness is easier said than done. I start to see the confidence dwindle in the kids I teach around the age of 10. They start to hide their light. They become more timid, more hesitant to answer questions and their gaze shifts toward the ground more. Then as they become teenagers they still struggle with lack of confidence, but they all try to hide it in various ways. They feel overwhelmed, misunderstood, scared to grow up, but also wanting to be grown up. They can be mean. They can be irrational. They can be exhausting, but they are hands down my favorite age. Am I insane? Possibly, but insane or not, I love them. There was a time that I felt so hopeless watching them descend into the abyss of teenage-doom, but then I realized that it wasn't all gloom and doom. These years are the years where they are primed to be molded and I realized that having an opportunity to have a hand in that molding process is a privilege. I've also always felt like a bit of a misfit myself and I was blessed to have people in my life that guided me and supported me through those difficult teenage years. Now I get to pay it forward with a job that allows me to build into the lives of teens daily. So I wanted to share six things that I have found to be keys to surviving and thriving for those of you lucky enough to have a teenager or multiple teenagers in your life.
1. Be Patient
The front part of the brain, called the prefrontal cortex, is one of the last brain regions to mature. It is the area responsible for planning, prioritizing and controlling impulses and doesn't finish maturing until we are in our late twenties, so even thought we may want them to think like an adult, the truth is that it is not scientifically possible. They are learning so many things about themselves and as much as you may want to rush the "maturing" process, it can't be rushed. So be patient with them as they learn and grow.
This is true for all human beings: Sometimes we just need someone to listen to us. No matter how irrational you may think they sound or how much you want to interject your own thoughts, opinions and solutions, practice just listening. All too often, adolescents are not heard, because adults “know best.” When they are not heard, they begin to resent or withdrawal. After a while, they stop trying to communicate all together and the relationship grows distant. It is also difficult to trust someone who will not even listen to you, but being heard is empowering. Believe it or not, I have learned a lot from taking the time to listen to teenagers.
Can teenagers be irrational? Absolutely! Am I asking you to play into their irrational thoughts and feelings? No, but whether rational or not, the fact is that they DO feel those feelings and just validating that you understand that they feel that way can go a long way. Often times they feel dismissed and misunderstood and someone saying, "I know you are feeling sad. I know you are feeling alone because you genuinely feel like no one likes you. I understand how those feelings can be totally overwhelming. How can I help?" can make a world of difference. You can and should steer them toward more rational, positive thoughts, but it's important to validate that their feelings are real.
4. Be Honest
You may not always have the answers and that's ok. The answer may be something that they don't want to hear, or maybe, the answer is something that you don't want to say. No matter the case, they need your honesty. I've found that teens are very perceptive and intuitive by nature. They know when an adult is being fake with them, but they will respond with whole hearted joy when they feel an adult is genuine and open with them. They don't need you to be perfect. They don't want you to be perfect. They want you to be real, honest and approachable. They are much more likely to be honest with you about the difficult things if they feel like you would do the same for them.
5. Lead By Example
You may swear that your teenager hates you, that you are the last person they would look to emulate, but I can assure you that they ARE looking to you to lead them. Parent, Coach, Teacher, Mentor: Whatever capacity you deal with teens in, they are looking to you as an example of how to “adult”. They are anxiously awaiting their turn at adulthood and you are showing them how an adult should behave. One example of this is body image. So many teens struggle with body image issues. They talk about how fat they are. They diet. They obsess over getting the right selfie. How are we teaching them to love their bodies? Are they hearing us talk about how we don't like our bodies? Do they hear us talk negatively about our appearance or others? We set the tone for them and any time we see them acting in a way we don't like, the first thing we need to do is check ourselves to make sure that's not a learned behavior from us. If it is, then go back to #4 and be honest with them. Tell them that you struggle with that as well and make a plan to be better together. You're not perfect and that's 100% ok, but as you make mistakes let them see you own them in an honest and healthy way. Then when they make mistakes they will feel much more at ease coming to you.
“Studies have shown that emotionally stressful situations impact the adolescent brain more than it would affect the adult brain: stress can have permanent effects on mental health and can to lead to higher risk of developing neuropsychiatric disorders such as depression.” -Frances E. Jensen, MD
With suicide rates at an all time high in teenagers, it's never been more important for them to feel like they are loved and supported. They may roll their eyes at you, but tell them you love them all the time. Tell them you support them. Stop referring to your adult life as "the real world". That makes them feel like you don't believe any of their problems or feelings are real. They feel an enormous amount of pressure and their lives can feel overwhelming and sometimes confusing so have their back even when it seems silly to you. Your support could make all the difference in the world.
The truth is that they can be a pain and the transition through teenager years into adulthood is like a bumpy rollercoaster filled with uncertainty and emotional highs and lows, but we are blessed to be a part of it. We are blessed to get to build into these young minds that hold the future in their hands. We have a responsibility to them to show up, to listen, to lead, to love and to support without judgement and if you really open your heart and mind, you might find, as I have, that they actually have a lot to teach us.