Loving Your Teens: Start with Understanding
In the old, old days, teenagers were sent out into the wilderness to discover their own meaning in the world, or were already expected to take on the role of an adult. In times when the average lifespan was 40 years, most teenagers were expected to be parents.
So, what exactly is going on for our teens today? And for those of you with younger children, how can you prepare ahead for the teen years?
Teenagers, in addition to the hormone-inspired emotional turbulence, are seeing the big picture of everything that’s not quite right in the world, and feeling it very personally. They are recognizing that we adults have messed up, that our world is in bad shape, economically, socially, and environmentally. They can’t understand how we can just stand by and not DO something! HUGE! NOW! Don’t we GET it??? After all, they are going to have to live here after we have gone. It seems to many teenagers that adults must not really care about them, because if we did, we would be doing more to be the change we need to be, to make their world habitable. In addition, they have often been through years of schooling that hasn’t seemed to address their needs, or prepare them for making the choices they need to make. No wonder they rebel, in small and large ways.
Teenagers are at a time in life when they feel an internal push to decide where and how THEY will make their own place in the world. If it is true that “our purpose in life is to solve the problems that anger us the most,” then the teen years have a clear purpose. This is the time when we feel, most intensely, what angers us the most about the world around us. That’s why some native cultures send their young people out to face themselves, in nature, to ask the hard questions, and to come back with a vision, a plan, an intention, to make themselves meaningful in the world. (Incidentally, my own anger about the school system as a teenager led me to start reading books about schooling, parenting and children, and at the age of 15, I decided that I would be a Montessori-trained teacher and at some point, open a school. My teenage years revealed to me my passion, and started to prepare me for doing what I love in the world, which has led me to parenting coaching.)
If we can help our teens to identify what angers them the most, explore possible solutions, and be empowered to join with others who feel the same, and to take significant steps in the movement to solve the problem, then our teens feel understood and meaningful. If we take their rebellion personally, we lose our opportunity to connect and help them find their purpose. Many teenagers today are feeling disconnected from the world and their own role in it, so this becomes even more important. If we are trying to tell them to get good grades so that they can grow up and get a good job, we are putting off their search meaning, and telling them that what they are feeling now isn’t important. When we give them the message that they don’t know enough to be meaningful now, by suggesting that they put off their action until they finish school and university, teens feel betrayed.
Part of differentiating themselves and finding what angers them the most, is what feels to parents like rebellion and personalized attacks. Teens, like two-year-olds and 5-year-olds, need to say “NO” to what others are telling them, in order to deeply explore who they are, and what they think, independent of the ideas of others. Added to this natural differentiation response is the impetus to learn to articulate what they see, to argue strongly for what they believe and clarify what they think.
To support your teenager in the process of rebelling, you can share the stories of revolutions, rebellions, and powerful movements throughout history. This gives your teen options, and empowers him or her in two different ways. First, it empowers him or her to choose the method of rebellion wisely. If your teen has seen Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Gandhi, as well as the stories of the French Revolution, the American Revolution, and Mel Gibson (what’s that movie?? The “Freeedoooom” one??), or if your teen knows the stories of Hildegaard von Bingen, Mother Teresa, Rosa Parks, and the woman’s suffrage movement, he or she will be empowered to put his or her own ideas in perspective before taking action. These are powerful stories, that show how real people have created significant change in the world, with different degrees of effectiveness. When we interpret our teenager’s rebellion as petty, as personal, or as insignificant, we demean them, and create a deep chasm between ourselves and them.
Secondly, sharing the stories of great rebellions, revolutions, and movements throughout history gives your teen the ability to connect with others who share the flavour of meaning that they feel. Teenagers naturally want to connect with large groups. This is why they form gangs, cliques, and clubs. If we can help them find their group in our larger culture (volunteering at the SPCA, joining the local environmental organization, or joining Civic Camp, for example), they will have less of a tendency to form unhealthy connections with same-age groups. Remember, in the old days, teenagers worked, had children, and became valuable, contributing members of the larger culture. They stepped into relationships with, and bonded with, their intergenerational peers. Today, they have little opportunity to do this. I am not suggesting that teenagers should not join teen groups or spend time with other teens, just that other connections are a key to their growth.
To maintain the connection, another huge piece of the puzzle is for you to carefully examine your own life. Are you, in fact, doing what you need to do to make the world a better place for your children to live in? Or have you become complacent, and lost your connection with your own inner teenager? If you can effectively share your passion, and transmit to your teenager what you are doing to save the little corner of the world that you can save, they see that you are walking the walk.
For those of you with future teenagers, you can start sharing the stories and building connections now. Mention to your 5-year-old who loves the zoo that there is a volunteer program at the local zoo that they could join when they turn twelve. Show them examples of teenagers doing real work in the world (hire teen babysitters, and teen lawncare workers). Tell the stories of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, and Gandhi now (adapted for your younger children). Put the history of humanity in perspective: Humanity has come a long way. We’ve made a lot of mistakes. We’ve learned a lot. And most importantly, share a positive, hopeful perspective. I love Arnold J. Toynbee’s quote:
“The twentieth century will be chiefly remembered by future generations not as an era of political conflicts or technical inventions, but as an age in which human society dared to think of the welfare of the whole human race as a practical objective.”
We, the human race, is at a place in history that has never existed before. The welfare of the whole human race!!! Wow! That’s a big possibility. If we can bring our teenagers to the realization that they have the power to create and support these huge shifts, their natural teen angst will be set across a backdrop of empowerment and hope, and we can start sharing these messages with our young children, as well.
Let me know your thoughts!