When we are out of sympathy with the young, then I think our work in this world is over. –George MacDonald
There is a saying from Mark Twain that typifies the attitude many adults have toward teenagers: “When a child turns twelve you should put him in a barrel, nail the lid down and feed him through a knothole. When he turns sixteen, plug the hole!”
The teen years are often the most difficult in a person’s life. They involve intense struggles, feelings, and changes, many of which teenagers have a hard time verbalizing. Yet I believe that despite the turbulence of adolescence, these years can be a truly wonderful time. It may be a difficult period of life, but why should it be an especially negative one? I wonder if psychologists, sociologists, and the media have so overemphasized the downside of adolescence that today’s youth cannot help living out the stereotypes put on them?
Teen years are an age of opportunity instead of a test of parental endurance. Besides, there is something about youth that we adults need to learn from. It is often young people who push for real changes.
I am glad young people question things. They want to form their own opinion. This should not be read as a sign of rejection.
We have seen this time and again all over the world: the White Rose movement in Hitler Germany, for example, or the young people who demonstrated in Tiananmen Square in China, or the growing movement of activism against war, racism, and environmental exploitation here in the United States. Actually, the youth of our nation are not being given enough credit for the many positive things they have done and are doing, especially in light of all the outside pressures they have to deal with.
But all teenagers also struggle with certain emotional, physical, intellectual, and social challenges. Their internal worlds consist of a jumble of tensions: emotional highs and lows, a desire to be left alone and to be included, a need for freedom and a longing for greater responsibility, a feeling of invincibility and a fear of failure, questioning authority and the need to fit in, submitting to peer pressure on the one hand and adult authority on the other.
For this reason parents and teachers need to have extra-big hearts for young people. The battle around them, as well as in them, rages in full force. Very few teenagers pass through these years without at least a few bumps and bruises. Many are wounded for life. But this is all the more reason to see it as a privilege to be with youth: to work with them, to share their joys and struggles, to be a friend to them, and to guide them to what they are meant to become.
Teens share most easily with adults who have an understanding and acceptance of themselves. By revealing who you are, by sharing about the struggles you have had, and by reflecting on your own life experiences, you are inviting the young person under your care to do the same. Teenagers appreciate it when an adult is candid and up-front with them. For a teen, honest sharing means “I trust you enough to tell you the whole story.”
This doesn’t mean they will automatically share what they are thinking and feeling. Teenagers in general resent having to communicate on demand. It is rarely helpful to say: “Why don’t you ever share with us? Why won’t you say something?” This only makes teens clamp up even more. Our role is to express care and interest in their lives, and to do so through deeds, not by peppering them with questions.
Also, a good dose of humility can go a long way to reaching a teenager’s heart. Teens need parents and adults who will admit their own limitations and say they are sorry. Teens need to see that adults are human. One young woman wrote to me:
Most kids growing up naturally think that their parents are “the best.” At least this is how it was for me. They knew best and that’s why they had the final say. But when I got into my teen years, wow, everything turned upside down. I became very rebellious and was determined to fight my parents tooth and nail. The day came, however, when I realized that my parents were not perfect people. When I realized that my parents were just like me, that they had their own problems to deal with, that they made mistakes and wrong decisions and would also say they were sorry, my relationship with them began to relax. I could start to open up. It wasn’t just them against me.
I am glad young people question things. And they tend to question everything – especially if it’s something Mom and Dad hold to. They often think they know it all, and thus it is tempting to try and put them in their place. Granted, it is not always easy to determine if a child’s rebellion is serving the cause of good or of evil, and teenagers still have a lot to learn. But we can kill our relationship with a teenage son or daughter – and teachers can erect instant walls between themselves and their students – if we fail to really listen to them. We should never talk at young people, but with them.
There is nothing worse for a young person than to be treated like a kid. When we treat a young person like an intelligent, thoughtful human being, that teen will eventually respond and most likely start acting like one! Out of love for young people, we need to do everything we can to help them formulate their thinking and express their ideas.
As teens open up, it’s important to listen non-judgmentally. This doesn’t mean expressing agreement. It only means that you are eager to know what they are thinking and feeling and that you don’t get all worked up in response to some outlandish or contradictory remark.
Teenagers need to feel needed. They want to be counted on.
Adolescents are thinking about life, questioning and processing the values that have been instilled in them. They often try on different ideas, much like the different clothes they wear. The feeling that “now I am an adult and I can do it better than you” plays a bigger role than we realize. They are in the process of formulating their own opinions and ideas. They want to become their own persons and for this reason will often gravitate towards viewpoints that differ from their parents and the adults around them. In fact, they often would rather have their own opinion than be right. This should not be read as a sign of rejection.
The main thing is to keep an open relationship with our teens. If they feel understood, valued, supported, and trusted, they will respond – even if begrudgingly at times – to our guidance. To nurture a relationship doesn’t mean we forgo speaking a straight word when it is needed or hesitate to set clear boundaries where necessary. In fact, despite complaints to the contrary, teenagers need and want limits. The issue is how best to set and enforce them. Teens, of course, will naturally push the limits. But clear boundaries communicate care and concern. Without rules and structure teenagers get the message that we adults do not love them or care about their well-being.
Again and again we need to find ways to let our teenagers know that we are there for them. We need to keep encouraging them. The word “encourage” comes from the French and literally means to give someone heart. Teenagers, like all people, need ten times more positive, supportive feedback than negative. Concentrate on their accomplishments, not on their failures.
Harold Loukes, the Quaker educator, writes: “The young do not need to be preached at; they need to be given a task.” We need to entrust young people with meaningful responsibilities. They need to feel needed. Teenagers do better, and are happier, when they have useful and necessary tasks that demand something from them. They want to be counted on.
I will always be grateful for how my father kept pointing me to use every day to serve others; that my happiness depended not on what I could get out of life for myself but in considering others. Young people need to know that every seemingly tiny deed of love can have a tremendous ripple effect. An act of kindness, or standing up for one’s convictions, adds goodness, instead of pain, to our world.
In my experience, young people will take up this challenge. It’s not a matter of pressuring them to follow our path or of making choices for them so they will do “the right thing.” It’s about helping them to see that only by turning to God and looking beyond themselves will their lives obtain true dignity and fulfillment.