Teenagers - how we miss the point

As a psychologist with more than 35 years’ experience, it never ceases to amaze me how many parenting articles, programmes and talks are out there advising us on how to manage our teenage children.  Clearly, parenting becomes trickier when our children come into adolescence. It can be difficult to know what’s going on in their lives.
To care about young people is to put ourselves in a place of vulnerability.  When they seem to be doing well for themselves, we feel happy in ourselves. But when they seem lost, or when they become silent and moody, we become anxious and worried.  As parents we know all too well that we are only as happy as our least happy child.

How we act in response to their behaviour depends to a great extent on how we read their behaviour, how we make sense to ourselves what we observe happening in them. I think many of us subscribe to myths about young people that really get in the way of engaging creatively with them.

Myth 1: They have it so much easier than we ever had

We adults often see young people having more opportunities than we ever had and judge their lives to be largely stress free. We may even envy in them a freedom that was denied to us growing up. So when they complain about some difficulty or stress they are having at school, we can easily dismiss it as trivial.

But it turns out that young people experience significant levels of fear and distress that is largely invisible to adults. We know from the MY WORLD SURVEY (largest mental health survey of adolescents in Ireland) that at any one time about one third of young people are feeling very anxious, stressed, and experience low mood.  

Anxiety (or fear) is also the most common reason that young people and their families seek guidance and support from youth mental health services such as Jigsaw.

They are afraid that their lives have little meaning; that they lack what it takes to succeed; that they are a disappointment in the eyes of their friends and the adults who care about them, and that it’s only a matter of time before those people reject them.

They may also be anxious and stressed about the tensions they witness in their families between their parents or between their older siblings and their parents. I remember Susan, a girl of 14 years who was brought to see me by her parents because of “panic attacks’” I asked her what was happening in her life that was making her so afraid. ‘When I was nine years old, my parents sat us down and told us they were separating.’ And then she added, ‘They’re still together and they fight all the time. I live everyday waiting for something bad to happen’.

Myth 2: Young people don’t appreciate the adults in their lives who care about them.

Consider a teenager in class or locked into a screen at home, who is silent and who seems indifferent to adults who are trying to engage them in some way. We can feel so powerless in the face of such behaviour. It’s tempting to write off that young person as ‘bad’, someone who doesn’t appreciate what others are trying to give him or her.

We may be jumping to conclusions and missing something important.

Accept for a moment that what we adults often miss in our young people is their fear of rejection. And ask yourself how might you behave if you imagined you were about to be rejected. Your fear of being exposed would probably make you want to hide your vulnerability from others.

We hide our fear behind masks of silence. We pretend we don’t care.  We disengage from people who might get too close to seeing us for who we are. Even though that person may be annoyed with us and feel powerless, we see them as being immensely more powerful that we are.  So we hide and we appear indifferent to them.

Myth 3: What young people need most is our help

This statement may sound entirely reasonable and obvious to you! But let me tell you a story about how I discovered it to be yet another myth that we adults hold about what young people.

When I established Jigsaw I asked our youth advisory panel (a group of young people, aged 16-25 around whom the entire organisation has been formed) to help me craft a ‘mission’ statement. I proposed that it be something like ‘Jigsaw is committed to helping young people navigate their journey into adulthood’. I thought that was pretty good. However, the young people to whom I was speaking remained silent and dropped their gaze. I knew something wasn’t right. Finally, one of them spoke and explained to me that ‘We don’t want to be helped, we want to be heard’.

What I’ve learned since many times over, is that what matters to young people more that anything we do for them is that we take time to be with them and listen to whatever is happening in their lives.

This may require patience and a willingness to tolerate repeated sidetracking before they find the words to say what is actually bothering them. They may test our patience along the way before they know that we can be trusted.

Listening sounds simple but it actually requires an awful lot from all of us.  It’s much easier to slip into the advice giving or ‘expert role’.

One person who has really inspired me is Frank DeAngelis, the former principal of Columbine High School in Colorado. In 1999, that school and the wider community faced a shocking tragedy when two students killed 12 young people, a teacher and wounded 24 others before taking their own lives.

Frank DeAngelis remained with the school and over these past 14 years has helped to bring back both that school and townland from the brink. That journey exposed several myths the school held about those young people and gave Frank a new and deeper understanding of the experience of teeangers.  ‘Those two teenagers - Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were telling us things and we weren’t listening’.  What he has created since in Columbine is what he calls a ‘listening school’.  

Summary: Thinking differently about teenage behaviour allows us to respond more creatively

How we think about a problem will influence how we respond to that problem. If we view our teenagers as being spoilt, unappreciative and indifferent, we will become annoyed and frustrated with them. We will worry about the ‘monster’ we’ve created and perhaps even blame ourselves for not being a better parent, teacher, or adult in their lives.

But if we can step back from what situation and consider that what we may be witnessing is fear, disguised as indifference, and feel in ourselves what that might be like for a young person, perhaps we can respond differently.

I think we also need to remember how important we are in their lives. It’s because we matter so much to them, that they fear our rejection so much.

Finally, we need to constantly remind ourselves that before we think of doing something for a young person, we need to make time to be with that young person. Listening is the key that opens a door into their complex lives.

About the author: 

Tony Bates is the Founding Director of Jigsaw – the National Centre for Youth Mental Health. He has 30 years of experience working in mental health including serving as Principal Clinical Psychologist at St. James Hospital in Dublin and establishing the Trinity College Dublin’s Masters in Cognitive Psychotherapy.  He is an Irish Times columnist and author of several bestseller books on depression.