The transition between child and adult isn’t an easy one, but it wasn’t meant to be. It’s a time of discovery, experimentation, and exploration. Sometimes this will be exhilarating, and sometimes it will hurt. Even as adults we will often find ourselves feeling the squeeze of difficult emotions and lumbering fears. Growth doesn’t always present itself in ways that glisten. Part of living and loving means that sometimes, our hearts will hurt.
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As loving parents, it’s understandable that we might want to lift our teens over the trouble and land them softly somewhere safe and bundled, but we can’t do that, and it wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing for them even if we could. The struggle is often the fertile ground where they discover the depth of their own courage, resourcefulness, and resilience. Of course, our own children will do adolescence differently to the way we did, but the questions they ask and the issues they face will have a rumbling familiarity about them.
Over time, the wisdom and growth from my own adolescence has come into focus. Here is what I would like my adolescent self to know then, and my own teen to know now:
1. There is no such thing as rejection or failure
Both failure and rejection can feel like an ending, but they aren’t. They’re part of your way forward, not the end of it. What’s important is the way you deal with them when they happen. It’s okay to fall apart for a while. Really – let it go, let it be messy, do what you need to do – cry, scream, write it in an email you’re never going to send (seriously – don’t send it, just trust me on that one). Just don’t take too long to get back up, dust off, learn what you need to, leave the rest, and move forward – wiser, stronger, braver than before. Rejections and failures are redirections, not endings.
2. There will be plenty of awkward
Sometimes you’ll do embarrassing, humiliating things you wish you could rewind. There are two things you need to know. The first is that they happen to everybody. The second is that you need to hold on to those stories – seriously – they’ll be gold one day. And anyway – the practice at self-compassion will serve you well. The way you awkwardly trip through life sometimes won’t stop when you leave adolescence. But you’ll be okay with it by then. Promise. People love people who can laugh at themselves sometimes.
3. Stay curious
Being human is messy and lives are messy and sometimes people will hurt you. When you understand enough of someone’s story, the things they do will start to make sense. This doesn’t mean those things will be acceptable to you, or even nearly okay, but they’ll make sense. Most importantly, you’ll start to realise that so many of the things people do, even the things that feel really crappy, will rarely be about you.
4. Don’t be afraid to love a little bigger
Relationships never fall apart because people are too emotionally generous. They fall apart because at least one person keeps the warmth, appreciation, and love safely stored away where no one can touch it. It might be safe. But it’s useless. When you open your heart, there will always be a ripple. The ripple will always find its way back to the one who started it, and always at least a little bigger than it was in the beginning, but not always in the way you expected.
Being open-hearted doesn’t mean opening yourself up to every human that comes your way. Be daring, curious and willing to be vulnerable, but know when to steer clear or let go.
5. Not everyone will like you
Some people will love you, some people won’t think that much of you – and that’s okay. You won’t like everybody either. This doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with them or something wrong with you. It just means you don’t combine well together. You don’t have to like everyone, but you do need to be kind – not because of who they are, but because that’s who you are.
6. Don’t blame the ref
Some decisions will go in your favour and some won’t. Sometimes none of this will make any sense. We’ll all have plenty of jubilant wins and heart-crunching losses. Resist getting bitter about the ones you lose, and cocky about the ones you win. When the losses happen they’ll always seem unfair – and sometimes they will be, completely unfair. There’s gold for you in both, but sometimes you’ll have to dig through the dirt to find it.
7. You only need to be brave for 30 seconds at a time
Courage doesn’t have to happen in glistening feats. In fact, it often won’t. It only has to happen in moments – the moments you decide you will, or you won’t. Staying safe will feel cozy, but it can also be stifling. You’ll surprise yourself with the magic that happens when you let go of the handrails for long enough to be brave enough.
8. You’ll have to fight for the things that are important to you
You’ll be tempted to interpret the setbacks as a stop sign, but don’t. On the other side of every miserable setback will be something you want badly. Fight for the things that feel so important the thought of not having them strips you bare.
If the front door shuts in your face, find the back door. If the back door slams closed, find the window – and there will always be another window. There are many ways to get to where you’re going. The most direct and most obvious ways aren’t always the best ones. Sometimes there will be wisdom, opportunities, and people you need to discover along the way to getting where you are, and you won’t always find them beside the welcome mat at the front door.
I’m not telling you this to scare you, or to make you stop or not bother. I’m telling you so that when it happens, you don’t give up, but you go, “Oh, we’ve arrived at the hard bit. Good. So we’re closer to the gold then.”
9. Sometimes the people you love will disappoint you – you’ll disappoint them too
Some of those disappointments will be nuclear, but bad decisions don’t equate to bad people. Don’t make it too hard for the people you love to come back. You’ll need their love and forgiveness at times too.
10. You’re not meant to have it all figured out
Some people you know will have it all planned. They’ll know exactly where they want to end up and they’ll have the map for how to get there, complete with distances, times, and terrain conditions – but they’ll be the exception. If you don’t know where you’re headed, there’s a good reason for this, and it’s because this is the time for you to explore, experiment and discover. You might feel confused and frustrated sometimes. You might even feel a little bit scared of being left behind.
What will make this worse is the fully grown adult versions of humans who seem to ask with annoying predictability, what you would like to do when you leave school. You used to love this question because it was an opportunity for the dreamer, the adventurer, the change-maker in you to have a voice. Now when you’re asked that question, it feels suffocating. The uncertainty no longer feels like potential and opportunity. It feels like a lacking, a reminder that something is missing.
What you need to know is this. That thing that feels like a void is meant to be there – it’s a fertile void, and it’s the space you need to explore and discover what you’re capable of. There’s plenty of time for that to happen. That thing that makes it harder to embrace is fear of not being good enough, smart enough, competitive enough.
Fear is a dirty little beast, and it tries to make you smaller to keep you safe. But don’t play safe, my darling. Play big. Dream and wonder and stretch yourself as far as you want and know you will always be enough. This doesn’t mean you will always find success, but you weren’t meant to – none of us were.
The road to where you’re going isn’t straight. It isn’t predictable and it isn’t certain. That’s what makes it so full of possibility. It will come with plenty of bends and hairpin curves, back-breaking uphills and almighty downhills. None of these are the end of your path to success, they’re part of it. Don’t let fear shut you down. The world needs you big and whole and bold. That’s the whole point of adolescence. You’re not meant to know where you’re headed because this is your time to be brave enough and curious enough to discover what you can do.
So be imperfect, fail, fall be open to all of it. This will mean you’ve looked and learned and every time it happens you’ll be closer to where you need to be. There has always been magic in you. Don’t worry if you don’t know what that looks like yet.
As the important adult in the life of any teen, you won’t always understand what they’re going through, but you don’t need to. What you will understand is that feeling of confusion, hurt, anger, jealousy, betrayal – any of the very raw, very real human emotions we all feel from time to time. There will be times when nothing you can say can soften the landing or make things better for them. Know that you don’t always need to have wisdom or soothing words. You just need to be there.