When working with our teenagers, whether as teachers, parents, caregivers or healthcare workers, it is important to keep one thing in mind: What afflicts the adolescent is infectious, and we adults are not immune. We are all part of a system, which aims to nurture and protect our children. Recently, while cleaning my office, I stumbled upon an old Tarot Deck. Then I found myself reflecting on the symbolism of The Fool in the Major Arcana of the Tarot (Morgan-Greer):
One who is enthusiastic but inattentive to details, immature and carefree, yet pure of heart. In the Reverse: Poor evaluations, carelessness.
For me, the irony of the symbolic definition of The Fool lies in its mutability. It could appear the same whether viewing its positive attributes or the reverse. Especially from an adult perspective – the outcomes could be perceived as the same – tragic. This is where the real irony comes up for me when working with adolescents. It is in their nature to rebel and to formulate theories about the world and themselves in it. This is exactly what they are supposed to be doing. To the adult eye however, these theories may appear illogical, even dangerous. Yet experience has taught me, it is a more fruitful tactic to suspend current adult belief systems, including prejudices, in order to fully understand the teen-age mind.
The adolescent derives his or her own logic from life events, which have personal meaning and are important milestones in his or her developmental process; while simultaneously, in terms of cognitive development, they are moving from concrete ideation (early teen development, ages 11-15) to abstract understanding (later teen development, ages 15-18+) and the eventual ability to reason in adult terms. Before they have achieved enough life experience and concurrent brain development to think like adults, they cannot. Therefore to view them with adult spectacles can be futile, or even foolish. Further if we recognize the infectiousness of the adolescent process and the idea that we are all involved in this growth pattern by association, we can then step back and dually realize we are just seeing it from different generational viewpoints. For example, not seeing the difference between innocent exuberance and neglect or carelessness can be the fault in our own efforts when trying to communicate with our teenagers. What the parent sees as defiance or behavior lacking in right motivation, the teen sees as something entirely different. Our job as caregivers is to bridge that gap.
Our biggest challenge as caregivers is the idea we think we know what’s best for our children. With teenagers this needs to be flexible because this is exactly the notion the teenager rails against. They probably don’t want to be perceived like us. And they certainly don’t want to be analyzed by our adult standards. The most common complaint I hear from teenagers when asked, is that they don’t feel listened to. And frequently when adults try to listen to them, they don’t feel understood. I believe this second part comes from the fact that as caregivers we have the teen’s best interest in mind but we forget they see the world much differently than we do. And we forget the infectious interconnectedness of our family system. Each member of the family system has the capability to behave poorly when challenged and stressed, even more so when there is a teenager in the house. This is due to the relentless challenging of our family values, boundaries and beliefs by our beloved teens.
This is where mindful-family-communication becomes most helpful. We cannot bring a teenager to understand what we have gained through more life experience than they have. This will only invalidate their current experiences and will be perceived as lecturing. This approach is not helpful, and in some cases damaging.
The best way to understand a teenager is to ask a lot of questions. And in spite of the urges we have to correct them or to prove how their logic is wrong or short sighted, we must try even harder to see it through their eyes. Understanding how they could believe such a thing or put observations together in the ways that they do is important. Acknowledging that his or her perspective makes sense and let him or her know we are willing to suspend our own beliefs in order to engage with them on their level is validating. They will in turn feel heard. Utilizing these few simple tactics helps build trust. If you are actually ‘talking’ with your teenager you have achieved something very special.
I have observed in my own parenting and in working with adolescents in crisis, that as soon as I superimpose my viewpoints onto their world and they are already testing my boundaries and logic, I have lost the battle. And I have probably sacrificed trust at this point. This tactic usually leads to quarreling where no real communication takes place.
My best friend’s mother who passed recently was remembered for being a beloved teacher. She was committed to her job, her community and her views. During her celebration of life, it was brought to the attention of her friends and family by her eldest daughter that her mother achieved civility with everyone she knew, from every age bracket, employment status, class, and political party. She did this by keeping her beliefs in tact but never allowing those beliefs to get in the way of friendships – even if friends stood on opposite sides, politically, morally and so forth and she had a lot of friends. In fact during her celebration of life, the staff of the facility kept rolling in more tables because people kept arriving to pay their respects, more than they had imagined would attend.
One thing that made my friend’s mother very successful at friendship was that she devoted herself to learning as much as she could about other people’s views. “That way,” she was quoted as saying, “She not only understood her friends better, but she would be able to debate and defend her views utilizing their own language.” She was obviously very successful at bridging the gap. She was a true mogul in terms of bringing people together. She knew how to make people feel heard. She often reflected to them what she thought she heard them say and frequently asked thoughtful questions to clarify what she might have missed. In the therapeutic world we call this, reflective listening.
When trying to understand your teenager remember to embody a mindful and curious attitude toward your conversations. Engage and build trust. Don’t worry about who is right before you know what your adolescent is really thinking. In your heart of hearts you want to protect your children from themselves but remember they are going to rebel because it is within their physiological and cognitive developmental stages to do so. In other words – they cannot help it. Lastly, “the entire family is probably engrossed in an adolescent growth pattern.” Hang-On!