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How to be a No Matter What adult: a high school counsellor on what teenagers need from us all

It’s harder to be a teenager today than ever before. So how can you as a parent help? By continuing to show up and support your teen, even when they seem hellbent on pushing you away, says Louisa Woods.

It’s the most common reaction I get when I tell someone I work with teenagers: ‘I don’t know how you do it’ or something along those lines. Stated like my work is in the same category as a snake wrangler or lion tamer, but dealing with a more mysterious species of wild animal, capricious and with bitey tendencies.

It’s the response from people whose understanding of today’s teens comes from sensationalist media stories and observation from afar. As far away as possible, in most cases. They generally have an awful lot to say about how rotten our teens are and they usually have various (un)helpful suggestions as to how they got that way. Think ‘PC gone mad’, ‘anti-smacking laws’, ‘schools/parents/society going soft’ – you know, those sorts of things. The amount they speak has an inverse relationship to the amount I say in response.

And then there are a second group: People who do know teenagers. Those that have no real choice but to know them on an up close and personal basis – their parents. They have the same look about them that I’m sure I had when I was (mis)managing three kids under five. Smiling, but with a haunted look in their eyes like they’re bracing themselves for the next thing that their child is going to throw at them. More often than not they give a wry little laugh to accompany their ‘I don’t know how you do it’, and then take a good swig of whatever beverage they’re clasping.

Sometimes they’ll follow up with an outpouring of tales about their particular teenager and how amazing but challenging they are. Sometimes real concerns come flooding out and there are barely restrained tears. There’s relief in meeting someone who actually chooses to deal with teenagers day in and day out and yet seems relatively sane. Parents don’t tend to condemn teenagers for their behaviour, or blame society for whatever ills may accompany the teenage years. They’re generally too busy worrying about their own contribution.

While there have been occasions when I’ve joked with colleagues about the zoo-like quality of the guidance department, often around the time of a full moon (seriously, it’s a thing) or the day following the junior dance, I’ve never found teenagers to be particularly mysterious. Complex, yes;  difficult to connect with at times, sure; frustrating, absolutely. But I’ve never felt a disconnect or any fear when it comes to teens.

In fact, I feel the opposite. I love teenagers. They are quite magnificent in their complexity.

I admire their willingness to push boundaries, to pole-vault right over them when the fancy takes them. We can all learn from their need to question and question and then question again, to seek honest answers but to let the rational go and emotion rule when need be. I love being witness to the quest for self, watching as a young person finds a place to stand in the world, a place that they will defend to the hilt and then promptly abandon in favour of a more appropriate spot. I am awed by their vulnerability as they contend with all of this growth and change, the ravages of hormones and heartbreak, and the constant pinging of text messages. They are so in need of support and genuine interest and yet strive to be so independent. They long to be seen as an individual and yet strive to be part of the group. They are contrary creatures, and that contrariness, it’s fascinating.

And yes, they’re moody, and uncommunicative, and can be self obsessed and inward looking. Undeniably angsty and dramatic at times. And then, just to mix things up a bit, the next day they’re chatty and excitable and filled with the joy of life.

But, really, isn’t that true for everyone? Adults might be better at keeping things in check and performing in a socially acceptable way because we have the advantage of a fully developed frontal cortex to fall back on, but we all channel our inner teenager at times. Some of us let them out to play every time we get a few wines on board.

I confess that I am a bit of a geek when it comes to this sort of stuff, but holy hell, the human brain is just astounding. There are three parts that make up the human brain, and the cortex, the part that allows us to learn, reason, and be empathetic, the part that sets us apart from every other species on the planet, is not fully developed in most people until we hit our mid-twenties.

While we expect teenagers to be young adults, their brains aren’t actually set up to be that until well after they’ve left school. So when a teenager does something spectacularly irrational or stupid, don’t be surprised. Don’t be surprised if they don’t have an answer for why they did it, either.

‘Dunno’ is not necessarily a teenager evading questioning – it’s often the most honest response they have.

(There’s some fantastic research being done by the Brainwave Trust and a very interesting podcast about the teenage brain here if you want to learn more.)

I can see how teenagers get such a bad rap. I look back over my list of virtues and it could equally be headed with ‘complications’ or ‘challenges’. Some strengths, when combined with the right (wrong) set of circumstances – the boundary pushing, the risk taking, being so driven by emotion – can push teenagers beyond being complex and into being downright dangerous. Not least to themselves.

And some of the teenagers that I’ve known have been tough to work with, hard to support, challenging to advocate for. Really tough in some cases. I’ve been driven to the edge of despair with a couple, regrouping by leaning against the inside of my office door, taking deep breaths so that I can open it and face the next person in need of support. I’m not all Pollyanna and rose-tinted specs about our young people. I can understand where the ‘better you than me’ comments come from. I can understand why it can be difficult being the parent of a teenager.

It’s undeniably tough getting up every day to parent a teen. And that’s partly because it’s tough being one.

Increasingly so.

I don’t buy the whole ‘teenagers are so different now’ argument. I’ve been working with them for fourteen years (yikes) and in that time the nature of teenagers hasn’t changed. I don’t think it’s changed in generations. What has changed is the world that our young people are having to negotiate while they’re figuring out who they are.

Expectations are higher, the future is less certain, information overload makes life more confusing than it needs to be, and they are constantly, constantly on display, contactable, and open to comment and critique. Talk about ‘better you than me’.

No wonder teenagers can be hard to deal with at times. A lot of the time, even. I know that’s poor comfort for a parent struggling with their teen, although perhaps there is a touch of reassurance in knowing that your teenager is not just a complete jerk. They’re working their way through the ups and downs of adolescence and you’re along for the ride. It just so happens that the ups go off like fireworks and the downs smash in like a wrecking ball.

I don’t know if anyone’s fully equipped to deal with teenagers in all their complexity and contrariness. I don’t know if any adult can fully understand what a teenager’s experience of the world is like. No matter how switched on we are or how well we connect to young people, no matter how well we remember our own adolescence or what we had to work through ourselves to end up as well functioning adults, there is no way we can know what it’s like to be a teenager today.

What I do know is that we can try. And they really, really want us to even though it might pain them to admit it.

We can keep showing up.

Keep asking questions.

Keep telling them how amazing they are even when they can’t see it themselves (even when they’re being so difficult it’s hard for us to see it too).

We might not always get it right, and let’s face it, with teenagers, sometimes it’s going to be wrong, no matter what. They’re as likely to flip you a big middle finger as they are to thank you for your input, but they’ll remember that you tried.

It’s easy to get frustrated and to feel inadequate as the parent of a teen. To not know what to do next. It comes with the territory when you’re a parent anyway but with teenagers it’s particularly difficult because what they need seems to be so much more complicated than when they were younger. And what they want on Monday might be a completely different thing on Friday. And because you are SO not cool.

But really, if there’s one thing teenagers do need, it’s good adults in their lives. No Matter What adults. The kind who will be there to cheer through the fireworks and pitch in for clean up after the wrecking balls. Always.

They need you.

Louisa Woods is a high school teacher and counsellor, currently filling her days looking after her own three children, writing a bit, singing a bit, and reading as much as she can.

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