Trust The Teens
-They can handle it.
I could see it in her face — as we stood in front of her bathroom mirror, my fingers busy with braiding her flowing sunny curls — there was a complex thought forming in her brain that she was wondering whether or not to ask me. Her eyebrows were furrowed, and she gazed intensely at a point beyond her own reflection.
“What are you thinking about?” I prompted her, knowing full well that the conversation could be one I wasn’t ready for.
She sighed in that way that deep thinking five year olds do, and asked me,
“Do all grandparents die?”
I knew this question was coming from something she’d seen in a movie, and with her infinite wisdom, she had transposed it into her own experience. For many, my own family of origin included, conversations about illness and death had mostly been swept aside — including when the reality of illness was very much in our house. We just didn’t talk about it.
So, how did I answer her? —As much as the topic pained me, as much has I became aware of my own sadness tingling in my chest, I told her the truth. I told her that yes, eventually, all grandparents do die, and that is why she can feel especially grateful for her relationship with hers, because it is a special time. We talked about grandparents she knew who have died (mine), and how that feels. Then, she asked me to put the pink flower bow in her hair.
“How do I talk to my child about…?”
This question is all over the forums, the chats, the message groups, and in the minds of parents, guardians, and teachers everywhere. In our rapidly changing world, where many teens have access to information at their fingertips, the fact that this question still plagues the minds of adults is a wonder.
While I am certainly no expert in early childhood, since every day is a lesson in that realm for me, I have been a teacher of teens from the time I was myself a teen. Somehow, it seems that as we age out of adolescence, and into the responsibilities and burdens of adulthood, we strive to separate ourselves from teenage selves. We forget the awkwardness of unexpected physical and emotional changes, the spark of discovery when our identities unfold, and the depth of wisdom that comes with the ability to analyze and understand complex ideas. We also forget that today’s teens know more than we ever did at their age.
In my 8th grade class, we bring life into the classroom. The students themselves self identify on a variety of spectrums — political, religious, identity, environmental — and many are passionate about their abilities to express themselves. Most of them want to talk about what is going on in their lives, and in the world, and want a space to discuss — safely — and most importantly, process experience.
“How do I talk to my child about…?”
My, perhaps controversial view is, you just do — truthfully, honestly, and without euphemism. Life is controversial. Things happen in our personal lives, and in our public lives that evoke complex nodules of emotion that we are expected to process — sometimes at 5G speed. That is HARD! If we don’t process things, they gather up in our bodies, and they come out later — perhaps when we have a moment to rest in between our busy days. Ever wonder why you get sick when you finally have a break?
We, as adults, are supposed to know how to do this, right? We all know how to handle ourselves when we are triggered by an article, don’t we? None of us ever go off on social media rants about things we feel strongly about. We never ever fall into rabbit holes of back and forth emotionally driven tweets. You can lower your collective eyebrows, we all know that adults struggle with this.
Why is it that so many of us struggle with how to process even minor events in our lives that go outside the norm, let alone moments that cause real transformation?
…Because we were never taught to…
The adults in many of our lives, as well meaning as they may have been, scarcely opened up conversation about the topics that make being being human so complex and interesting. Instead, we were taught to internalize emotions and just move on… If you don’t talk about it, if you sweep it away, then it shouldn’t bother you anymore. Boys are taught not to cry, and girls are taught that they will have to work twice as hard to succeed. We were fostered in an environment of scarcity and competition. Many pass on this philosophy in the way we teach our children.
“this is too hard for me to talk about with them.”
“I am too embarrassed/sad/guilty/I don’t know enough”
“I’m not the right person to talk about this topic with my child…”
Well…I say, again maybe controversially, if they are asking — why not try?
It is also okay to say,
“I’m not really sure”
“I don’t know enough, but here is what I have learned”
or… “This is the way I have experienced it”
The teens in our lives know that we are not omnipotent. They know that we have made mistakes, that we grow, that we learn just as they do. They will value your truth, your vulnerability, and your honesty more than your bravado, your armor, and your because I said so. The teens in our lives will also soon learn who they can turn to to have the tough conversations — and if you are their parent, you’d likely want it to be you.
The truth is, if we don’t express the emotion, it finds places to nestle into our bodies — we have miles of organs that can host unprocessed emotion. It snuggles in our spirit, and filters through our dreams. It burrows in our hearts, and pulses into our bloodstream with every beat. It means that every time we think about the thing that happened, the thing I didn’t talk about, the thing I’m keeping from them….the emotion we hold in keeps layering, and layering — we become a crockpot without a vent.
A wise recently-turned 14 year old expressed it as such,
“If something happens, and we don’t talk about it, or if we are told not to talk about it, then it can actually become worse when we try to think about it, and process it later.”
The topic in question for us this time was alcoholism. We were talking about it because it was alluded to in last week’s Torah portion. In it, two characters, while inebriated, disrespect a sacred process, and are killed. So, in class, we talked about what it means to drink, to get drunk, and how thin the line is between that and alcoholism, addiction, and other issues associated. As it turns out, 14 year olds have strong opinions about this, and as it turns out, they are perfectly capable of having respectful discussions about it -if allowed to, and guided properly. Bonus points — they can ground it in scripture.
So what’s the point of all this?
When you ask someone for their honest opinion about something, do you not want that from them?
When you need to understand or discuss something challenging, do you not want the ability to discuss?
When you need to process something challenging that happened to you, do you not want a safe space to release?
So do they.
Tough stuff happens. Tough stuff is happening right now, all around us, all the time. Pandemic. Insurrection. Racially motivated violence. Death. Grief. Heartbreak. Tough stuff will also happen, sadly, to our kids personally. Failed tests. Fights with their friends. Changing bodies and minds.
If they ask, trust them enough to talk to them. The way we change inherited patterns of repression and trauma is to let them go, vent the crockpot, let the steam out — and be vulnerable. Show them your sadness, your embarrassment, your anger — cry, shake, stomp. Show them it’s okay to feel, and they will too.
Trust the teens, they can handle it.