“They don’t know anything yet. They’re just kids.”
I’ve had the pleasure of working with teenagers and young adults for the bulk of my career as a therapist. In that time, I’ve learned so much about the value of this unique developmental period, as well as the difficulty that many adults have navigating relationships with teens. So, I’ve decided to do a five-parter about teenagers: working with them, encouraging them, fostering their positive development, and getting to the other side of adulthood unscathed (or with as few scars as possible). And so, part one of five, on interacting with teenagers:
Listen to their ideas.
Life in the in-between.
Teenagers live in the in-between place of childhood and adulthood, considering the world for the first time as thinkers with still-developing frontal lobes, the part of the brain that allows adults to approach the world with skepticism and controlled emotion and behavior. Having been tempered by our own adult brain development, we adults frequently bemoan what we perceive to be deficits in teens – we fear their poor decision-making, dismiss their ideas as an inability to see the “whole picture,” and downplay their extreme conviction as they learn about morality and what is fair and unfair in life. Many adults in authority positions come from a place of scratching their heads about how to deal with these crazy alien kids until they finally reach adulthood (in their mid-twenties! Eek!). This lens fosters the belief that adolescents are a class of misfits to be managed, coddled, patronized, and overruled. I can promise you that teenagers hate all of these things. What’s more important, none of that works anyway, and that approach makes for a strained relationship with the teenager in your life.
The value of seeing the world with fresh eyes.
Consider again the experience of seeing the world, learning about people and ideas, and testing out theories about life for the first time. This is a potentially magical experience, filled with wonder and delight and heartbreak and fear, truly the whole spectrum of the human emotional experience. Each new idea seems important because it is, because ideas and opinions and emotions are indeed incredibly important. Does this create fodder for moodiness and extreme passion? Sure. Do moodiness and passion potentially lead to the development of new ideas, the creation of beautiful art, the allegiance to valuable causes, the devotion to make the world a better place? Absolutely.
The way that adolescents and young adults see the world is extremely valuable, because they are looking at everything with fresh eyes. Giving them the room to explore their new thoughts and ideas allows them to believe in their own abilities and to confidently contribute to the world around them. On the other hand, being told that they don’t yet know enough, or that their thoughts are silly, not only shuts down their own sense of self-worth and creativity, but robs all of us boring adults of the originality and greatness that they might otherwise generate.
Engage them with respect, take them seriously, and value their ideas.
So how to handle teenagers with wide eyes and outlandish ideas? I would humbly offer the advice: Listen to them. Value their ideas. Give them room to express new thoughts and concepts as they encounter them, and take them seriously if you are lucky enough to have them share those thoughts and concepts with you. This might look like entertaining a political conversation over dinner (even if you think they are idealistic and naive). Or, it could be encouraging the reading of books on topics or ideas that might be different from yours (because that’s what they’re going to gravitate to anyway). Talk to them with respect and give them the opportunity to surprise you with their observations and pearls of wisdom. Trust me, they have them.
Adolescents have much more to offer than we credit them. If we shift our lens a bit, we can view adolescents in a way that allows for more space, exploration, acceptance, and inclusion. Ultimately, this benefits their development, and allows us the privilege of relating to them during this awesome time in their lives.
Next week, in part two of five: Give them room to express their identities.