The Teen Years

Once upon a time we were all teenagers. Mercifully, we have forgotten much of the pain, confusion, and turmoil, as well as the exuberance and vitality, that went along with it. Our memory lapses are most unhelpful to our children who need our compassion, guidance and support as they struggle to find a place for themselves, both within the family and the larger social context.

Don't worry. The teenagers living in your home will force you to examine your past. When they do, don't be selective. Make a conscious effort to recall what it felt like to be 15 or 16 or 17. Were there any hallways in your high school that frightened you? Was there ever an important day in your life when you woke up and found a monstrous crater on your nose that rendered you helpless and distraught? Were there days when it seemed you couldn't control your arms and legs and that everyone noticed and laughed when you tripped on the stairs? Did you check the mirror daily, waiting impatiently for something resembling breasts to grow? Remember the guys at the back of the room who were waiting to pounce on your most minute weakness, expose it to the world, and reduce you to nothingness? Did your "crush" ever sit on the other side of the classroom in Algebra, oblivious to your undying love, and be the cause of your mathematical illiteracy to this day? Did you ever feel like you hadn't a friend in the world, and that nobody understood what you were going through? Think back. It mattered what you wore; it mattered who your friends were; it mattered what you looked like; it mattered how cool you were. It mattered how well you could dribble a basketball, hit a baseball, or how fast you could run. Your world was immediately critical, but not immediately forgiving.

Now, remember your parents.

Hey, that's you now.

Nobody ever wants to see a child suffer and struggle. None of us wishes to believe that our children are going to fall prey to the whims of peer pressure and the flightiness of the social mores of the day. We want to believe that our children are going to meet some 1950's television family image of the well-adjusted, happy, productive, self-sufficient and polite teenager. Some of the time they will be all of these things, but other times they won't even come close. Our children, like us, are human; they come complete with all the frailties and imperfections with which we ourselves struggle. We are not perfect, and neither are they. One of the most loving gifts we can give our teenagers is our understanding of what it feels like to be bombarded by conflicting information from all sides, what it is like to struggle against difficult, available and compelling temptations, what it is like to experience the betrayals of friendship, and both the joys and pain of first love. To begin to appreciate their experience, and then to offer the appropriate kinds of support, guidance and structure, we need to know some of what is going on developmentally between the ages of roughly thirteen to nineteen. Many of the changes in these years are obvious, others not so.

We, and they, can see that they are changing. Hormones rule their world. To say teens are hormonally challenged is an understatement. They achieve their adult height and acquire external sexual characteristics; the bone structures of their faces take on the shapes they will live with for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately, the rates of growth vary widely in this age group. Some will look like adults by fourteen, while others will have only the rudimentary beginnings of pubertal development. Indeed, within even one teen's growth there can be uncomfortable inconsistencies. A boy may grow tall, but acquire slowly the pubic and facial hair, muscular development, and penile growth which are so important to his image of himself as masculine. If they grow too rapidly, they may not be able to gain control over their new large and unfamiliar limbs. Similarly, when boys are slow in gaining their adult height, they may feel inferior, less capable, and less desirable than their taller peers. They may become the object of merciless teasing and belittling which can make life feel unlivable. Teens can seem to be without mercy or empathy at this stage. They are all uncomfortable.

Girls with early breast development may feel self-conscious and embarrassed; those with no breasts crave nothing more than to fill out a bra. And, no matter what we as adults think about it, girls want to look like the magazine image of a beautiful woman. They wish to have the look and size which are seen by their social group to be desirable. They are painfully aware that you cannot change your bone structure and the face that your parents lovingly gave you, and yet, that is what they desire above all else. Similarly, they wish to be sexual beings, but struggle with understanding the realities (timing, birth control, sexually transmitted diseases) and acquiring the maturity that a sexual relationship demands. This is true for both boys and girls. The gap between who they are and who they wish to be is huge and can be damaging to already precarious self-image and self-esteem.

Please also keep in mind that these times are not all bad. The teenage years are filled with more energy and creativity than are rarely available again. Excitement, joy and true connection with others abound. Understanding and perspective expand geometrically. So much meaning, so much purpose, so much potential; the world is yet theirs to discover and grasp. They have yet to choose what mark they shall make in the world, and they dream of making differences that count. Their unfolding is rapid-paced; so are their lives. And I am pretty certain that teens have lots more fun than grownups: they often seem to laugh more and to taste life more fully. Charles Dickens, referring to French Revolutionary times in A Tale of Two Cities, perhaps best described adolescence:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way ... in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

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