feeling misunderstood 2

Posted on October 7, 2011


Grown ups can make dangerous assumptions about teenagers

–          That they need to rebel in order to grow up (actually if they feel they have to rebel there is usually something wrong)

–          That feeling misunderstood and spending hours brooding in their bedroom is a healthy symptom of adolescence (again this is a sign that something might be wrong)

 Teenagers think differently. They don’t yet have an adult mindset, so what might seem like a mild criticism or an innocent omission to an adult can feel like a major slight, close to being orphaned and kicked into an orphanage to a fragile teenager. They may seem big physically, bigger than you. They may come across as tough. But they need just as much reassurance, kindness and a sense of adult protection around them as they did when they were smaller.

 I have interviewed lots of teenagers for my books and particularly for my tome on adolescence THE TERRIBLE TEENS (terrible for who, them or you?) And I have gone round the country visiting schools and giving talks. It is usually the kids who shout the loudest and appear to be so tough and cool who feel most abandoned by their parents and so turn to other props such as their peers, drink or drugs. The research backs this up.

 They slump and grump because they find it hard to cope with the boredom of school, the pressure of exams, because they don’t know how to deal with friendship difficulties and the terrifying void ahead as the penny drops that they have to make something of their lives.

 They shout and kick the walls because they feel overwhelmed by a new intensity of emotions, such as anger, fear and self doubt as well as a new sense of existential aloneness as the big wide world comes into focus.

 It’s bloody hard for parents, treading such a fine line between benign neglect so that they can learn and lead their own lives and keeping them safe. We have to button our lip and not overreact to the normal highs and lows of adolescence (provided we know the difference between normal and abnormal – if you don’t you need to read my book!) but if we under-react that can have consequences too. If we dismiss their problems as trivial (compared to ours), if we ignore their concerns as just typical of teenagers, we risk estranging them even further and not being there for them when they most need us.

 When they storm up into their room shouting ‘YOU JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND ME’, it is very tempting to just leave them there for an easier life. But they actually want you to follow them and ask ‘just what is it that you feel I don’t understand? – explain it to me so that I do’. They don’t want to be told to ‘grow up’ because their behaviour is evidence that they are finding that difficult. They want you to listen to them just as you did when they were smaller.

 And while it may be difficult to reach up and hug them because they are now so tall, and while it is embarrassing to reach over and kiss them and smooch their cheeks like you did when they were small, they are never too old to be told just how much you love them. Above all teenagers needs to be made to feel that they are still loved because they feel the loss of childhood security so keenly. So try that, daily. Send them texts to remind them of the fact. They may squirm and pretend it isn’t cool. But they will have heard you.