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Saturday, October 15, 2011

Remembering adolescence

Have you ever been asked what you'd do differently if you could live your life all over again?

My answer has always been that I'd pass up the chance to do that, because I would never want to be an adolescent again. Never, not ever. It was just too hard.

And that makes me wonder about parents of adolescents who do nothing but wail about how IMPOSSIBLE teenagers are.

I wonder about their memories.  Have they forgotten what it was like to be neither child nor adult, besieged by hormonal imperatives, weighed down by conflicting expectations from every side?

I wonder about their ability to apply knowledge. Can they not synthesise material from their own adolescence with what their child is going through?

Apparently not, in many cases.

This is what I remember about being an adolescent. This is how I survived teaching adolescent girls for over 20 years, and how come most of them are still speaking to me as adults.

Do you remember that ghastly song from 'The Sound of Music' called 'Sixteen Going On Seventeen'? Musically speaking, I've never quite recovered from hearing Charmian Carr's cloying white-with-four-sugars rendition at the tender age of eight, but I have to acknowledge that some of the words are unerringly brilliant in pinning down the state of the adolescent.

"You are sixteen, going on seventeen, Waiting for life to start..."

How I remember that. I seemed to be in an eternal limbo where nothing even faintly interesting ever happened to me.  I had all those churning passions, as the hormones took hold of my body, but I had nowhere- NOWHERE- to put them.

And so tiny things became huge things. Being called by my full Christian name, for example, prompted a hysterical flounce-out from a play rehearsal, simply because I knew the person who called me that KNEW I didn't like it. I needed something to explode about; in the absence of a real-life drama, that would do.

Moral of story: don't tease adolescents. Don't press red buttons, unless you want a nuclear reaction. And encourage any activities which let them have some emotional release- whether it's acting, dance, drama, football, athletics or writing their first novel.

Every hour of every evening, shut in my bedroom because I had nowhere to go even if my parents had allowed school night outings (which they most certainly Did Not), seemed to last forever. Yes, I was desperate  for life to start. If I lay down on the floor with my head between the speakers of my record player (thank the lord for the kind older friend who bought me that!!!), and put Joni Mitchell on at top volume, I could just about drown out the frustration and the misery and the impatience of waiting- for romance, for emotional stimulation, for something to happen to me. At least Joni was singing about stuff that mattered, and if I was ignoring my homework, well, so what? Tell me how geometry matters?  I was not interested in geometry. There was no spare corner in my heart for it, and you'd better believe that my heart was not giving my head a millimetre of air time. And yes, everything needed capital letters or italics or SHOUTING, because the feelings just had to burst out somehow.

Moral? Music is important. Don't forbid the music. Find a way to make it work for the household. And expect manufactured dramas and a bit of shouting, but don't take it personally. Keep calm and try to reflect what they're saying and feeling back to them- "You sound totally frustrated" is going to work a lot better than "How dare you speak to me like that!".  (Just sayin'.)

And then there was the spectre of exams, from yearlies to the HSC.  Imagine you're in a waiting room. You know that before anything interesting happens, you have to sit there in that chair till the dentist calls you to drill your teeth without an anaesthetic. The wait will take somewhere between six months and six years, depending on when your adolescent hormones put you into that chair by insisting that you turn your attention from pleasing the teacher to pleasing yourself.

You truly believe you'll feel better when it's over and everything in your life will right itself- you'll be free- but the wait seems interminable, and the more you think about it the more anxious and miserable and full of self-doubt you get.

You'd do anything to leave that room, even if it means climbing out the window and breaking your neck.

Are you remembering any of this?

Moral: BE KIND to your children when exams are looming.  They need your support more than ever. Get involved in helping them study, or let them set up a peer support group that meets at your house to study- you've got to make it appealing, and that usually means involving the peer group. Make good food for them and their friends- roasts and tacos with salad instead of pizza and Maccas. Bring them hot chocolates when it's getting late. Help them balance study with energy release and fun.

I was so stressed out by expectations (no blame to my parents- it was my expectations of myself, and my teachers expectations as well) that I really, truly wanted to leave school when I was 16.  I had it all mapped out in my head. I had a friend who wanted to be a psychiatric nurse, so I thought I'd do that too. (Yep, you're right, I was temporarily insane.) I pleaded with my parents to let me STOP the torture of school. Naturally, they said no, and I hated them for it.

But in the end, they did let me drop a few levels in the subjects that bored me to tears (maths, physics and chemistry in my case) and spend more time on the subjects I loved, like music and English- and that saved me.  You'd better believe I was never going to do well in something I found irrelevant to my life and passions and dreams.

Moral: cut your teenagers some slack about their schoolwork. Believe it or not, doing a million maths exercises every night is not going to turn them into Einstein. Let them study subjects they're interested in if you want them to do well; forcing them to study subjects that are on YOUR personal career agenda is a recipe for rebellion and misery. Expect to be hated now and then when you have to draw a line. Make sure the line leaves some sanity space on their side, hey?

And then there's body image.  O,  M,  G.

I can remember a relative walking in the door when I'd just hit the puppy fat stage and saying 'Good lord, you've put on SO much weight.'

She did that sort of stuff every time she turned up, which was about once a week. And I've fought my body image all the way from anorexia to severe overweight all my life.

Are you going to allow people to say that stuff to your teenager? ARE YOU?

DON'T.  Don't allow it. It's not worth it. Speak up and advocate for your kid. I don't care if Auntie Mary will disinherit you all if you challenge her. SPEAK UP and silence that sort of judgment before it causes a lifelong problem, please.

And before you start telling your teenager what not to wear, I challenge you to go to your old photo albums and check out yourself at the same age.  (And remind yourself what your mum and dad said to you about your choices, and what you did about it.  My huge-circle-of-blue-eyeshadow stage only lasted a few outings, thanks to my mother holding her tongue.)  If it's not actually showing your child's genitals to the world- if it's a matter of taste, not personal safety- then you may as well save your breath.  Check out what all the other teenagers are wearing before you insist on the C21st equivalent of twin set and pearls.

Adolescents are people too, you know.  They're people struggling with intense changes in their body and their emotions. You were one of those once, and before you say a single word to that teenager who's got you riled, ask yourself what YOU were like at that age...

...after all, you're looking at 50% your own genes, you know.

1 comment:

  1. i agree completely. I would esp. hate to be a teenage gilr now - so much more presure to be thin etc. I am so glad to be in my early 40's & confident enough in who I am!


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