‘You Don’t Have to Have it All Figured Out’ – And Other Things I Want My Teen to Know

Talking to Teens - What I Want My Teen to Know

It very likely that every emotion in the history of emotions will land on every adolescent at some point. Some will come and go quickly, but some will heap themselves lavishly upon our teens and stay for way too long or appear way too many times. 

As loving parents, it’s understandable that we might want to lift them over the trouble and land them softly somewhere safe and bundled, but we can’t do that, and it wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing for them even if we could. The struggle is often the fertile ground where they discover the depth of their own courage, resourcefulness, and resilience. 

The transition between child and adult isn’t an easy one, but it wasn’t meant to be. It’s a time of discovery, experimentation, and exploration. Sometimes this will be exhilarating, and sometimes it will hurt.

Even as adults we will often find ourselves feeling the squeeze of difficult emotions and lumbering fears. Growth doesn’t always present itself in ways that glisten. Part of living and loving means that sometimes, our hearts will hurt. We will question who we are, where we fit in, why our greatest loves don’t love us back, why the opportunities we chase hard will turn us down, and why the things we ache for will stay out of reach.

As an adolescent, it can feel as though the things that happen will define us forevermore, and carve out a path that is unexpected and unwanted. Of course, our own children will do adolescence differently to the way we did, but the questions they ask and the issues they face will have a rumbling familiarity about them.

Over time, the wisdom and growth from my own adolescence has come into focus. Here is what I would like my adolescent self to know then, and my own teen to know now:

  1. There is no such thing as rejection or failure.

    Both failure and rejection can feel like an ending, but they aren’t. They’re part of your way forward, not the end of it. What’s important is the way you deal with them when they happen. It’s okay to fall apart for a while. Really – let it go, let it be messy, do what you need to do – cry, scream, write it in an email you’re never going to send (seriously – don’t send it, just trust me on that one). Just don’t take too long to get back up, dust off, learn what you need to, leave the rest, and move forward – wiser, stronger, braver than before. Rejections and failures are redirections, not endings.

  2. There will be plenty of awkward. 

    Sometimes you’ll do embarrassing, humiliating things you wish you could rewind. There are two things you need to know. The first is that they happen to everybody. The second is that you need to hold on to those stories – seriously – they’ll be gold one day. And anyway – the practice at self-compassion will serve you well. The way you awkwardly trip through life sometimes won’t stop when you leave adolescence. But you’ll be okay with it by then. Promise. People love people who can laugh at themselves sometimes.

  3. Stay curious.

    Being human is messy and lives are messy and sometimes people will hurt you. When you understand enough of someone’s story, the things they do will start to make sense. This doesn’t mean those things will be acceptable to you, or even nearly okay, but they’ll make sense. Most importantly, you’ll start to realise that so many of the things people do, even the things that feel shitty, will rarely be about you.

  4. Don’t be afraid to love a little bigger.

    Relationships never fall apart because people are too emotionally generous. They fall apart because at least one person keeps the warmth, appreciation, and love safely stored away where no-one can touch it. It might be safe. But it’s useless. When you open your heart, there will always be a ripple. The ripple will always find its way back to the one who started it, and always at least a little bigger than it was in the beginning, but not always in the way you expected. Being open-hearted doesn’t mean opening yourself up to every human that comes your way. Be daring, curious and willing to be vulnerable, but know when to steer clear or let go. There will always be people who don’t deserve you …

  5. Fiercely enforce the ‘No Asshole Policy’.

    To be close and connected to another person means opening your heart and mind to that person. It means being vulnerable. This will feel scary. The damage is never done in being vulnerable, but in being vulnerable with the wrong person. Some people who come into your life won’t deserve to be there – they’ll lie, they’ll divide, they’ll hate, they’ll tell you that you’re not smart enough, good enough, brave enough, pretty enough. Ugh. You don’t have to be open to these ones. You don’t even need to pretend. Be guided by how you feel. If someone doesn’t feel good to be around, walk away. Run if you want to. It’s called the ‘no asshole policy’, and it’s one of the greatest acts of self-care.

  6. And don’t use the word ‘asshole’ at your parents. Or at anyone actually.

    You’ll always lose your power when you say things in a way that makes it difficult for other people to hear. The conversation will stop being about the issue and will start being about the way you’re talking about the issue. If you want to be heard, it’s important to speak in a way that is easy for people to listen to – that means don’t criticise, don’t yell, don’t be a victim, don’t blame, don’t shame. And if you’re going to swear in spite, don’t let it be in earshot. This will always need to be further away than you think. 

  7. Not everyone will like you.

    Some people will love you, some people won’t think that much of you – and that’s okay. You won’t like everybody either. This doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with them or something wrong with you. It just means you don’t combine well together. You don’t have to like everyone, but you do need to be kind – not because of who they are, but because that’s who you are.

  8. Don’t blame the ref.

    Some decisions will go in your favour and some won’t. Sometimes none of this will make any sense. We’ll all have plenty of jubilant wins and heart-crunching losses. Resist getting bitter about the ones you lose, and cocky about the ones you win. When the losses happen they’ll always seem unfair – and sometimes they will be, completely unfair. There’s gold for you in both, but sometimes you’ll have to dig through the dirt to find it.

  9. Sometimes knowing how you feel will be enough.

    You don’t always need to make sense of things. If it feels bad, it’s bad for you. If it hurts, it’s hurtful. Sometimes the raw logic people use will have you doubting yourself, but don’t. Be honest about your contribution to the problem, but if you can say with an open heart that something doesn’t feel right, listen to that. Sometimes heart-truths will make more sense in the long run than logic ever will. 

  10. You only need to be brave for 30 seconds at a time.

    Courage doesn’t have to happen in glistening feats. In fact, it often won’t. It only has to happen in moments – the moments you decide you will, or you won’t. Staying safe will feel cozy, but it can also be stifling. You’ll surprise yourself with the magic that happens when you let go of the handrails for long enough to be brave enough.

  11. Sometimes shit happens through no fault of your own.

    Sometimes bad things happen to good people. Relationships break, friendships fold, your hard work ends differently to the way you wanted – and sometimes this will have nothing at all to do with you. Be open to what you can learn, and how you can grow through the struggle, but it doesn’t mean you caused it or deserved it, or that you could have done anything to avoid it. Let go of the need to rewind, or understand, or hang on to what should have been, or the outcome you wanted. Life has a way of recalibrating sometimes, and sometimes in ways that press heavily against your heart and bruise you from the inside out – but – sometimes things fall apart so they can come back together in ways that will open a new way forward. There are many ways to a happy ending. Be open to the ones that will be different to the way you expected.

  12. One day, your struggles will make sense.

    Even the struggles that tear at your core will make sense one day. If they don’t, it won’t matter because you’ll have found a gentle acceptance which will always happen eventually if you let it. The heartbreaks, the failures, the mistakes, the lost opportunities – they’ll set you on a course that wouldn’t have been possible if not for them. It will never feel like it at the time, but it will eventually. 

  13. You’ll have to fight for the things that are important to you.

    You’ll be tempted to interpret the setbacks as a stop sign, but don’t. Just don’t. On the other side of every miserable setback will be something you want badly. Fight for you and for the things that feel so important, the thought of not having them strips you bare. If the front door shuts in your face, find the back door. If the back door slams closed, find the window – and there will always be another window. There are many ways to get to where you’re going. The most direct and most obvious ways aren’t always the best ones. Sometimes there will be wisdom, opportunities, and people you need to discover along the way to getting where you are, and you won’t always find them beside the welcome mat at the front door. If your form of entry happens to be the window (and it regularly will be), it’s because there was something you were meant to find while you were crawling through it. I’m not telling you this to scare you, or to make you stop or not bother. I’m telling you so that when it happens, you don’t give up, but you go, ‘Oh, we’ve arrived at the shitty bit. Good. So we’re closer to the gold then.’

  14. But then there will be times to stop.

    Just make sure that if you stop, it’s because you’re ready to change direction and make way for whatever is ahead of you, not because you’re scared that what you want will never happen.

  15. Sometimes the people you love will disappoint you. You’ll disappoint them too.

    Some of those disappointments will be nuclear, but bad decisions don’t equate to bad people. Don’t make it too hard for the people you love to come back. You’ll need their love and forgiveness at times too.

  16. You’re not meant to have it all figured out.

    Some people you know will have it all planned. They’ll know exactly where they want to end up and they’ll have the map for how to get there, complete with distances, times, and terrain conditions – but they’ll be the exception. If you don’t know where you’re headed, there’s a good reason for this, and it’s because this is the time for you to explore, experiment and discover. You might feel confused and frustrated sometimes. You might even feel a little bit scared of being left behind. What will make this worse is the fully grown adult versions of humans who seem to ask with annoying predictability, what you would like to do when you leave school. You used to love this question because it was an opportunity for the dreamer, the adventurer, the changemaker in you to have a voice. Now when you’re asked that question, it feels suffocating. The uncertainty no longer feels like potential and opportunity. It feels like a lacking, a reminder that something is missing. What you need to know is this. That thing that feels like a void is meant to be there – it’s a fertile void, and it’s the space you need to explore and discover what you’re capable of. There’s plenty of time for that to happen. That thing that makes it harder to embrace is fear of not being good enough, smart enough, competitive enough. Fear is a dirty little beast, and it tries to make you smaller to keep you safe. But don’t play safe my darling. Play big. Dream and wonder and stretch yourself as far as you want and know you will always be enough. This doesn’t mean you will always find success, but you weren’t meant to – none of us were. The road to where you’re going isn’t straight. It isn’t predictable and it isn’t certain. That’s what makes it so full of possibility. It will come with plenty of bends and hairpin curves, back-breaking uphills and almighty downhills. None of these are the end of your path to success, they’re part of it. Don’t let fear shut you down. The world needs you big and whole and bold. That’s the whole point of adolescence. You’re not meant to know where you’re headed because this is your time to be brave enough and curious enough to discover what you can do. So be imperfect, fail, fall be open to all of it. This will mean you’ve looked and learned and every time it happens you’ll be closer to where you need to be. There has always been magic in you. Don’t worry if you don’t know what that looks like yet.

And finally …

As the important adult in the life of any teen, you won’t always undrstand what they’re going through, but you don’t need to. What you will understand is that feeling of confusion, hurt, anger, jealousy, betrayal – any of the very raw, very real human emotions we all feel from time to time. There will be times when nothing you can say can soften the landing or make things better for them. The feeling of helplessness that can come from this can be overwhelming, but know that you don’t always need to have wisdom or soothing words. You just need to be there. During these times, understand that your pain, or frustration, or helplessness is likely to be a reflection or a ‘tapping into’ of your teen’s pain or frustration or helplessness. It’s the power of human connection, and it’s all you need to support your teen as they gently and bravely unfold.

[irp posts=”1589″ name=”What Your Teens Need You To Know”]

21 Comments

Sharon

Thank you so much for your words of Wisdom… I like many others have struggled to understand my teen but having read this it is all too clear that I have made it harder than it need be! Thank you for the clarity and thank you from my teen too ?xx

Reply
Wen

It is wonder-ful to have a website like this to turn to when I am lost as a parent (and I live in Asia, so my go-to friends are often time-zones away when I am at an impasse. This article and many on Hey Sigmund give hope and guidance at my most vulnerable (this article would say fertile) moments. Thank you!!! (Also I love the emails… best subscription I have!)

Reply
Patricia

Article worth reading! And…a gentle reminder of the power of parental presence, pacience, & guidance to “support teens as they gently & bravely unfold”.

Reply
Jillan S

As a child psychiatrist i would love for you to know that i often refer parents to your site and often print (and credit you) your articles for them and their teens/kids to read. Thank you for being such a great resource.

Reply
Gail

As a grandparent I am sharing this information with my children and recalling the times when I wish I had such wisdom at my fingertips … thank you!

Reply
Terry

And be brave enough to say sorry no matter how proud you are.
And don’t just say or do what you think society expects you to. Do or say what you think or know is right and fair.

Reply
Susanne

Thank you for another well articulated piece of wisdom, one I wished I had received when I was an adolescent but one I am grateful I can now share with my adolescent child. Thank you!

Reply
Bronwyn

Fantastic! Finally something I can give to my teen, that makes total sense and is in line with my belief system. Thank You!

Reply
Erin

LOVE THIS. I’m in tears. Why do I feel like so much of what I want my kids to know I still struggle with myself?! Ha. Thank you for putting this out there for me ❤️

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Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.

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