‘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 ❤️

Reply

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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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