‘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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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