‘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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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