August 1, 2012

Back to School-Is Your Teenager Terrified?

For many young people the approach of fall is a time of enormous apprehension.  School can be a very difficult environment full of overwhelming pressures for teenagers who are often insecure about who they are and their place in the world.  It’s easy to lose sight of the fears teenagers have in a world where bravado dominates.  Television is full of adolescents characters who are wise beyond their years, often dominating their hapless parents.  In comedies these kids are sassy, confident and full of quick comebacks-easy to do when a professional writer is giving you  dialogue.  Much of the world of adolescent music is dominated by brash, boastful lyrics.  Admitting to fear, weakness and insecurity can be an invitation for bullying or intimidation.  Letting parents know how they feel often becomes difficult for adolescents, even those who have close relationships with their parents because they are so eager for greater independence.

Peer pressure is real and still exists.  Not ready for sex?  How do you admit that to your friends or express it to a guy or girl you like but fear losing if you’re not cool and relaxed about it?  Drugs scare you?  How do you express your concern to a friend who is drinking to much, how do you say no in a group situation where everyone else seems to be having fun.  What if you don’t like how a friend is treating you?  It takes a long time for many people to learn how to stand up for their needs in relationships.  Teenagers are often still figuring out what those needs are!  So how do you speak up and risk losing a friendship when someone does things that hurt your feelings?  The fear of losing a friend is particularly strong at this stage in life before we learn that we will have many other opportunities.

That children can be cruel is an axiom.  Older children, i.e. teenagers can be more sophisticated and deliberate in their cruelty.  Yes, adults can be cruel but with jobs, marriages, long term relationships at stake there are often significant outside checks to stem hurtful behavior.  A greater focus on bullying as a behavior that is NOT a normal part of growing up and should not be tolerated is helping to curb some of the worst adolescent “crimes” but more subtle hurtful behavior is harder to recognize or confront. Teenagers can be masters of manipulation and deceit.  This makes sense when you realize that they lack the true power adulthood grants and that these are the primary tools at their disposal.

And these are just the social pressures!  Academic pressures are strong as well.  How often, once we leave school, are we graded on our performance?  Yes, performance continues to be important in adulthood  but it is rarely scrutinized as intensely or as frequently as occurs in a school setting.  Teenagers are constantly being judged academically, usually with parents in the background who are reminding them of how critically important these grades are to their entire future!  Caring parents don’t want to add to this stress but they also are anxious and fearful about the future of their teenagers and, while wanting the best for their children, may add to anxiety that interferes with success!  A little pressure is good for performance-too much is counterproductive and it is often very hard to know what that magic correct amount is.

Teenagers who are more anxious can experience significant apprehension as the return to school approaches.  The adults in their lives can help by being supportive and understanding.  Don’t dismiss or diminish the reality of those fears as that can make the young person feel even more inept or inadequate or a bigger disappointment to their parents.  Ask what they anticipate.  What will be hard?  How can you help?  What have they thought about as coping strategies?  Offer ideas WHEN ASKED.  Express confidence in their ability to find ways to deal with their fears.  It is always helpful for parents to share stories of aspects of their adolescence that were difficult, to help your teenager see how you overcame some of the problems you faced.  I know that the parents out there can remember their own struggles.  Keep that challenging time of life in mind as your teens return to the world of school.

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