I’m just going to say it. The adolescent years can be really messy.
Being a teenager should be fun and full of opportunity, but all too often those years are overshadowed by struggle, stress, confusion, anger, and heartbreak. I’m not just talking about high school drama — though that does have a profound impact on a teenager’s emotional well-being. I’m talking about teenagers who, for one reason or another, carry the weight of the world on their shoulders, who are forced to take on independent responsibility much earlier than their peers, and learn how to be strong out of the necessity of survival. I’m talking about the teenagers who learn the value of a dollar by putting food on the table for their siblings. I’m talking about teens who split their time between two parts of the country, trying to be a child to both parents and growing up way too soon in the process, who struggle to figure out healthy adult relationships without good role models at home. I’m talking about the teens who watch their families deal with disease and death, who live with disability and face their own mortality far too soon, and who watch the world pass them by in a sea of people who don’t understand.
I’ve seen glimpses in my travels. Stories in the college application essays I have my students write in class. A random side comment in the teachers’ lounge about a particular student’s home life. A certain determination in the eyes of an 8th grader as she supported her terrified 17-year-old sister through a severe asthma attack without an inhaler. A young man who didn’t want anyone to know that he worked two jobs to pay his own private school tuition and put food on his little sister’s table. I always move before I find out more of the story or have a chance for a greater impact, but I’ve seen examples like this everywhere.
And I remember my own adolescent struggles, that one circumstance that separated me from all my peers. I remember learning to hate the words “I know how you feel” whenever my brother went to the hospital. Unless hospitals have been a constant part of your family’s life since you were four years old, unless you’ve encountered the gut-wrenching nerves that come with praying through your sibling’s emergency surgeries and drug-induced comas, you don’t know how I feel. I remember crying at school so that my parents wouldn’t see me cry at home. They had enough to worry about as it was, so I thought I had to be strong for them. I remember losing trust in anyone that tried to tell me they were sure he’d be fine, because what did they know? I remember going through the motions of daily life, because this was how we lived and that’s what I was supposed to do. I would stare at the same page of homework for hours, trying so hard to focus, all the while waiting for someone to call, someone to come through the door and purge the empty silence from the house. This was our “normal.”
I finally know now what I desperately wish someone had said to me back then.
It’s OK to not be OK.
It’s OK to be weak sometimes, to be scared and confused. All too often, we feel like others just want us to be “fine,” so instead of allowing ourselves to feel weak and out of control, we stuff all the pain down and put on the happy face we know everyone else wants to see. Don’t stuff it down. Pretend when you absolutely have to (in some situations it’s unavoidable), but find times to let down the facade, too. Find someone to help share the burden. Find a shoulder and cry on it. Find an empty field and scream out your frustration to the sky. Find a punching bag and beat it up. It’s OK.
It’s OK to not be OK… and then take a deep breath and carry on. Because even though we all need to be weak sometimes, you are strong. No matter how badly you want it to stop for a moment, the world keeps turning and you are still a part of it. You are still responsible for your actions, and it’s not OK to take out your anger and frustration on those who don’t deserve it. It’s not OK to deliberately hurt others. Don’t demand that the world stop turning for you, because it won’t (I know – it stinks), but ask for help when you need it.
Finally, this might be my own personal bias, but remember that your teachers were once teenagers, and we’ve made a career out of caring about you. Believe me, we’re not in this profession for money or power, since we get very little of either. We do what we do because we care deeply for you, but so often we don’t know that you need help, or why. Please ask a teacher you like for help when you need it. You might be surprised at the response.
Do you have a story to share that might encourage others? What has helped you get through times of emotional struggle?