What Teens Really Need from Us

By Amy Torchia, Children’s Advocacy Coordinator, Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence

My personal lesson this month has been about adolescent development and the responsibilities that adults have in the lives of teens.

At a training this week, I heard a scenario of a middle school relationship.  The boy sent abusive accusing jealous texts to his girlfriend.  The boy had lots of unhealthy relationships to watch and model, transition and trauma to contend with – not to mention the experience of racism and a culture dominated by male privilege telling him that he had the right to exert this kind of control over his partner.  The girl was from a home with lots of healthy models but nonetheless a girl hearing from the larger world to be strong and stand up for herself and, at the same time, take care of her boyfriend’s needs and watch the length of her shorts.  How confusing is all that to figure out?  We adults want them both to succeed, be safe and happy, and learn about and engage in healthy relationships.  But, they can’t do it without us.  They are only 14.

We lost a teen boy in our community last night.  He was swimming with friends in the pond, went under and didn’t resurface.  We don’t know what happened yet.  Most likely he was dehydrated or had a cramp.  This beautiful young man’s life was cut short and his family, friends and community are devastated.  He was only 17.

I have been watching his friends on facebook.  They are sharing stories, expressing their love for him, their love for each other and offering to spend time together and talk.  They have created a beautiful safe forum to grieve together and support one another.  I have a worry, though.  I have seen a few invitations to go out and get blasted together in honor of him and a few stories of reckless and unsafe behavior.  In the wake of the death of a friend, there is some talk of doing things that could lead to even more tragedy.  According to research on adolescent brain development, we now know that this is not an atypical response.  At the earlier stages of adolescence, normal fears of danger are temporarily suppressed and at the same time – young teens are learning to navigate social relationships in a critical way.  Later, their prefrontal cortex develops enough to better manage unsettled emotions and risk-taking.  Advanced skills of problem solving and planning strategies don’t actually finish developing until age 20.

The question remains for me as a mother, an aunt, and an Advocate who thinks a lot about the experiences of children and youth:  How do we best support kids along their journeys in a way that respects them as humans and considers their developmental needs?

I pick and choose what I read on my facebook newsfeed.  I got half way through an article that was in the vein of…. ’Our parents never knew where we were, we were free.  They just locked the door after curfew and didn’t let us in.  They woke us up at 6:30 on weekends to do chores. What is wrong with you parents today? You’ve all been duped, talk too much about feelings, too involved but demand nothing, tiptoe out the door on weekend mornings’.  I hate articles like this.  There is nothing like an all-knowing adult to support more adults to be all-knowing without curiosity about the experiences of teens or understanding of their developmental abilities.  To the writer I say this:  Sure, it might have felt freeing that your parents didn’t know where you were and that your consequence was to sleep outside.  But, I would argue that the actual consequence was that you felt disconnected and unconsidered and that you were often unsafe.  Might it have felt better if your parents helped you navigate it all rather than leave you on your own with only their consequences to guide you?

Then, my newsfeed brought me this article:   What Teens Need Most from Their Parents.

As adolescents navigate the stormiest years in their development, they need coaching, support, good examples and most of all understanding.

The article talks about new longitudinal research that is changing scientists’ views on the role parents (and I’d stretch to include all adults in the lives of teens) play in helping children navigate the volatile decade of adolescence.  Once seen as a time for parents to step back (reference the article I got half way through), adolescence is increasingly viewed as an opportunity to stay tuned in and emotionally connected.  The article goes on to identify four important phases in the development of intellectual, social and emotional skills that most teens will experience at certain ages.  From my perspective, one awesome bonus outcome of this approach is stronger relationships with the kids in our lives.

We’re launching our daughter into her college dorm in two weeks.  There are times when she still wants to crawl into bed with us – like last night when she got the tragic news that her friend had died.  There are other times when my somewhat common questions that start with ‘Have you….?’ are increasingly getting on her nerves – and rightfully so.  She’s making a pile to go with her that includes condoms and the stuffed snowman she’s been sleeping with since she was 3.  She is only 18.