As parents and professionals, we complain about young people who won’t talk to us. “Come on, what’s troubling you?” we ask. “You know you can tell us anything!” The young person looks back, unconvinced, and says nothing.
We comfort ourselves by saying that it’s an annoying phase, that all teenagers are sullen and uncommunicative, that not talking to parents in normal. And, in a way, it is. Young people are learning about privacy. They’re learning to tell different things to different people. That much is obvious. But it’s more complicated than that.
Sometimes I run workshops for parents with titles like ‘Living with a Teenager’ or ‘Understanding Angry Teenagers’. Parents come along expecting to get (and to give each other) advice about their sons and daughters. What they don’t expect is to have to think about themselves as teenagers because each one of them lives with a teenager inside themselves: an angry or unconfident or confused teenager, depending on their own experience of those years. Their relationship with that internal teenager will always inform their relationship with an actual son or daughter, making some communication easier and other communication massively more difficult because there will be things we’d still rather not talk about, things we regret and feel ashamed of, things that bring back bad memories and all manner of unresolved feelings.
Young people have a sixth sense. They pick up adult anxieties, adult uncertainties, adult defensiveness. They’ll only talk about the things they think that adults can bear to talk about. So if they sense, for example, that sex is a difficult subject for a parent to discuss, they won’t mention it. If they sense that a parent has never felt real despair, or, on the contrary, has felt overwhelming despair that can never be acknowledged, they’ll avoid the topic. If they sense that a parent is uneasy with his or her own anger, it’ll be difficult to talk together about anger. Or failure. Or loneliness. Or fear. Or doubt. A parent’s own ability to bear these things will determine whether or not a teenager risks talking about them.
We can pretend otherwise, insisting that this is all in the past, that we’ve moved on and that those days are long gone. We can pretend to be robust nowadays, full of purpose, unaffected by doubts and uncertainties, supremely confident. But it just sounds false. The louder we protest our omnipotence, the more defensive we sound and the harder it becomes for young people to share anything personal with us.
For young people, our failures are always more interesting than our successes. Our failures are more reassuring than a litany of magnificent achievements or list of lessons learned. Actually, all those doubts and uncertainties, all those fears and failures are comforting. For a teenager feeling uncertain, fearful of the future and making endless mistakes, it’s much easier to talk with someone who doesn’t have all the answers.
I’m not advocating abject hopelessness. Of course there’s an extent to which we’ve moved on and learned from our mistakes. But that isn’t necessarily what young people need to hear. They need to hear that they’re not alone, that their anxieties are shared by other people. Then they can talk.