There are so many doomsayers and negative voices speaking despairingly about what’s wrong with being you (a teen) today. That’s why I’m writing this letter: to reassure you that even though the world has changed a lot over the last 20 years, what you need to thrive and grow hasn’t really changed at all.
However, the statistics are pretty clear that more and more children and teens are struggling with anxiety, depression and a deep sense of apathy about the world that we grown-ups have created for you to inherit. I am really sorry about that.
I worked closely with teens in high schools and as a full-time counsellor and I know that when adolescents find people who genuinely care – who absolutely respect the unique dynamics of this enormous stage of life transition and who commit to walking beside them with unconditional positive regard – they navigate this ancient journey much better, for themselves and their friends.
So I am writing this letter to all of you who are on this bumpy ride to adulthood – and I do ask that you please read it to the end as it’s going to be a bit long. I’m going to explore for you some key concepts and ideas that may help you when things get wobbly, as they often do during this incredibly tumultuous time of your life.
There are 10 things I’d like to share with you.
1. Change triggers stress.
From around 10 years old, you will have been experiencing invisible changes that have caused you stress. These are changes you did not ask to happen and they are changes that are biologically woven into our DNA to ensure that each child transforms into an adult. This is why this stage is called ‘adolescence’ and it can make things pretty bumpy from the ages of around 12 to 25.
The invisible changes are happening to your hormones, your physical body, your emotional world and most importantly – and completely invisibly – in your brain. On top of these invisible changes you will experience other forms of change that will definitely make you feel very wobbly. New schools, new teachers, new classrooms, new timetables, peer and friendship conflicts, weight gain, weight loss, lost phones, broken hearts, failed tests, physical injuries that prevent you doing things you love, online nastiness, exhaustion from lack of sleep, poor choices that end up with more conflict in your life, clashes with parents around your need for independence and autonomy, increased disorganisation, highly volatile emotional states, moods that are really hard to change, and struggles to avoid using technology like gaming or social media in harmful ways.
When we feel we have a sense of control over our lives we often feel calmer. With the list I have just written is it any wonder that you have some days when you feel incredibly stressed, scared, confused and really unsure about how to make yourself feel better.
This is normal. This happened to all the grown-ups who are on our planet at the moment. This happened to me. This happened to your mum and dad. It will pass just not for a while.
- Not everyone will agree with you. That’s OK.
- Not everyone will like you. That’s OK.
- Not everyone will be friendly. That’s OK.
- Not everyone will see the world like you. That’s OK.
- Not everything will go the way you want. That’s OK.
2. How your adolescent brain gets you in trouble.
During adolescence, your brain’s changes are mainly responsible for an increased intensity of emotions – both good and bad – a hunger for risk-taking behaviour, and a tendency to make impulsive decisions that lack thought and consideration.
This means you will make some really poor decisions. This does not mean you are bad, or flawed or dumb. You are just going to make some really bad decisions.
When I was 15, one weekend I was not where I told my parents I would be after netball. I was on a farm with some of my boy mates and we were driving ‘old bomb’ cars around in a paddock. One of them dared me to a race and I couldn’t resist. The cut-down ute I was driving hit a rock and flipped over throwing me on the ground.
I sat up just in time to see the ute hurtling back towards me and I tried to get out of the way as quick as I could.
The ute landed on my right foot. My foot swelled up really quickly splitting my netball shoes in half. It was a difficult phone call ringing my dad and asking him to come and get me. My dumb decision caused me to miss out on playing sport for over 12 months! Sport, particularly basketball, had been one of the main things that made me feel good (that’s because physical activity you love creates feel-good neuro chemicals in the brain). That year was a very dark year in my life.
So please keep in mind that if you make a poor decision that you deeply regret, you are not dumb or stupid or flawed. You have an incomplete adolescent brain that is prone to making impulsive poor choices in the heat of the moment.
The prefrontal cortex in your brain, which helps you make much better decisions, does not finish until sometime in your 20s. So if you have a friend or a sibling who makes a poor choice, especially one that causes physical pain, know that they will struggle for some time after the event. Step forward and be a good friend as it really will make a difference on how quickly and how much better they will recover. Remember every teen’s worst enemy is themselves.
3. Feeling stressed and anxious is not always a bad thing.
You are meant to feel anxious when you start a new school, you have to do an oral presentation in class, perform in front of the school or you have an exam or test.
A certain amount of anxiety can be beneficial to increase your capacity to focus. However when it is flooding you, and paralyses you from going to school, or from having a go, it has become problematic.
Learning ways to calm anxiety and stress is an important part of managing our own wellbeing.
There are many ways to build positive neurochemicals that can counteract the stress neurochemicals and you need to learn what they are as soon as you can. For some it’s music, for others it’s physical activity, for some it’s spending time in nature – and that might mean fishing, mountain biking, surfing or just walking the dog.
You can take charge of whether stress takes charge of you or not.
Every now and then, give yourself an opportunity to stretch yourself — choose a new goal, take up a new hobby, set a different PB — stretching builds courage and confidence.
I want to gift you a calming audio track that if used often will help build a calming neuropathway in your brain that will help you in times of stress. It’s called RELAX and ESCAPE…and it’s fabulous before exams and your driving test! You can download that here.
4. Please don’t listen to your inner critic voice.
The mindless thoughts that flood through your head really get stronger in adolescence. Small things can easily become big things and I explain this as being a bit like an ANT attack. ANT stands for automatic negative thoughts – and if they are allowed to run wild in your mind you can get stuck in some really dark places.
Hiding deep inside your mind is also the voice of your ‘higher self’ or your inner compass. This voice is much quieter than the inner critic and can be really hard to hear in a teen’s brain.
If you can learn to practice some mindfulness or calming strategies, you will begin to hear the incredible wisdom that it holds for you.
The more stressed you are, the less you will hear this wise voice. Before you make a quick decision, pause, take a few deep breaths and imagine you are asking your heart if this is a good idea.
This is especially important when you’re online… really ask yourself before you hit post or send:
Better still, sleep on any decision that is really important – and ask yourself the question again.
Speaking of sleep, please try to reduce your screen time at night to help with sleep. Teen sleep problems are real and can make stress so much worse. It’s so easy to lose track of time and yes FOMO is hard to resist but staying up late on screens can make you sick, more crabby, more negative, mess with learning and increase your chances of depression! Go on give it a go – good sleep can be a game changer!
Some of our craziest behaviours are often an attempt to end an ANT attack because they tend to trigger more stress, more of the stress hormone cortisol and it feels really lousy.
Pleasurable activities – both real and imagined – can help you feel better in your inner and outer world.
Remember everything begins with a thought and keeping an eye on your thoughts will help you to clear negative ones when they appear.
So kind thoughts, grateful thoughts or thoughts about how to help or encourage others always make positive brain chemicals and act like ANT poison!
5. Find your ‘spark’ and prioritise it in your life.
No matter what it is – being an environmental warrior, a climate change advocate, horse riding, painting, dancing, cooking, enjoying music, outdoor education, fishing, footy, watching other people play games on YouTube, breeding ducks, chatting with your friends, mountain bike riding, rock wall climbing, yoga, – please find the thing that makes you ‘spark’ and do it often.
This will improve your mood and it will give you energy and basically improve your life.
“Every teenager has a spark – something that is good, beautiful and useful to the world. Sparks illuminate a young person’s life and give it energy and purpose.” — Peter. L. Benson PhD, Sparks; How Parents Can Help Ignite The Hidden Strengths of Teenagers
6. Find your lighthouse.
Every teen needs to have a significant adult ally who is not their mum and dad – I call them ‘lighthouses’. Sometimes it can be a teacher or a coach, an aunt or uncle, a neighbour, a family friend, a friend’s mum or dad – you just need to have somebody who genuinely cares about you and believes in you.
What is interesting is that so often teens who have had a wonderful lighthouse, automatically want to be a lighthouse for another teen in the future.
7. Be a good friend.
Watching out for your friends will help you become a more caring human being. Tell your friends that you care about them often and that you have got their back.
When teens feel emotionally flat they can stop connecting with their friends and the outside world and this can be a very dark place for them to be. It’s always ok to ask your friend “are you ok?” and the simple act of just listening, being there and letting them cry with you is often enough. Remember, though, if you fear for a friend’s safety, you may need to seek help from a trusted adult (and please check out the support services link at the bottom of this article too for some help with that).
Sometimes you or your friend might muck up and hurt each other’s feelings. We’re all human after all! Just know that you can always apologise and (if you’re the one being apologised to) it’s OK to forgive and forget.
Friendships take work – we have to tend them carefully like gardens. So be loyal and kind and respectful of your friends. Also, know that sometimes friends outgrow each other and you might find different interests, and that’s OK too.
Make sure you are not just there for the good times – turn up when life gives them a really big smack … and it will.
When I was teaching, I watched 14-year-old friends share the final weeks of one of their best friend’s life in such a powerful, passionate and real way. The boy who was dying even asked to have his coffin delivered to his home in the weeks before he died so that he could watch his friends draw pictures and write messages on it. Teens are capable of big stuff like this.
8. Embrace the gifts that failure can give.
No seriously failure really can be a gift! If you fail a significant test at school it will tell you that you have not prepared enough, or that you do not have the required level of understanding and you can go and ask a teacher for help. On another level, the failure might be suggesting to you that this won’t be something you will pursue for the rest of your life.
Yup, it feels awful when we fail and if we can support our friends when they fail, that can be really helpful. So many elite athletes and famous people have failed big time in their lives before they brushed the dust off, got back up and had another go.
Failure is not always pleasant, and it is not a true indicator of who you are or the depth of your character. It is just something that happens and it will happen when you’re a grown-up too.
What’s that saying? “If you’re not failing then you’re not even trying”. That is so true.
Also please keep in mind that your final marks at the end of your final year of school do not define who you are or who you could be. There are many paths to the same destination.
9. Your parents really love you.
No, really they do!
There will be times that you will have significant conflict with your parents and you may even shout at each other and slam doors.
The tug and pull of independence is as ancient as the beginning of time.
Parents want to keep you safe and away from harm and you want to spread your wings and fly away.
I believe every parent is doing the best job they can with the skills they have and parenting is a really difficult task in a world that is constantly changing… and because they really love you.
In my counselling work over the years I have shared the deep and profound pain of parents who have lost a child to suicide. They would have willingly given up their own life to save the child.
Seriously your parents really do love you no matter how tough the going gets. If you are struggling please ask for their help. Please. And if for whatever reason you can’t go to your parent/s, please ask another adult you can trust. We all want you to get through to adulthood.
10. You are not your grades.
There are a lot of grown-ups who put pressure on teens about what their school grades are and what they are planning to do with their lives, especially what career pathway they are choosing.
For so many of you getting through tomorrow is often your number one goal.
For those of you who have a dream – hold onto it tightly and don’t let any grown-up steal it or crush it!
For those of you who aren’t sure I am going to give you another suggestion about what to do with your life to keep in the back of your mind.
Quite simply aim to make the world a better place in some small way. See what you can in order to do that every day.
You could pick up some litter, you could help an elderly person with their shopping, or make your mum a cup of tea or you could stop teasing your little sister just for a day.
Every time you do something to help someone else or to help our planet, you will make yourself feel better and more worthwhile. It is actually that simple.
Please check out my TED X talk for more on this. I had a student who failed my final-year English class as he never handed in his assessments. He also failed to graduate. He sold a software company at age 22 for $2.1 million dollars. Go figure!
So dear teen, these years of transformation and change will have many wobbly times where you will find yourself confused and a bit lost.
It’s really important to know that bad things happen to good people – everything is not your fault. With no rhyme or reason, life can just deliver some very hard things to us sometimes.
You are not alone – it’s happening to so many on this bumpy ride! Search for the good grown-ups who understand and who can hold a safe base for you to fall upon.
Many of us remember those years and we found it tough too. I am gifting you a copy of an amazing poem, Desiderata by Max Ehrmann because it was a beacon of hope in my dark teen years and it is still relevant today. Download that here and if you can print it out at A4 or A3, it’s great to stick up in your bedroom or behind the loo door.
As your brain matures, you’ll see there are far more good grown-ups in the world than you might believe. Again, I want to emphasise if you’re worried about a friend be bold and speak to a lighthouse because sometimes teens can be really struggling not just wobbling, and seeking help may save their lives.
Things will gradually get better as you get closer to 20 and by 25 so much of the internal angst you may feel now will have settled and you’ll be making fantastic choices about your own life in a responsible way.
Be mindful of ignoring the negative messages about being a teenager from those who have a poor understanding of the unique potential for goodness and hope that lies within every teenager’s heart.
Spread those wings and fly. You’ve got this.
If this article raises any concerns for you, please contact Headspace, Lifeline (call 13 11 14 or visit lifeline.org.au), Kids Helpline or Beyond Blue.
Also please see my list of SUPPORT SERVICES & HELPLINES FOR TEENS.
Kit Bag for Adolescents
For more support and information on navigating the bumpy ride to adolescence, please check out Maggie’s Kit Bag for Adolescents, a downloadable bundle of ebooks and audio tracks to support you to stress less, boost your brain power and capacity to think positively, and make better decisions.