We need more lighthouses for our kids and teens

From the earliest civilisation in traditional kinship communities, the role of significant safe, adult guidance and mentors has been accepted as being essential in the healthy raising of children to adulthood.

These guides and mentors who are not our mums and dads, are people that I call ‘lighthouses’. So, think of extended family like uncles and grandparents, teachers, your kids’ friend’s parent, neighbours, family friends or community members.

It takes only one adult who can hold the light in a young person’s life to make a significant difference to that young person’s life outcomes.

The role of lighthouses is particularly important during adolescence when children go through massive change and are easily influenced. Over the years I have shared many stories in my books about moments where a former student has shared how important my influence had been on them. With many of these kids, I actually had no idea that they felt that way, and that is the motivation behind this blog.

In parts of Australia, youth crime has become incredibly problematic, and while this is a systemic issue – and we can also point the finger of blame at the unsavoury and unhelpful influence of certain aspects of technology – we must also look within ourselves and our communities. Many of these teens do not have lighthouses.

In my years of teaching and counselling, I met many children and teens struggling with deep self-loathing and chronic low self-esteem. I experienced the same during my own teenage years. I am deeply grateful for the influence of my Year 9 teacher, Mr Daniel; my funny, heart-filled Aunty Una; several teachers from Narrogin Senior High School; and my university basketball coach.

Every one of these people shone a light into my darkness and helped me realise that I was worthwhile and that I deserved to be happy. I am completely convinced I would not be doing what I do today, without these lighthouses.

When a teen, in particular, feels lost in their world, they think no one cares, that they don’t matter and that they are unworthy of being loved and accepted exactly as they are. The power of human connectedness when someone reaches into that place of despair, is transformative. That is why we need caring, competent adult mentors who can make the difference between thriving and flourishing and struggling and failing.

For my book From Boys to Men, I surveyed almost 2,000 men, and I asked them who had been their lighthouse figures during their teen years. They responded:

  • grandparents 15.1%
  • teacher 10.9%
  • aunt 9.8%
  • a friend’s parent 9.4%
  • coach 4.3%
  • uncle 2.1%
  • psychologist/therapist 0.5% and 0.3% respectively

In a similar survey of teen boys, these statistics were reasonably similar, but the overall percentages differed.

  • grandparents 26.2%
  • teacher 19.6%
  • a friend’s parent 9.5%
  • aunt 6.9%
  • uncle 6.9%
  • counsellor 0.3%

Sadly around 2.5% of respondents said they had no one who was a lighthouse figure in their lives.

Sometimes it can be a one-off moment that sees a child or teen consider you as a lighthouse figure.

I remember once when I was on bus duty at the high school where I was teaching, and the bus was late. I noticed a girl waiting on some steps nearby, so I sat next to her. Over 10 minutes, I just chatted and listened and noticed that her mood had cheered up and we even had a laugh or two. I did not teach that girl. I hardly knew her. In the last week of that year, though, she found me and gave me a thank-you card. She said to me her life had been really tough, and she was seriously considering ending it, and that one chat gave her hope, and it changed that trajectory for her. Not only that, she also decided to look out for others who had been feeling just like she had been on that day.

We are all capable of connecting in real life and real-time, and I think we need to prioritise this as I believe our tweens and teens are starving for it.

Please look around you, in your family, in your school or in your community, and see if you can spot a teen who needs a lighthouse.

Maybe their shoulders are slumped a little, or maybe they are looking towards the ground more than the sky, or maybe they seem to be on top of everything  and have a smile fixed on their face. Whoever the teen is, please step forward with a heart full of compassion and lightness. I have written a whole blog about Leaning in with Light which could be helpful.

Lighthouses shine rather than shame

If you are a coach, remember every teen is incredibly sensitive to failure, letting people down, embarrassment, criticism and exclusion. They do not need to be yelled at, shouted at, made fun of, put down or have any other form of relational aggression targeted at them. You never know how fragile their psyche is at that moment or on that day.

I cannot finish this blog without thanking all the wonderful teachers who are out there in our schools leading with head and heart. You know who you are. Yes, the system is broken, and it is harder than ever to have the time or energy to be the lighthouse you want to be. Thank you for remembering that education is not just about passing tests; it’s about raising humans on a very bumpy ride to adulthood. I stand beside you always, and I cheer you on.

One of the secrets of connecting with tweens and teens who are struggling is through vulnerability and honesty. If you are able to share something of a time when things were tough for you, often it opens their heart to compassion for themselves. Lighthouses need to be capable of unconditional acceptance, unwavering positive regard (regardless of any perceived sense of failure on the young person’s part), no judgement, and no unheeded advice or lectures.

Given that every human yearns to be seen, heard, accepted and valued exactly as they are, sometimes a smile, or a greeting using their name, can have more power than you can possibly imagine.

Remember, lighthouses lean in with compassion and act as a safe, predictable base for a child or teen to help them to pause, regroup, recover, replenish and grow.

There are some wonderful organisations that help connect teens to mentors. Some of my favourites are Raise, Big Brothers Big Sisters Australia, Sister2Sister Foundation, Zero2Hero (WA)  and Youth off the Street.

Let’s all step forward and be a lighthouse because our kids need more light, laughter and love right now. You can change a life for the better.