How to Escape the Trap of Your Bleak Teenage Reality

How to Escape the Trap of Your Bleak Teenage Reality

cartoon portrait of the author, Patrick, wearing brown glasses and a pink shirt

Patrick Turbiville, LCSW is an individual and group psychotherapist in Austin, Texas specializing in helping adults understand and recover from traumatic childhood and adolescent relationships. Patrick co-founded Austin Wellness Entrepreneurs, a network of local wellness professionals committed to supporting the holistic health of their clients.  Before becoming a psychotherapist, Patrick worked in pre- and elementary schools and owned/operated a recording studio.  Follow Patrick on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter

Disclaimer:

This blog is intended to have value for all teens, but some may quickly find that they don’t identify with it. One reason this blog might not reflect the experience of some teens is that it explores somewhat typical challenges faced by teens and their parents.  It’s an unfortunate truth that teens of all backgrounds may experience abuse by their parents. If this describes you, then it won’t make much sense (and may even harm you) to try to develop empathy for a parent whose harsher moments include physical or emotional abuse.  If this describes you, please talk about it with an adult you trust. This can be a teacher, counselor, or relative (but it doesn’t have to be–trust your instincts). Doing so may be difficult, but could also help to get you on a path toward feeling safer, more confident, and more hopeful about the future.

Part I: Reality Sucks! More, Please.

multiple colors of paint smeared on a plate

This blog is going to be pretty bleak, but you’re a teen, so I’m pretty sure you can handle bleak.  This blog will also be pretty real. If I can make another generalization about teens (aside from how much they love being generalized), it’s this: If there is one thing most teens appreciate, it’s realness.  

Why is that?  I think it’s because they just don’t get enough of it.  Your peers may be too concerned with appearing more mature, experienced, competent, smart, fun, badass (or whatever) than they possibly could be.  

Your parents may be too fearful that talking in a real way would somehow mean they approve of dangerous, illegal, immoral, unhealthy, or otherwise unacceptable things that teens inevitably encounter (like the drugs…  or the sex).

Or, parents may be grasping onto hope that, if they shelter you from life’s most complex and potentially painful issues (like the drugs… or the sex), you’ll never have to deal with them.  Either way, to parents, the stakes seem incredibly high. Intentionally introducing their child to bleak reality (even though they’ll eventually become well-acquainted anyway) appears to be fraught with opportunity for confusion, painful emotions, and a wide variety of potentially-life-altering catastrophes.

Most Parents also fear making mistakes when discussing tricky subjects like drugs, sex, friendships, romantic relationships, school, career, religion, politics, et cetera.  And, it makes sense that they would worry about making mistakes, because they WILL make mistakes.  (They are human just like everyone else.)  It might go something like: “What if I give the wrong advice and my kid suffers because of it?  Then I have to watch them suffer! And maybe they’ll see me as stupid or weak.  How well could I possibly do this parenting thing after that?”  Parents want your respect SO BAD, but being real (the one thing that could most easily earn your respect) is extra scary for them.

One common response to this situation is a “Because I said so” or “That’s just how it is” approach to discussing difficult topics.  For teens, this immediately rings false. You already know the world isn’t so simple. You also know better than anyone that the parenting approaches described so far don’t work so well.  A lot of adults have forgotten how much they learned through trial-and-error, through messing up and dealing with the natural consequences that follow. Many parents have forgotten that this is the kind of learning that really sticks around, far more than most punishments a parent can serve up or any conversation that includes a version of “Because I said so.”  But for you, this is daily life.

Part II: Life’s Not Fair, and That’s Totally Unfair.  

It’s not fair.  It really isn’t.  You’re doing a lot of things for the first time, without a lot of guidance.  Everything you do is an experiment, and most of the time it doesn’t go well. The worst part is that, even though you’re doing almost everything for the first time, this isn’t a trial run.  The relationships you make and break are real.  The feelings of love and loss and isolation and devastation are real.  The consequences of your decisions are VERY real.  Sometimes, the stakes truly are “life and death.”  (Yup. Sometimes teens actually die, and that FREAKS. PARENTS. OUT!)  Despite the high stakes, you may have to make a decision about something you don’t have any experience with, all on your own, with no help from anyone but other teens who are also new to, well… everything.  

On top of this, parents either don’t get what your going through, forgot what it’s like, or are afraid of what they will learn if they try hard enough to understand.  It may seem like I’m asking you to give parents a break because old-brain-no-work-so-good. Nope! But I am asking you to give them a break for a different reason, which is also totally unfair (to everybody): Even if a parent completely understands that teens are dealing with very real, very difficult, and very new challenges, they can’t give you a break.  They can’t give you a break because of a simple indisputable fact: by current legal and biological definitions, you are not an adult.  

For one thing, in addition to often over-inflated anxieties about how their teen will suffer if they stumble into the wrong kind of trouble, parents may be held legally and financially responsible for any mess their teens find themselves in.  If they don’t parent you quite right, they potentially have fines and jail time to deal with! (No pressure, right?) Moreover, if they do give you a break, you miss out on an important but uncomfortable lesson:

You can’t rely on anyone to give you a break when you need it,
and you have to learn, RIGHT NOW, how to handle that.  

If you don’t learn that lesson before you’re on your own–when your home, family, and happiness depend on you solving a problems without getting a break from anyone–you’re going to have a bad time.  This is not just a lesson you miss out on. It’s a skill, and the ability to make your own decisions, solve your own problems, and recover from mistakes. It’s confidence.

This confidence, if it’s going to withstand the bleak reality we come to know in adolescence, can’t come from imagining how we might deal with real consequences later (when our parents won’t be there to save us from making mistakes or give us a break by withholding punishment).  Real, unbreakable confidence only comes from overcoming the actual confusion, hurt, and fear we experience when our parents let us deal with the full consequences of our actions.  Or, if potentially disastrous consequences are possible, but didn’t come to be this time, a parent might punish a teen to drive home a harsh point: “When you’re on your own, I may not be around to punish you, but dealing with the natural consequences of your actions may be far worse than any punishment I can dream up.”

So, it’s not helpful for parents to be too protective or controlling, but they simply don’t have the option to set you free.  In either case, it will be harder for you to develop the skills you need to build the life you want for you.  To be clear, what your parents want for your adult life is irrelevant here.  This affects your ability to get what YOU want.

With all of this on the line, it’s understandable that parents can freak out and fall apart when facing the challenge of raising up a teen, even if you’re not doing much that seems like a reason to freak out.  And while we can wait around for our parents to take on a more balanced, middle-of-the-road perspective (don’t hold your breath), it’s more effective for teens to acknowledge the complicated issues at play, so they aren’t taking it personally or feeling even more confused by the things parents do or say about the challenges teens face (like the drugs… or the sex).  

On the surface, it’s all nonsense.  But underneath, it makes complete sense.  It’s an experiment. It requires practice. It can be painful. It’s for your own good. All of that being true, it’s worth saying again:  IT’S… NOT… FAIR!!!

Part III: IT’S A TRAP!

What does all of this sound like to you?  To me, it sounds like a trap. It kind of is, for you and your parents.  You have to make decisions you are unprepared to make without adequate guidance.  The reality is, life is so complicated, there’s probably no such thing as “adequate guidance.”  

a person's feet standing on top of playground, looking down

Your parents, on the other hand, have to let you make mistakes if you are ever going to learn anything worthwhile.  Some of these mistakes could have emotionally-damaging, life-threatening outcomes.  Sometimes, they’ll even ensure that these mistakes are painful (through punishment), and that you take responsibility for overcoming that pain.  They are bound to do this, even though every fiber of their being wants to protect you from ever having to experience the shame / frustration / pain / anxiety / guilt / embarrassment / grief / depression / hopelessness / defeat / absolutefreakindevastation that comes along with making mistakes while all of your friends and peers are watching.  

I can’t imagine that anyone enjoys this arrangement.  But, it’s where we are. We’re trapped. And that’s okay.

Part IV: Now What?

Now what?  Well, we don’t have many options.  Life is chaotic. There is no definitive instruction manual.  Even lessons from folks acting like experts (like this blog, for example), aren’t always very helpful, because it can be hard to truly take lessons to heart in any other way than trying, failing, and trying again.  In light of all this, I have a few pieces of advice:

  • Lean in.  You don’t want to make mistakes on purpose, but you don’t have to fear making a mistake.  You can accept that mistakes will happen and, in time, develop confidence in your ability to overcome them when they do.
  • Hold on.  Mistakes are often unpredictable.  That’s part of why they are mistakes.  Ones that seem big may not end up so bad.  Small ones may get out of control. Learning to handle the unexpected ups, downs, twists, and turns is much more important to your future success in adulting than trying to fix each mistake in just the right way.
  • Avoid extremes.  Extremes are enticing.  They spare you from having to make hard choices.  If you never talk with your parents, you don’t have to figure out when it would be helpful (even though it’s hard).  If you do everything your friends do, you don’t have to decide when it’s best to be different. But, when you spare yourself from making hard choices, you stop yourself from learning how to make choices that YOU are happy with.  This applies in other ways as well: Allow yourself to change your mind. Allow yourself to do things part-way if better options arise. Forgive yourself for that thing you can’t undo.
  • Practice patient optimism.  So, reality is bleak.  So, what? You eat up bleak reality like breakfast.  And, all of this unfairness and suffering isn’t for nothing.  You’re training to be a reality ninja. It may seem unbelievable, but some problems that make you feel like you could literally die today won’t even make you blink someday in the future.  Achieving this takes time and patience. Give yourself time to get to a better place. Now sucks ≠ forever sucks.
  • Live with compassion (in all directions).  You’ll make mistakes.  Your parents will make mistakes.  There are probably a dozen mistakes in this article.  No one tries to mess up, and life is incredibly difficult even if you don’t count the things you could blame yourself or others for.  This can all lead to some very harsh thoughts and feelings. Acknowledging that we are doing our best and that others usually are too, especially in the worst of times, can bring comfort that is hard to find elsewhere.

So, what’s the TLDR?  Reality is harsh. Life is messy (for you, for your parents, for everyone).  Mistakes Happen. We have to take responsibility for making decisions we aren’t prepared to make.  Hard lessons are often the most valuable ones. None of this is fair. Oh, and also… you can handle it.

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