Q: Dear Dr. Wes and John: My mom says these are the best years of my life; that I should make use of these years. I am 15, and if these are the best years of my life, I do not want to be around for the rest.
A: Dr. Wes: This was a poignant little note, and I appreciate you raising the issue. It's a tradition for parents to try and raise the spirits of their teenagers by extolling the virtues of adolescence. It's kind of the reverse of, "When I was a kid, I had to walk to school in blizzards, uphill both ways." In this more optimistic story, parents want you to be thankful for your youth and not miss all the great things it presents.
You see, the more distant we get from our teen years, the more we think they must have been really terrific. We didn't have a mortgage or credit card bills to pay. We didn't have to get up every day and work 40 or 50 hours a week. Love was fresh and excruciatingly exciting. We had our friends close at hand, and the times we shared made memories for a lifetime. We could desperately yearn for freedom, pulling wildly against the forces of parental and societal authority without really suffering many consequences. Best of all, everything was new and open for exploration. So when your mom looks back like the lady in the song "1985," she just can't help but cheer you on.
However, mom may be forgetting all the yucky crap we had to go through as teens. For many, these years are filled with rejection, embarrassment and perpetual awkwardness. As kids grow up, some of those great friends turn out to be less than trustworthy, and many do not last until graduation. The kids I see - even the excellent students - constantly remind me of how stressful school has become. With love comes inevitable pain and sometimes problematic dating patterns that hang around much too long. Teen demands for freedom cause conflict, which can leave hard feelings well into adulthood. New and novel things are, by definition, untested, often posing a potential for unexpected harm. So I understand the frustration you feel when mom encourages you to sit back and let the joys of adolescence wash over you like warm rainwater.
Instead I urge you never to judge the prospects for your future life by your years as an adolescent. As a psychologist and recovering teenage boy, I can tell you that the two have nothing to do with each other. Who you are at 25, 35, etc., will depend less on who you are at 15 than how you organize your life between now and then. Enjoy the good things that adolescence has to offer - there are some. But to give up now is like buying a ticket and popcorn at the movie theater, watching previews of other movies and then leaving just as the opening credits run. The really good stuff is yet to come, and as you become more able to choose what to do, who to do it with, and when to do it, you'll also find yourself and the things that make life meaningful. If things are getting too depressing or you really are having some thoughts of harming yourself, please visit with a therapist at once so s/he can work with you on these issues.
John: "These are the times that try men's souls." Those words, spoken by Thomas Paine, were initially meant to describe the late 1700s, but also could be applied throughout history. Paine and your mother accurately can point to privileges that are no longer available, as well as hardships that plague modern life.
Many people wish they lived in another decade, mistakenly believing that "life was simpler in those days." Perhaps you'd like to live in the '40s, when gas was cheap and courtesy a way of life. Or maybe you yearn for the '60s, when the world was fresh and "the revolution" was impending. But historians note that every era had its disappointments, and the number of people who report feeling happy has never varied much. Perhaps this is because satisfaction depends not on being dealt the best cards in the deck, but in finding the aces already in hand.
The teen years can be harsh. Even if you do survive the loneliness, anger, peer pressure, incompetent teachers and endless standardized testing, you still have to worry about body image, paying for college, maintaining grades, betrayal and ultra-competitive extracurricular activities. And you have little experience to draw on. It's one thing for an adult to resist the trends in which her friends are involved. It's far more difficult for a developing teenager. On the flip side, remember that your mother has her share of annoyances. Let her know you appreciate her. Try, "Hey, mom! Thanks for paying our mortgage!"
But take comfort in the fact that you made it through middle school. In my case, at least, high school was a far more comfortable experience. As long as you stick to the basics (turning in assignments, balancing school and friends, staying away from drugs, etc.) you'll do fine. Just remember that your high school years will be what you make of them, and the best years of your life will always be the ones you are coming into.
Next week: The annual Double Take contest for next year's co-author. This year the contest carries a special bonus: An $1,100 dollar scholarship for the co-author's first year of college. We'll offer the challenge question in next week's column and publish the winner and runner-up a few weeks later, so warm up your word processor.
- Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. John Murray is a Free State High School senior. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.