“‘Cause I got issues
But you got 'em too
So give 'em all to me
And I'll give mine to you
Bask in the glory
Of all our problems
‘Cause we got the kind of love
It takes to solve 'em.”
–Julia Michaels, Issues
Today my older daughter concludes her first full year as a teenager. As we navigated 13 together, it became increasingly apparent that the most common teen labels are negative, inaccurate, and hindering. I was warned of 13 – and I must admit, these warnings created anxiety and set negative expectations. I found myself bracing for the horrendous things I’d read and heard about. Perhaps you’ve heard the negative stereotypes. It’s hard not to. Guess who else hears them? The teens themselves. I didn’t fully comprehend what this awareness meant until my daughter showed me a poem she wrote for creative writing class in May. It was a form poem, and this is what she wrote:
My daughter’s words took me by surprise and brought tears to my eyes. “This message is so important,” I said to her after collecting myself. “I think this poem could help people. May I have permission to publish it?”
My daughter said she would think about it.
Six weeks later, she said yes.
As I publish this message to the world on Natalie’s 14th birthday, I think of many people I want to send it to …
I want to send it to the youth minister of a church we attended a few months ago. While addressing the congregation, he made a joke about parents desperately wanting to “ship off” their teens. Everyone laughed while my daughter shifted uncomfortably in her seat.
I want to send it to my former neighbor who looked at my happy child a few years ago and said, “Just you wait. Once she becomes a teenager, all that sweetness disappears.”
I want to send it to the high school teacher who often stopped by my classroom during my first year of teaching. After learning I was the Junior Class Sponsor, he said he felt “sorry” for me to have to spend extra time with those “selfish brats.”
I want to send it to the man who rudely interrupted his daughter when she spoke to me because “teenagers just like to hear themselves talk,” he said.
I want to send it to parents who focus so intently on their teen’s areas of weakness that they fail to see they are potential strengths in need of nurturing.
I want to send it to every person who eagerly dismisses the words, ideas, and opinions of teens because they think they are not valid.
What many don’t realize about these negative teen labels is that they stick; they influence; they harm, and they undermine. They can mean the difference between floundering and flourishing … grief or grace … doubt and promise … holding on or giving up – and not just for teens, but for parents too.
The impact of labels has taken on greater meaning as I watch homeless animals be adopted or be overlooked at the cat shelter where my daughters and I volunteer. When two of the kittens we fostered last summer were returned recently by their owner, my daughters and I were heartsick. Their owner surrendered them saying they were too wild, too energetic, and too destructive to be in his home any longer.
On the day of their surrender, my ten-year-old daughter and I went to see them. To our relief, they were every bit as loving and affectionate as they were when they lived with us. Although they were much bigger now, we could still see the precious kittens we loved so dearly within them.
“Oh no,” I said to Avery as I read the description card attached to their cage. The description that all prospective adopters would read to decide if Madras and Clover would make good pets was quite dismal.
One sentence was all that was written, and it reported they had been returned by their owner. My daughter and I looked at each other sadly knowing this negative label would drastically reduce their chance of ever finding a forever home.
“How old are they now?” Avery asked.
“They are twelve months,” I said.
Her face lit up. “Remember that chart we saw at the vet's office? Twelve months means they’re teenagers! This explains why they have extra energy and big feelings. And to think they were returned for that!” she said angrily.
I was struck by this child’s brilliance and compassion! “You are so right!” I agreed. I immediately reached into the file cabinet, grabbed new cards, and re-wrote their descriptions based on everything we knew about these two beautiful, teenage cats.
My hope is that people will read the description cards and focus on the goodness within – because it is there. And once they see the goodness, it will be easier to see possibility and promise.
The experience at the cat shelter reminds me of the birthday cards my daughter Natalie received from her friends at her 14th birthday party held in our basement. She planned the party herself – from nail painting to jewelry making to eating Dō (safe raw cookie dough) instead of cake. I offered to help with the cleanup and collected all her cards in a stack. I noticed how each young lady spent time writing down all the things they loved about Natalie and the goodness they saw in her. One particular comment struck me profoundly. This friend wrote: “Thank you for allowing me to figure out my life plan and showing me the importance of being kind to others.”
While some adults overlook the goodness in teens, young people see it in each other. Perhaps that is why they want to spend so much time together and confide in each other. Perhaps that is why they are perceived by adults as sullen, irritable, and withdrawn. If someone constantly misjudged you, labeled you, or dismissed you, you would probably avoid them too.
If you ask me, negative teen stereotypes are a cop out. Saying teens are “difficult” is an easy way to rid ourselves of any responsibility. Labels allow us to throw our hands in the air declaring, “Teens will be teens.” Labels allow us to deny the critical stage kids are in – a stage of growing into themselves, finding their way, cultivating their gifts. But it is a stage of life that they most need us as their ally – someone who looks sees their goodness and voices it so they always remember their worth.
If things have been difficult with a teen or tween that you love, consider the negative stereotypes that may have influenced your feelings or made you feel unequipped. Let the labels go. Offer yourselves a blank slate. Look at your beloveds and remember how they smiled at you when they were little. That promise you saw in their bright eyes is still there, and they need you to see it now more than ever. If you see promise and possibility in them now, they are more likely to see it in their future. As my daughter beautifully illustrates in her poem, “One Window,” our teens can better our world if given a chance …
“One window is all I need
To find true friends
To see beauty in everything
To appreciate what I have.
One window is all I need
To follow my dreams
To help others
To notice good in everyone.
One window is all I need.”
My friends, we can provide a window where dreams are realized and released … or we can secure a cage where growth and hope are limited.
Today I vow to reject the labels and be a window, opening my mind and heart beyond negative stereotypes and misconceptions. I refuse to reduce the options of those enduring the most critical years of life.
I see your goodness, dear teens. It didn’t disappear, but it might have gotten squelched. Count on me to nurture it, so it may be set free.
For a powerful collection of short reads & daily intentions that will help you better know and understand your child, tween, or teen, please consider my latest bestselling book, ONLY LOVE TODAY: Reminders to Breathe More, Stress Less, & Choose Love. It is a flip open, read anytime/anywhere source of daily encouragement with emphasis on and strategies for loving ourselves and children “as is.” Thanks to all who are using the beautiful hardcover version as a gift for anyone who is in need of hope and positivity.
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