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FEATURED ESSAY The Precarious Teen Years and the Honor of Becoming a Blessing
By MARITA PRANDONI
Marita is a contributing editor for Community Works Journal. In addition she provides development support for Community Works Institute (CWI). Marita lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico when she is not on the road with various projects. She is also a freelance writer who has worked for a number of environmental, arts and educational nonprofits including Bioneers, SITE Santa Fe and the Santa Fe Institute. Her dream is to embrace both the beauty and tragedy of all species on this diverse, flowering planet. A fanatic idealist, she endeavors to infect others with a desire to take action for greater social justice and environmental healing. Marita authors the popular EcoHearth blog, Small Earth, as well as contributing occasional Eco Op-Ed commentaries, Eco Hero interviews and articles. She is also a member of EcoHearth’s Advisory Board.
Throughout my diverse job history, I’ve taught preschool and elementary school children, first as a ski instructor and later as a French teacher. The idea of working with young teens never entered my mind. And after living through my son’s rocky adolescence—which eventually became so disruptive that our family turned to sending him out of state to a wilderness therapy program and afterwards, to a behavioral health teen home—working with teens seemed even more daunting. So when my daughter’s 7th grade math teacher asked me to assist in his class, I quickly begged off, owning that I’m slow at math. The teacher reassured me that it was easy. He had a binder with instructions for teaching each concept and a corresponding one with practice problems. I was between jobs and had free time on my hands, so I accepted.
After several weeks as a classroom tutor, I not only brushed up on my 7th grade math—I gained a high regard for middle school teachers and a deep admiration for the wit and humor of young teens. How could I have distanced myself from the teen experience to the point that I actually feared interacting with them? This attitude would not serve my daughter in her transition into adulthood, though so far, she showed no signs of taking it as hard as my son had. Throughout her scholastic journey, my husband and I have had such an easy ride that a call to venture into her school life is rarely sensed. And her performance has confirmed that we need not intervene.
Being invited into my daughter’s middle school was less invasive than actively getting into her mix. But the mornings I was there, she would keenly avoid being seen with me, and would rush past the math classroom on her way to her next class. Without imposing on her, I got to see firsthand how teachers of teens invest hope and compassion in their students, with complete understanding of their tumultuous state. That is not to say these teachers are unflinchingly gentle. If anything, they possess an extra measure of boundary-stomping firmness, however intense their interactions with their students. They are acutely aware that teens are frequently under biological siege, and their brain chemistry propels them into abrupt physical changes, mating rituals and emotional turmoil, which can command them into their third decade.
Teenage brains are like the stuff of mushrooms. Random praise, especially from someone outside the family, deeply nourishes the soul of a teen. Sprinkling praise on a teen is like reinforcing the mycelial web of their existence, because their brains are composting old pathways while nurturing the growth of new pathways. MRI imaging has shown that an adolescent’s brain prunes redundant connections and produces more myelin (almost sounds like mycelium), allowing faster signals and connections.
The adolescent’s reward center, the ventral striatum, is more active than that of an adult brain, so regular plaudits are a good strategy for winning positive behavior. Just as we provide enriched environments for infants to help their underdeveloped brains build synapses, we need to view adolescence as a critical time to make teens feel loved and to give them experiential learning opportunities. They not only crave pats on the back, but confidence in performing tasks in areas generally seen as the domain of adults, like handling specialized tools, computing complicated equations, or exploring the philosophy of great thinkers. They are trying to figure out what they excel at as much as their teachers are working to tease out their individual skills and talents.
I’m not speaking from the perspective of a long-time teacher of teens, but as the mother of two very different children whose lives I have followed since conception. I’ve observed that as much as teens reject their parents, they secretly appreciate an interest in their lives. In my experience, this must be carried out delicately. When my daughter and I take long walks together, for example, I must not walk too closely beside her. I also don’t ask questions. I wait until the conversation organically leads to whatever she may want to share. Hugs are strictly verboten.
In his book Long Life: Honey in the Heart, Martin Prechtel tells about traditional Mayan village life and describes the stages of life as layers in an old-time collapsible telescope, with a teen’s layer being the second section.
"When a teenager got her or his “second section” of vision, it was so much more ample and different than the first eyepiece of childhood that they thought they were seeing everything there was to see. They thought they knew everything. These youth had to be pushed by more adult people into the next stage and the next to keep them safe from living out their lives with too short a spiritual vision."
Ideally, the more adult people Prechtel refers to are not the parents, but adult mentors of teens, whether introduced by the parents, the inevitability of teachers in school, or coincidental acquaintances. One lucky thing my daughter has going for her is that she has several adult friends she enjoys being with, mostly in their 50s or 60s. On her own accord, she sets aside time to go to movies, dinner or on walks with them. This might have more to do with her mature soul than our great good luck. But these friendships have been invaluable. I dream that my son will chance upon similar such mentors, whether they’re friends or tricksters—people who will, perhaps painfully yet safely, push him into the next “section” so that he can live out his life with a long vision.
As the young Egyptian protestors who persevered in Tahrir Square in Cairo have shown, youth are not the leaders of tomorrow but the leaders of today. The future depends on their self-esteem, motivation and ingenuity. While validating youth’s yearnings for self-reliance and making a meaningful contribution to our communities and societies, adults who spend time with youth might just help prevent their own brains from decomposing. Anytime a youth invites us into his or her world, we should regard it as an honor, because they rarely do so lightly.
In relating to teens, our fears and psychological boundaries need to fall. Let’s not forget that each of us was once launched into our dreams—however they played out—most likely by the encouragement of an adult, and overwhelmingly by a dedicated and amazing teacher.
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