Teenagers are able for so much more than we adults give them credit for

Tony Griffin: To connect with young people, we need to be more honest with them

Was I one of those well intentioned adults who come in and preach to teenagers about how to live their lives?

Was I one of those well intentioned adults who come in and preach to teenagers about how to live their lives?

 

It started as an ordinary day but was to turn out to be one of the most significant of my career. I was running a workshop in a school for Soar, an organisation that seeks to develop character and emotional resilience in teenagers.

The group was made up of 75 young people, aged 16 or 17, and started – as they always do – with an air of awkwardness as the young people sized me up and made their early judgements.

Was I one of those well intentioned adults who come in and preach to them about how to live their lives?

Or was I worth their time and attention?

I told them about a period of depression I had experienced a few years before. How the subsequent breakdown made me want to stop living. As I spoke, the barriers between us fell away. Eyes widened, hoodies were pulled back. They knew I was not there to patronise them with neatly packaged advice on how to succeed in life but I was there to be real with them. And I knew, from the thousands of other teenagers I had met all over the world, that it was this they craved most of all. For adults to talk with them about life rather than tell them how they should be living theirs.

The workshop was going well and the usual tendency of “watch what you say or you could be made fun off” gradually dissolved. In its place was an openness they had never experienced with anyone, apart from their best friends. At the first break one girl came up and asked me if I could ask the teacher to leave. She told me her name was Chloe. There was something they wanted to talk about as a group and they would be more comfortable if they were alone with me.

We had just started the second part of the workshop when the same girl raised her hand. What happened next still brings tears to my eyes

“Look, your teacher was a teenager once, and they went through all the same shit you guys do so cut them some slack. I know it would be easier for you, but for my safety and for yours they have to stay,” I replied. “And if anything comes up that needs following up then they will be in a position to help,” I explained.

This was not good enough for Chloe and her best friend standing beside her. So I tried again. “They are not stopping you talking, you are stopping yourself because you are afraid of what they will think of you. Don’t give anyone the permission to silence you if you have something to say, you have a voice so use it.” This broke through their steely faced expressions and they returned to their seats.

We had just started the second part of the workshop when the same girl raised her hand. What happened next still brings tears to my eyes, even today, years later.

“We have something to talk about as a group,” she said. “My friend died by suicide a few months ago and we haven’t talked about it. He was my best friend, everyone in this class knew him, some very well, some not so well, but everyone is feeling broken and yet it feels like the adults don’t want to talk about it with us.”

All of a sudden she seemed bigger to me. As if she was standing taller. She stared at me, through me almost. As if she was about to scream at me. It felt good. As if this needed to happen.

The Teenager’s Book of Life, is published by SoulPlace.
The Teenager’s Book of Life, is published by SoulPlace.

“Why don’t you think the adults have talked to you about your friend and how he died,” I asked.

“Because they are afraid.”

“Afraid of what?” I asked.

“They are afraid we won’t be able for it, that if they are honest with us and allow us to talk about why it happened, that we will either copy him or are too weak to be able to handle the conversation. But mostly they are just afraid to be honest with us, like they are with many things. And they think we don’t see what is really going on, but we do and it’s time they stopped sugar coating life and insulating us from the truth.”

She had barely finished her sentence when a round of applause broke out across the room. We talked about her friend. His life, what he meant to her and his other friends in the room. There were tears, and there was laughter at how unique he was. It felt like some healing happened for that group of young people who took control and talked together about someone they loved.

As I was crossing the carpark outside the school, lugging my bag and a speaker, someone called me

Hearing Chloe say what she said was not new to me. I had heard a version of this before from teenagers in different countries all over the world. She may have been saying it in a different accent, but it’s inherent message was the same. That teenagers are able for so much more than we adults give them credit for. They are not snowflakes. They are emotionally tougher than we realise and we can best support their development if we stop masking the realities of life and are more honest with them.

The workshop ended and I was packing up my things as young people streamed out, some stopping to say thank you and share what they got from it. Some only thinking about what was on the menu for lunch.

The room was stuffy and I myself was looking forward to being on my own to digest all that had happened. I made my way through the corridors as it heaved with young people getting things from their lockers and making their way out of the school for lunch. As I was crossing the carpark outside the school, lugging my bag and a speaker, someone called me. They broke away from their friends and came towards me. It was Chloe. This time her expression was not stern but warm and bright.

“Thank you for that,” she said, “that was not like all the other workshops we have had, it was . . . different”.

“Thank you,” I replied. “How was it different?”

“We get adults in here all the time telling us to talk about our mental health, but we don’t see them doing what they ask us to do, they expect us to open up and talk about our feelings but they never do. You were willing to do both – tell us about your harder times and how you felt and you were not afraid to let us talk for real with no filter.”

Tony Griffin: If we truly want to have a relationship with young people we just need to be more honest with them. That means talking about our own disappointment, failures and fears, so that they feel less alone in theirs.
Tony Griffin: If we truly want to have a relationship with young people we just need to be more honest with them. That means talking about our own disappointment, failures and fears, so that they feel less alone in theirs.

“You’re wrong,” I replied. “I was afraid to give you that much freedom in case I didn’t know how to respond, but I decided it was more important that you got to talk about your friend.”

Chloe had the last word. “Well, that’s what we need more of – for adults to not be afraid of what we have to say.”

With that we said our goodbyes.

As I drove home, I thought about how we over-complicate our communication with teenagers . If we truly want to have a relationship with young people we just need to be more honest with them. That means talking about our own disappointment, failures and fears, so that they feel less alone in theirs. All the while, letting them know that we will always have their back. Respectful, patient and tender towards them when they are in pain – even if that pain may seem minor or less apparent to us.

And most of all following Chloe’s advice to go first, take the lead and trust that they will follow.

Tony Griffin’s new book, The Teenager’s Book of Life, is published by SoulPlace.

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