Adults can’t seem to up their mind about young people. In the five years between 13 and 18 the strange and unusual behaviour that should be under the spotlight are older people. Yet we seem desperate to turn this extraordinary timeframe into a complete cultural and social zone of contention. Without wanting to borrow too much from other rhetoric, it does feel a bit like a war of terror. I suppose my role as a counsellor working in a secondary school gives me more access to the ‘front line’ (again – kind of not keen on the metaphor – hoping not to induce PTSD which is real by the way). I know Nigel Latta has captured the market and I’m not attempting to replicate his ‘stand up psycomedy’ but I reckon I can at least describe my observations.
‘Groan ups’ (GU’s) seem to want a bunch of things from young people (YP) with ever increasing complexity and shifting rules, much like a hyperdimensional maze, where the walls keep moving and paths that appear open close down. To be fair, parents have the best intentions and worry because they care. I’d struggle to identify any person in a parenting role that didn’t absolutely believe that what they wanted for the young person was the best possible future. In my role I’ve been asked to ‘talk to’ teens and ‘tell them what is right’. Those who know me will understand what a conundrum this is both ethically and personally. I also experience YP who feel fully supported and affirmed by the adults in their lives.
There are some patterns to the relationships where YP and GU’s just talk past each other – if they are talking at all. Here is a quick rundown: We want them to talk to ‘us’ not other adults (especially counsellors). When they are open about difficult things some groan ups like to minimise, judge and criticise, or plain ‘freak out’ then wonder why they talk to someone else. It’s important they be unique individuals so long as they aren’t different. We want them to remain innocent yet be aware of world events, have empathy and want to change the world. Know what they want to do focus on that but keep their options open. They are supposed to learn from experience without making mistakes or having awkward moments. We ask them to be mature and take things seriously, and develop their own ideas and opinions – so long as they are the same as ours or at least modelled off our values and beliefs. Be independent and self-reliant but need us to fight their battles for them and stay needing us. The very idea that they will want to develop intimate relationships is perhaps the most difficult to find a clear path through. We acknowledge they will have these feelings but not to act on them because of course adults never act on impulse or go out and ‘hook up’ (while under the influence of socially lubricating substances). It’s important to love someone for their inner qualities groan ups say, but if their sexual organs are the same as yours that is going to be an issue for many (multiply that for those YP who were given the wrong plumbing from birth). It’s ok to take risks and push boundaries but don’t do anything stupid or that you’ll regret (one of my favourites) – sex and alcohol/drugs being hottest risk zones. Whilst they are allowed to be ‘moody’ they cannot be angry or upset or sad or frustrated because they just don’t know what the real world is.
This pattern I have generally termed as N.U.D.E. When GU’s get NUDE they are Not Understanding Diversity Exists. It’s not life threatening but can be managed. For those experiencing a NUDE GU try the following:
• Maintain a sense of humour – including grown up friends of groan ups
• Accept there will possibly be some ‘no-go-zones’
• Take nothing personally but if you need to make a stand – do it in the name of respect, concern or genuine worry for the effect actions might have on a YP
• Remember they will often want the last word in the conversation to slam home their point
• Appeal tentatively to their memories of being that age (depends on the context of course)
• Avoid comparing
• Use familiar social and cultural reference points
• Avoid advice – listen and listen more
• Look for the love and concern in actions – even if they are hard to understand
GU’s often struggle with diversity in all aspects of life. Our general culture is to assume that change ends once you are in your 20’s that you will then be over any ‘phases’ and be ‘who you really are’ like some strange version of metamorphosis…who doesn’t want to be a butterfly.
If we could be more courageous and speak as grown ups about continuing to change, evolve, devolve, grow and decay our identity and sense of being then our chaotic expectations of YP might just take on new meaning as a mirror of our own desperate misunderstanding of complex relationships we have with ourselves and making sense of what it means to be.
Perhaps the ultimate irony is older people trying to reclaim their youth. Mid life metamorphosis/crisis is a Chrysler rather than a chrysalis.
Many years ago I ran a workshop at a high school with GUs and ‘their’ YPs. They were having problems with relating to each other. By the end of the session, they’d worked out they held a common fear: losing each other. Quite a profound and unexpected outcome.