I know a lot more about the teenage brain now than I did in high school. I know the teenage brain is messed up. I know their pre-frontal cortex is not fully developed making it harder to make wise decisions. I know their amygdala are very reactive which leads to strong emotions triggered by seemingly insignificant events. I know about the spotlight effect where teenagers think people are always paying attention to them even though most teenagers are too busy thinking about themselves to be wrapped up in others’ every move. I know the deep pull teenagers feel to be accepted by their peers while at the same time feeling like no one truly knows them or accepts them for who they are. There is a deep need to feel significant. Acceptance is important and a huge motivator in decision making for teenagers.
I also believe behavior is teleological. Behavior is a form of communication. It expresses needs when words fail. So when a kid misbehaves, it’s not simply because they are a “bad kid.” They’re trying to communicate a need they have that is not being met. When a teenager is intentionally unkind to a classmate, as a therapist, I try to figure out “the why” behind the behavior – “the why” of which they may not even be sure.
I carry all of these things with me when I meet with teens. Knowing these things gives me patience and understanding in my interactions with them. It helps me extend grace to their experience when I really want to tell them what is going on with their boyfriend of two days is really not the end of the world.
My 20-year high school class reunion is this summer. I did not enjoy high school. I do not trust people who enjoyed high school. I was not going to go. Then I got the invitation, and my service dog’s name was on the invitation. It warmed my heart. Several of my classmates donated money so I could get Valko, and I realized it would be nice if they could meet him.
The emotional residue left from high school is powerful. I see it in my clients. I see it when I read my college students’ papers. I see it when I talk to classmates. I see it in myself.
And it’s too bad.
We do not choose who we go to high school with. We get lumped together because of where our parents chose to live. We are victims of circumstance. Yet we use often use our high school classmates as a measuring stick for our own success throughout our lives.
When I was in my 20s, my intense struggle with mental illness was made worse with each marriage or birth of a child I read about on a classmate’s Facebook page. It was a reminder to me I was not on track – I was behind schedule; I was unlovable. I was a failure.
It took me finding people who were more like me – people I sought out, people who sought me out – to feel accepted. And that makes so much more sense than expecting acceptance from people we may not even like that much!
I have an advantage my young clients do not have: I know the things that seem so important in their teenage brains often won’t matter even a year from now. I know life can get so much better when you’re not trying so desperately to fit yourself into a box that was never intended for you.
I extend to the teenagers in my office my best self, my empathy, my understanding, because I know what the teenage experience is like. I know their brain is not working to make their lives easier. They are not trying to be dramatic or unkind, they are trying to figure out life with little support from their bodies or their community. My job is to support them unwaveringly. My job is figure out what they are trying to communicate through their often frustrating behavior. My job is to love them.
So as I met with a high school classmate recently, whom I had not seen in years, we talked about the upcoming reunion. We talked about the anxiety associated with going, and as I drove home, I wondered if I could treat my former classmates’ teenage selves with the same kindness I treat my teenage clients.
Our brains weren’t any different in 1998 than today’s teenagers. We were not set up physiologically to be reasonable people who thought about the needs of others. We were desperately trying to fit in and often making regrettable decisions to do so.
I have changed a lot since high school. I’m so much happier. I’m a better friend. I’m more confident. I enjoy life and people so much more. I have let go of most resentments from high school thanks to a lot of therapy, the ability to follow my dreams, and amazing friendships that have developed in adulthood where I feel loved and accepted.
If I can step back and see how much I have changed, isn’t it safe to assume classmates who did hurtful things to me in the past have also changed for the better? If understanding the teenage brain helps me have compassion for my teen clients, can’t I have compassion for who we all were back then, including myself?
I hope when my classmates come together in August, we are able to meet each other as new people. I hope we can leave past opinions at the door and approach one another with curiosity and wonder. I hope we welcome one another warmly. I hope we are all able to breathe deeply and let go of the pain that haunts us. I hope we can forgive one another if it seems appropriate, or at least grant one another the benefit of the doubt for a few hours on a hot night.