As a social worker, my whole career centres around building working relationships with a wide variety of people. Whether I’m at the office or in clients’ homes, I’m always navigating unique and dynamic relationships and taking on many different roles (spouse, sister, friend, colleague, social worker, employee). On many days I have returned home marveling at the complexity and uniqueness of people and their relationships, and how amazing it is to get to witness these sagas and ‘character developments’ that unfold around us. We get to analyze, learn from, and be inspired by them, and that is a gift.
Most days my work is heavily centred around spending time with young people, getting to know them, and learning how best to help them navigate their own relationships and deal with the shit hands that they’ve been given, always with the hope that I am helping them towards a best possible outcome.
The thirteen (going on sixteen) year old that I hung out with this afternoon reminded me what it was like to be thirteen and what a crazy stressful time in life it is. Many people cringe when thinking of adolescence, yet it can still be so easy to forget what it was like to live in a thirteen year old’s body and world, and how real and intense everything feels in those moments.
It can seem like no matter to brush off their moods and drama, because you know that it will pass and that what happens in junior high typically has little consequence in the big picture. But they don’t know that, and you will be hard pressed to convince them if you try.
At just thirteen, a child’s mind has just recently expanded from the safe world of home and family into this new awareness of the outside world and all the vast and complicated relationships that come with it. Of course, for many foster children, they are forced out of that safety much too soon, if there was ever any to begin with, having a tremendous impact on their development as they are forced to deal with circumstances that their brains are not yet capable of comprehending (and sometimes that is for the better). I ramble, but the point is that it is the natural progression of things that around nine or ten years old children’s primary focus begins to turn from being primarily centred around family, towards peers and the bigger world.
Adolescence is a natural time of turmoil and it is a time where a significant amount of guidance can be required. It may even be the most needed time for guidance, since they have for the first time developed enough abstract thinking ability that they can begin to explore and create kind of person they want to become. With time, patience, understanding, and some kind words, you can have life changing conversations with your kids at this age. For some, the memories made in adolescence remain some of the strongest for life, since over time we will have rethought them and rethought them some more, trying to understand how they shaped us. So seek out those teaching moments (better yet, don’t wait until thirteen, just start finding those teaching moments right away).
Understand that it is not her fault that he’s/she’s dramatic. In adolescence kids’ brains experience huge growth in the prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that manages executive functioning. Executive functioning includes those activities in the brain that lead the processes of problem solving, organization, emotional control, and learning to work towards longer term goals. So the part of the brain that we become so frustrated with is literally under construction. This means patience is needed (just like dealing with road construction – ugh!).
At that age and developmental stage, they may believe that their friends now will be their friends for life (or conversely, that if they have few friends now that they will always have few friends), not comprehending just how much growth and change they have ahead of them. This is normal! Lifelong friendships do happen for some, but they will vary over time, they don’t happen for all, and they all will eventually end.
In a thirteen year old’s world, though, none of that matters. In junior high every child learns to weigh their self worth against others and to judge their peers likewise by who they associate with and how. This is our teaching moment!
Alas, when you try to explain to them why they should let go of other’s judgments and just work on creating the life they want, you may find yourself met with an off-pitch cry of ‘you don’t understand!’
Well, their worries need our attention, too. Even if you see them as no matter of significance, what is significant in that developing mind and how they work with that concept may have any degree of impact on their future self As much as you think you may know your children, they will all grow into independent human beings who will make their own decisions. So listen, and help them to come to their own resolutions so they can develop the self-efficacy to get through life right side up.
Us older and wiser folk know that they will most certainly make friends later, and that whatever the problem is, it is most likely just a stage. But brushing off their concerns is only going to make them feel like you don’t care. Relationships are tough, man, and we are forever entwined in them, for better or for worse. Nobody can pretend that wading through relationship muck isn’t hard af work sometimes, so as parents and mentors we owe it to our teens to help them understand how to they can learn to cope in this crazy, constantly shifting world.
It’s important to teach children to determine right from wrong, and to instill a sense of work ethic and accountability in them. If they have made a grave mistake, then by all means that gravity should be impressed upon them to encourage them to learn from their mistake. I am not in any way saying that young people don’t need firmness, responsibility, and boundaries.
But it is also important to give them a break. Understand their development and current capacity for what you are asking of them before allowing yourself to forget that making mistakes and learning to navigate relationships in adolescence is just par for the course.