No one likes being a teenager. Some people breeze through pre-maturity as though hormones don’t exist and make it to a good graduate job with the support of their loving family, with whom they never bicker. Others veer off in the opposite direction and end up on Sixteen and Pregnant or in gangs or – I wouldn’t even know what else. Obviously the majority of us take the middle way and somehow manage to drag ourselves out of our miserable emotional quagmire and emerge into adulthood near-unscathed, with a small number of battle scars to be poked ironically and exploited on our blogs. Here are some of the awful things about being teenage that someone (I vote the government) should sort out.
Disclaimer: this post is a part-imagined, part-hyperbolised version of some personal experiences. It is not intended as a reflection of all teenagers or the great things some of them do (e.g. Malala; young carers) – see conclusion. It’s intended to provide some humorous perspective for anyone currently struggling through this mind-boggling phase.
1. Utter powerlessness
You have absolutely no control over your environment: you have no choice over what type of education you receive or the content thereof (in a mainstream school); your parents choose your extra-curricular activities before you’re old enough to know what really interests you; they also choose how you spend your leisure time (you SHALL spend Saturday in Homebase picking out shelves). I’m not saying there aren’t good ethical or practical reasons why some of these things, or even all of them in small measure, are kept outside the teenager’s control. However, it has the unfortunate side-effect of producing an obsession with, and a self-definition of your worth in accordance with, what you’re ‘allowed’ to do, with how fully you are in fact in control.
You aren’t trained enough in critical thinking to be able to respond articulately to the issues you’re confronted with, or to be able to think beyond your immediate wants (watching the programs your friends are talking about) to what is good for you – although your parents may be as much in the dark about this as you are. This means that the only possible response to the parent or rogue sibling who crosses you is the raised voice, the cry of anguish, the slammed door, all signs that rationality has ceded before impotence. It is this type of powerlessness that feels stronger than the short temper and physical changes brought on by hormones.
In year 7 Biology the realisation dawns: all the changes you’re currently undergoing (hips expanding to fit baby head, the obvious signs of the menstrual cycle reminding you you’re fertile, mammarians growing to feed baby) are essentially geared up to allow you to reproduce. Later on, these physical changes are welcomed (particularly the latter); even the onset of the bleeds was a mark of pride, although now we’d prefer to medicate it out of existence. However, the realisation that we are, and not by choice, biologically groomed for one purpose only initially feels … creepy.
Given these factors, it’s unsurprising that some teenagers turn to drastic means to exert whatever modicum of control they can squeeze out of their environments – self-harm springs to mind.
2. Utter blindness
As noted above, the teenager suffers from remarkable shortsightedness when it comes to what’s good, what’s aesthetic, what’s acceptable in the real world. Our views are, for a long while, conditioned by the confines of our social and educational environments, with house moves, further education and the internet gradually removing some of the blinkers (not all!).
Let me append an example. In years 7 and 8, there was an outbreak of what I can only term sexual harassment among some of the boys, targeted at some of the girls. This consisted of the boys feeling the girls’ bottoms whenever they fancied (and not particularly vice versa). In my heart, I instinctively felt that this was disrespectful and inappropriate in that context. But I definitely registered some kind of ‘hope’, when dressed up for the end of year prom, that perhaps this mark of attention and popularity might be applied to me! For some reason, this presented itself to me as something to be desired, and not what it would be termed nowadays or by my better self: harassment, breach of consent, objectification.
Now I wasn’t an unreflective teenager, and was by turns extremely concerned about doing the right thing, social justice, and other issues; and while my education was probably broader than most (lots of music and RE and volunteering), I still think surely something could have been done to extend my horizons such that the fact I wasn’t allowed to watch Little Britain did not make me the worst treated person in the world or the most unfortunate of my friends, and was not to irrevocably damage my future life.
3. Hyper self-awareness
Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials shows the mark of adulthood to be self-awareness, embodied in the mysterious Dust that sticks to the grownups; his two teenage protagonists achieve Dusty maturity during the course of the trilogy thanks to an unknown (possibly eros-related) catalyst.
As a child, we care very little about what others think; our awareness of ourselves is limited to the belief that we are the world, with little concept that others have their own worlds and that we appear in them as objects of regard. As a teenager, self-awareness swings a little too far in the other direction, as we become incredibly sensitive to what other people think of us. We become aware that we are looked at – hence shy – and that other people will judge us – hence clique members all dress the same. Mass media simply adds another layer to the fear of being misperceived, as we then also judge ourselves against catwalk models, makeup advertisements, and the filtered selfies that friends of friends post on Instagram. It’s most often the appearance that we target for modification when trying to fit in, rather than the character, since given our blindness we accord it far too much importance. I believe that an important part of really growing up, as adults, is mental emancipation: from the pressures of conforming to whatever perception of us we can best cultivate in the Other in order to be superficially liked – which is a form of lying.
4. No concept of real-world human interaction
The harassment described above is an example of this, but the teenager’s poor grasp of how to conduct human relationships and deal with conflict healthily manifests itself elsewhere too.
We construct a behavioural code that accords disproportionate importance to minor slights, such that my friend leaving the girls’ toilet before I’d finished drying my hands would be grounds for a falling-out. My way of showing a friend I was annoyed with her was to start ‘blanking’ her with no explanation for my change in behaviour and the expectation that she would mystically intuit the affront she’d done me. We fancied people whom we had never even spoken to. We called each other horrible names. We passed around birthday party invitations in front of those who were not invited. We made no effort to include the excluded; we were embarrassed to do so. Criteria for social exclusion were not based on logic – the rumour that you, for example, once had a spot on your back might suffice to put you in the ninth circle of hell until at least year 11. We relentlessly shunned anything that wasn’t cool – as defined at the time by some chav with his jeans halfway down his legs who walked away with 2 GCSEs.
There was little sign of the qualities that are essential for successful social interaction in the real world, such as tolerance and compassion.
5. Pre-evolutionary man
School in the teenage years reflected, in fact, the cave-dwelling life of pre-evolved man. Throw a bunch of genetically diverse creatures together and the elite (moneyed, pretty, outgoing) will immediately float to the top and form a clique; common interest groups (emos, music geeks) will form under that. The cliques will attempt to form bonds out of desperation for belonging and relationship but get it slightly wrong, using uniform and strict rules to enforce membership. Those that don’t gel within the first five minutes will be relegated to the loner bin at the bottom. Survival of the fittest will dominate after that: the physically fit maintain their dominant status by joining sports teams and the criteria for their inclusion in that group become self-perpetuating; following the law of self-interest, the most catty (those willing to sacrifice others’ for their own interests), and the loudest (those who assert their dominance), will remain ‘cool’ while the quiet and forgiving fall behind, willingly sacrificed.
Yet we shouldn’t be too hard on teenagers. Some of them are amazing! And when attempting to judge those who are less amazing, we must remember that the human brain rewires itself just twice as it matures: once at toddler age and again at teen age. So the teenage temper tantrum should really be considered no more wilful or lastingly damaging than the toddler’s.
There are clearly forces at work in our growing-up that we, as I said, cannot control. However, the unique rubbishness of the teenage years can be alleviated, if not removed, by:
- according the subject the same respect we grant adults
- empowering teens – by increasing trust and education
- enlightening teens – through education, cultivation of hobbies, and cultural experiences
- modelling mature relationships so that the new adult does not feel they have to – and then struggle to – reinvent the wheel.