Our brains are remarkably skilled at suppressing painful memories. It’s actually quite amazing. Ask a mom whose youngest is 20 years old and she’ll tell you how much she misses the newborn stage, how sweet and cuddly and wonderfully stress free it was. So much easier than worrying about your child making it home safe on a Saturday night, or getting into a relationship with the wrong person, or neglecting his health. She won’t quite remember the sleepless nights, the never-ending caretaking and bodily fluids, the strained marriage. We look back on previous stages in our lives fondly, glossing over the hard parts and focusing on the good. This can make it hard to empathize when our kids are going through those stages themselves. High school is a good example. We remember the carefree summers, sports championships, and prom dresses. We quickly forget about the stress, angst, and uncertainty that came along with all of that. But our kids need us to remember; they need our empathy and understanding.Here are a few things that have a particularly strong impact on your teen’s emotional experience right now, and a guide to some adult scenarios you can tap into to help you empathize.

No one is safe
It seems like your teen’s friend group changes from week to week. One day she and her best friend are inseparable and the next day you can’t even mention her name without getting stink eye. What’s up with that? Friendships are fleeting and vulnerable in high school. The closest of friends can be ripped apart in a matter of minutes by a rumor or miscommunication. All relationships are up for grabs. This is extremely unsettling, as no one feels safe or secure, and it’s hard to find someone to count on.

Adult version: You have a new boss at work, and he is quite fickle. It seems like you could turn in the same assignment twice and on one day he’d love it and on the next he’d question why you even still had your job. He’s unpredictable. You feel shaken and unsure of your job security from day to day.

It’s lonely
While to the outside observer, your teen seems to have a constant stream of friends and activities, he still struggles with loneliness. He may be caught between multiple worlds, feeling like he doesn’t truly fit into any of them. He feels like he has to be a different version of himself depending on what group he’s hanging out with because they might not accept who he genuinely is. Even when he’s surrounded by people, he can be lost in his own head, feeling isolated because no one really understands him.

Adult version: After a recent move, you’ve had to make new friends. You joined a neighborhood book group, but even though everyone is quite nice, you feel like you don’t fit in. They’ve known each other for years and spend a lot of time together outside of book group doing things you haven’t been invited to. Each month you show up and engage, but you don’t feel like you’ve connected. You feel like an outsider, unable to break into this new circle.

It’s exhausting
College admissions are more competitive than ever, and teens are encouraged to fill their resumes to the brim. Between early morning classes, late nights finishing homework, sports, volunteer work, and the emotional labor of trying to fit in, high school is exhausting. Coupled with the physical and hormonal changes, their bodies are wiped out by the end of the day. So when they sleep in and miss breakfast with the family on Saturday morning, try to remember all that they are juggling.

Adult version: I don’t think you need help with this one! Work demands, managing kids’schedules, driving everyone everywhere, keeping up with the house, cooking…do I need to keep going? Give your teen a hug and suggest a family nap!

While you’ll never have to relive your high school days, for better or for worse, try to tap into what it was like during that difficult time. And we got to do it before social media and college admissions consultants. Also, don’t forget the one thing I probably don’t really need to remind you of: no matter what they say, they still need you.

-Carolyn Wagner, MA, LPC

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Carolyn Wagner, MA, LPC is a licensed professional counselor who specializes in maternal mental health and trauma/PTSD. She sees adults and adolescents with a wide variety of needs including anxiety, depression, and body image concerns.


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