Teenage Confusion

The cult of the teenager forgets what it's like to be a teen.


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A friend was relaying his fears for his niece, a 16-year-old trapped in the Slough of Despond. He wasn’t sure how to reassure her. I don’t really remember the problem or situation — with 16-year-old girls, it could be just about anything. When I asked what he eventually ended up telling her, he shrugged and told me, “I just said it gets better.”

  • On Balance by Adam Phillips. 336 pages. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $26.

This was months before the web campaign of the same name. Started by Dan Savage after a string of news reports about teen suicides, gay men and women posted personal videos on YouTube; its goal is to reassure terrified teens with stories of how survival ultimately transforms into a flourishing life. Celebrities and non-celebrities discussed their own despair and isolation, and gave that clichéd but brutally straightforward advice of “just hang in there.” Straight people weighed in with their support, too. But as soon as the campaign debuted, the backlash began: You have to do more, you can’t just tell them things will work out eventually. You must make the world safer for gay teens, work suicide hot lines, volunteer for mentoring services.

I had the same reaction when I heard my friend’s story. “You can’t just say it gets better,” I thought. Teens have issues with object permanence. As in, every object is permanent. Every pain is everlasting, every pang of loneliness and despair will be with them for the rest of their lives. Teens can’t process the future. As Adam Phillips puts it in his new book of essays, On Balance, “Experience of the past becomes certainty of the future.” He was talking about something else — his book is mostly how we yearn for this idealized concept of balance between work and love and home despite the extremes being where the most progress and creativity lies — but it seems especially relevant for the teenage boy or girl. With no real experience other than misery and despair, it is hard to imagine a future that isn’t just more of the same. “He had his whole life in front of him,” confused bystanders might say. And yes, that is exactly the problem.

It’s well documented that news reports about suicide lead to a spike in suicides and suicide attempts. The suicidal brain fixates, and while “it gets better” can be something to hold onto when your misery is mellowing, jumping into the river might seem like a more effective short-term solution when it becomes acute. After all, he did it…

While the “It Gets Better” campaign was spurred by high-profile cases of involuntarily outed teens, or teens who suddenly realized just how unbelievably hostile the world can be for them, the media responded by over-reporting every gay teen suicide it could find and speculating on the acts’ inspiration. What may have been helpful as another way to raise awareness has become lurid and potentially harmful.

The job of the teenager is to test her or his own boundaries. Their sexuality is only a small part of it, but it is potentially the most devastating given the hysteria around the debates of gay marriage; “don’t ask, don’t tell;” and the ability of gay parents to adopt children. They’re testing their own boundaries, but also the boundaries of their parents to see if they can handle it. And what if they can’t? What if the parents respond to their child’s coming out with horror and claims of deviancy, or have said things in the past that make the child expect such a response? Even if parents respond with love, they can’t always protect their children from the shaming of the community, and that can sometimes make young people feel as if their parents have failed them.

All of that boundary testing comes at a time when young people lack a neural safety net. According to The Evolution of Childhood, there is a long list of things the teenage brain is just not good at, from empathy to the ability to read faces, planning for the future and impulse control. It’s a great combination for, as Adam Phillips calls the teenager, “the strange, eccentric delinquent that each child is” to go slipping past boundaries and feel like they’ve fallen into an inescapable abyss.

Whatever the deficiencies of the phrase “It gets better,” whether because of the teenage brain’s inability to hear the words or the inadequacies of words in the face of torment in general, it is at the very least a massive improvement on the other pat thing we love to say to teenagers: “These are the best years of your life.” (So great! And by being bullied, miserable, depressed, suicidal, unloved, isolated, you are missing out and maybe it is really just all downhill from here. Enter another logical abyss.)

Our culture still worships the adolescent, from the pop star to the sexy undead vampire. (And if vampires never age, that means those Twilighters are stuck with teenage brains for eternity. I want to stake myself in the heart just thinking about it.) Many adults confuse the teenager’s chaos for freedom and the evolving identity as exciting rather than terrifying. But the societal pressure to conform, and the parental pressure to be happy (in a pre-approved manner — parents don’t want their children to be happy in the unsafe ways the teeangers would like to be happy) and enjoy these best years drives even the well-adjusted and unconditionally loved to the brink.

The (sad, sad) implication is that adulthood is some sort of prison, with all of those boundaries previously tested re-established in an incredibly confining manner. And while society desires conformity, it’s the adult who has the brain plasticity, the support, and the means to actually traverse those boundaries in a sane and balanced way. He or she just chooses not to, and calls this an impossibility. Adam Phillips writes in his essay, “Truancy Now”: “A part of this testing, this experimentation, that begins in adolescence and, if things go wrong, is given up on in adolescence. But the adolescents who give up on this fundamental project in adolescence may turn into adults who secretly envy adolescents; who believe that adolescents are having the best kinds of life available.”

It’s not just teenagers who should be watching the “It Gets Better” videos. They are wonderful reminders of the need to keep testing boundaries, of where life can go once you’ve bottomed out. I suffer from teenage brain’s object permanence issues sometimes. But the videos remind me of a quotation from the greater writer and boundary-violator Katherine Mansfield, who wrote in her journals:

I had the feeling that the same thing happened to nearly everybody whom I knew and whom I did not know. No sooner was their youth, with the little force and impetus characteristic of youth, done, than they stopped growing. At the very moment that one felt that now was the time to gather oneself together, to use one’s whole strength, to take control, to be an adult, in fact, they seemed content to swap the darling wish of their hearts for innumerable little wishes…. They deceived themselves, of course.

What the backlash to the campaign misses is that it’s never a bad thing to create a chorus of voices of how life can be lived on the margins. It will never be enough to save every kid from despair, but nothing ever could. • 25 October 2010