Archive for the ‘For Teenagers’ Category

Why?

Maybe just because…

Chemistry + Conditioning + Climate… Minus… Connection = Combustion

Secrets kept inside?  Emotions unexpressed? Over-exposure to violence? Under-exposure to good, kind and beautiful?

Unmet needs.

Arrogant adults too enamored with what they know?… and not humble enough to listen?

Exhausted adults too spent to deeply see… their children?

Maybe it’s not so complicated.

Maybe dark is just dark because it can’t always be light…

And maybe all we can do to lessen the frequency of human-made tragedy is to be better people in our own small worlds.

And if everyone did this… well…

But this suggestion will not be appreciated, because maybe we need the answer to be beyond our reach…

So we can not be held responsible… and we can blame the media… and we can cry for others, but be quietly relieved for ourselves that it was not our fault.

I don’t know… none of us do… no matter our degree or expertise.

But we keep trying to “know”… as if once we knew, such monsters would cease to live to take lives… and such stories would cease to fill our airwaves.

I don’t know… and people like me are expected to know… “experts” of minds and emotions and actions.

I don’t know… though people like me, and people like you, desperately want to know… so that children don’t die.

I don’t know… maybe sometimes monsters just are…

But what I do know, is that if we’re not the monsters, then we should be the hero’s… like the ones who already are… even if only in our small worlds.

I’m sorry small towns… who shouldn’t be so known…

I’ll do better.

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When scary thoughts get planted in our heads, we want to look away from them… because they’re scary.

But like gravity, these scary thoughts have a way of methodically and irrepressibly pulling our attention towards them… gnawing at us and whisperingly calling to us until the seeds of self-doubt and fear begin to move us closer and closer to them.

Like driving in the outside lane of a high bridge on a black, stormy windy night… we grip tighter and focus on staying in the lane, fighting the pull of the image in our minds of that split second loss of control that could send us over the edge.

There’s a parable I read once about an old Buddhist monk, slowed and shrunk by his years. This monk, on a beautiful, crisp blue sky’ed day was walking a group of young apprentices through the impeccably manicured grounds of his monastery when they walked past an enormous dog tethered to the fence. As they continued on their walk, silently appreciating the subtle beauties and colors of the landscape, the collection of monks heard a loud snap. And when they all turned around they were immediately jarred away from the peace of their attention on the world around them… instantly drawn to the frothing dog bounding directly towards them. Reflexively, the group of young apprentice monks took off, running as fast as they could in their flowing robes away from the on-rushing dog… all except one… the old monk slowed and shrunk by years. Instead, this old, tired, worn man ran in a different direction… instead of running away with the other, younger monks, his instinct took him directly towards the ferocious beast hurling towards him threatening mayhem and injury. And as the distance closed to the point that he could see the brown of the dogs eyes and feel the heat of the dogs breath, the young monks saw what they never imagined they would see… they saw the anger and rage and hunger of the dog turn… and they saw this tiny, frail man standing still and tall above the dog… who was laying on it’s back, legs splayed, in it’s show of submission.

I actually tell this story to the students who come to me with fear or apprehension in their eyes… which is many, especially nowadays. With all the media attention focused on all things scary and ominous… teenagers committing suicide… mass killings in schools… stories of Mayan predictions of the end of days… with all these fearful thoughts pulling our children’s attention (as well as our own), like gravity, away from the details and simple realities and futures of their young lives, they need to know that they’re more powerful than their scary thoughts.

They, just like the rest of us, need to know that if we run AT the dogs… the ones bearing down on us in our thoughts… they will submit.

No, we don’t want to promote foolish or ignorant bravery, because there are times in our real, physical lives when it’s time to walk away, leave or run. But not when the fears come to us in our minds. These are the fears we can and need to dominate.

Our kids need us to show them how to stare down their demons.

Our kids need us to say the scary things that we know are on their minds.

They need us, the adults in their lives, to run AT the words suicide and school tragedies and failure and loneliness and pain and trauma. Because if we don’t, these fears become contagious and evolve into the driving forces of their behavior… which may be why we’re hearing of so many more stories of bullying and teen suicide and mass killings… and on and on.

They need us to show them that feeling brave and strong and confident come to them only AFTER they face the thing they’re afraid to face, and that being scared is normal but does not have to paralyze. And we do this by inviting conversation. By asking our kids to put to words their thoughts and fears and ideas… and by listening to them and showing them with our attention and our compassion that the things that scare us do not have to control us.

Our urges to protect our children from all things bad and scary are beautiful urges… but despite the strength of our convictions, these urges won’t prevent the barrage of negativity inundating the airwaves from imbedding themselves into the thoughts of our kids.

This is the world we live in, beautiful and ugly, and putting our heads in the sand, because we so badly wished the world were different for our kids, doesn’t stop the media from exposing the darker sides of humanity to them. Unfortunately, looking away from something doesn’t mean it is gone.

So if we know this… if we know that in our kids’ minds are the scary thoughts of real life demons… and if we know that these thoughts are pulling their attention away from their lives and onto the fearful words and images gnawing at them in their heads… then we need to arm them with a strategy that makes them feel more powerful than the mental gravity of unpleasant thoughts.

We need to make the time and speak the words they may be too afraid to speak… we need to teach them to run at their dogs… so they can see themselves, with us next to them, standing tall, over, above and in control of the fears they’re so scared will pull them over the edge.

And once we’re done staring down demons and running at dogs with our kids… then we need to kick them out of the house, with or without us, to go see something beautiful or do something fun.

In one year, two 9th grade girls found the courage to speak words that no child should ever have to speak…

It guts you… absolutely rips at your insides, to hear children speak of being molested by someone in their family.

As a counselor, it was, and will always be, my job to temper my own emotions and reactions to the stories of others… so I can find the way to help them begin their healing. And this is no easy task.

With these two girls, it started with a gut feeling… and one that I get all too often in my line of work. The student(s) walk into my office, either on their own or because a teacher sent them to me, and I start my process. I make sure my own “stuff” is put to the side… and I pay attention. I look. I listen. I quiet things down inside myself to be sure that I don’t miss a cue. I mind my tone and my volume. I mind my expressions and my posture. I watch for their reactions to my presence and I make any necessary adjustments until I see ease on their faces and hear in their words the trust I need to hear to move forward.

I know how badly each child needs to be seen, and it’s my job to give them an adult who sees them. Sadly, to really see the students who come to me, I have to keep the horror stories close in mind. I need to keep the worst case scenarios accessible because for them, the words won’t come easy… at least not yet… and for the healing to begin, sometimes they need me to carefully guide them towards the places that scare them most.

But the steps they need to take won’t be taken unless they feel assured that that they’re no longer alone with their demons… and that I am not afraid of their demons.

My goal for these two girls who had experienced the most heartbreaking betrayal of trust imaginable, is the same goal that I have for any child I speak with about a hurt or a trauma they’ve experienced:

To move them through their hurt towards the strength that’s already inside them… so they can someday speak, with steady voice and strong eyes, about what they’ve endured… and have now overcome.

For three years, I made adjustments with these two amazing young ladies… separately… all the while following their leads and reading their needs. When to challenge. When to stir laughter. When to invite tears. When to validate strength… and when to face vulnerabilities.

For three years (and countless other big and small student issues), I had to know when to give space, when to reach out, when to look back at the past… and when to demand that they start looking forward. And for three years, I met with them separately in pursuit of that strength that allows people to one day own their scars and speak of them fearlessly.  Which each of them found.

I don’t remember exactly what made me suggest that they meet each other (which they both agreed to without hesitation)… but I suppose it was the way they could both speak to me about their pasts and their futures… with laughter… with humility… and with a perspective reserved for only those children who have known and faced demons we all wish they never had to.

And so there we were… the three of us. Some counselor guy, and these 2 beautiful, strong, intelligent champions.

Needless to say, it was super awkward. There I was sitting with 2 teenagers who had been molested by different family members (which remains hard to say, hard to write, and most definitely hard to hear)… and somehow, I had to kick things off. Which I did, with the same lightness and confidence that I knew they both possessed.

“So yes, I am fixing the two of you up, strange as that sounds, and from the looks on all our faces, mine included, this is pretty awkward… but we’ll get through it, ’cause you guys have gotten through stuff much harder (I say with my most reassuring smile)”

Chuckling ensued (not me, just them)… which eased the room.

“To move this forward, I’m just going to say it out loud… the two of you share a story, and have come so far, and I couldn’t be more proud… both of you, separately, have worked so hard and shown so much courage… I just felt that the two of you could give to each other a kind of support and understanding that I, for obvious reasons, just can’t… plus, you’re both just really cool kids who I thought would get along”

More smiling… and now, eye contact between the two of them…

“So how about we start with who it was that hurt you…”

And without hesitation, looking directly at each other…

“My father” says one…

“My brother” says the other…

And I sat back, eyes watering… humbled beyond words…seeing the tears run down their cheeks and the smiles on their faces… watching them gently listen to each other… and hearing them speak fearlessly about the shared stories they lived.

A young boy, about 14, came into my office with 4 other boys. They were all there to try to find out how they could get their ID’s so they would be let in to the cafeteria. The 5 of them shared the same expression… the expression that nervous kids wear when they’re trying to appear comfortable.

It was their 2nd day of high school as new 9th graders in my Brooklyn high school with almost 3000 kids. Their nervousness was obvious, normal, and to be expected.

My words came easy to me (I’ve done this many times before), and after a few kind, understanding words, and a couple of comforting (and deliberately unfunny) jokes… they bravely (though still nervously) went on their ways together through the crowded halls to the cafeteria.

Except one.

While the others were leading the reluctant charge out of my office, the 5th boy, who stood behind them all with his back to my wall, who was a tallish, lean, good looking kid with shaggy, “skateboarder” type hair, asked me if there was any way he could be allowed to wear his hood.

His question piqued my curiosity… as do most strangely placed reasonable questions asked by a student. It was respectful. He asked because clearly, he didn’t want to break a school rule. And it was definitely motivated by some other less obvious need… and so I did what I normally do when a young person does or says something that triggers even the slightest hint of a concern… I smiled at him and told him to grab a seat “for a second”.

And it didn’t take long to get a clear picture of what was going on. This kid was a good kid, clearly. And he was carrying with him an added anxiety that made him ask me, a complete stranger, to be allowed to do something we both knew he wasn’t allowed to do.

And so after less than a minute, and with some purposefully placed and reassuring questions, this young man bravely told me that he’s been losing his hair, and “not just a little”. He explained to me that the doctors were trying to figure out what was going on, but that “his bald spot just kept growing”. And after this young man showed me the bald spot that covered nearly the whole back of his head that was barely obscured by his intentionally long and shaggy hair… I got it.

I got his need. This kid, on his 2nd day of high school, was just looking for any way possible to minimize the likelihood of being teased. He was just trying to find a way to keep the anxiety of starting high school at it’s normal level and not have it magnified by this “really weird” (his words, not mine) bald patch on the back of his head.

So with my most reassuring smile, I set out on my mission. I set out, with my tone, my directness and my confidence, to assure him that I was going to listen to him and help him navigate his minefield. I committed to teaching him, in this first interaction, that 1) there was an adult in this huge new and unknown building that he could talk to about anything, that 2) good things can happen when you communicate honestly and openly and bravely, and most importantly, that 3) there was a way to not have to hide, and a way to trust that he’d be fine, regardless of how he looked, or what others said to, or about him.

Right now, all of us are in period where the issue of “bullying” is on every adult’s, and child’s minds. We’re all worrying about the impact that being bullied has on a young persons safety and sense of self. We’re worried about kids killing themselves to escape bullying and we’re worried about kids becoming bullies as a way of stealing back some power.

And here I was in front of one of the thousands of kids I’ve known and will get to know, giving to him the gift that each kid deserves to be given… the idea that there is a way to reject and remain unharmed by the verbal and emotional attacks directed towards them. That there’s a point any of us can get to, where we realize that we have the power to choose whose words affect us… and whose don’t.

No kid deserves to be taunted or teased. Every kid needs to know there are adults in their lives who will back them up. And every adult needs to be more vigilant to the realities of young people today.

But whether we like it or not, teasing and harassing and bullying are a part of the developmental process. It’s true. We all know it, no matter how old we are, and because of this irrefutable truth, we need to do a better job at arming kids with the tools to cope, rather than fruitlessly trying to shield them from something that’s inevitably going to happen.

Instead, we need to teach our kids, like this kid with the “weird bald spot”, that it’s in them to have the quiet confidence that can empower them to hear verbal attacks, yet not let them in to cause harm. And I’m not talking about telling our kids to sit back and allow the abuse to continue… of course we should teach them to reach out for support when it exceeds a threshold we help them define. Nor am I suggesting that we teach our kids that bullying is normal or acceptable.

What I’m saying is that it’s in each kid, if there are adults in their lives to tell them as such, that they are more than capable of hearing a tease or a harsh word, of looking the bully in the eye, of shrugging off the attempt at harm, and moving forward in the direction of their choice.

Just as it’s in this young man with the attention-grabbing bald spot to be able to react to the next kid who says something stupid and mean, with a confident look, a sturdy shrug, and a step forward in the direction of his choice.

I spoke to this 9th grader for a few more minutes. We talked about quiet confidence. I told him that when, not if, the teasing happens, he’s got adults he can come to for support or help if he needs it. I told him that he wasn’t alone. And I assured him that everyone who has ever walked the planet, has had insecurities targeted and mocked by others… including me.

And then I introduced to him to what I knew. I told him the truth that the character and the confidence he needed to become graceful and strong with any shot that comes his way, was absolutely already a part of who he was. I told him straight away, that sitting there with me and speaking to me as openly as he did, was proof that it was in him to walk tall with ease and confidence… with or without the hair he preferred.

And he cracked a smile, looked me in the eye, and answered my question by saying “yeah Mr. Rockman, I believe you”.

And then I wrote myself a note to check on him the next day…

because when we’re away from you, on our own, faced with a choice,  we’re going to feed the most powerful need or go after the most enticing feeling… no matter how many times you warned us.  for us, NOW is the only thing that matters.  what feels best RIGHT NOW.  what choice avoids the most pain or discomfort RIGHT NOW.  we’ll cut class even though we know we have a test tomorrow because it’s more fun and we want to feel connected to our friends… RIGHT NOW.  we’ll smoke weed or take a drink instead of taking a stand against it because if we don’t, we’ll get teased or mocked… and RIGHT NOW, we’d rather laugh with others than get made fun of by others.

if our need for acceptance is stronger than our desire to feel like a leader or an independent thinker, then we’ll follow the crowd. if our need to avoid loneliness is more powerful than our hope for a “healthy” relationship, then we’ll choose to be with friends or boyfriends or girlfriends regardless of how “unhealthy” they are for us.  if our need to feel visible by our peers is stronger than our need to learn what the teachers is teaching, then we’ll goof off in class rather than quietly focus on the lesson. for us, it’s all about how we feel and what we need most in the moment, and if it conflicts with what you’ve taught us or what you want us to do, than your wisdom might  lose out, and often does. at least until we start to see or feel some real benefit to making the tough choice.  somehow, we need to KNOW that your wisdom will lead to feelings that are as great as you say they are… we won’t just take your word for it.  for example, if you want us to make the tough decision that will bring us a feeling of dignity or pride, but we’ve never really felt those feelings, then they’re not real to us. and because they’re not real, we won’t choose them over the feelings that are real, like feeling understood by our peers.  if we’ve never experienced the feelings of courage or  honor, than we’ll most likely choose the path of lesser resistance, like acceptance or connection.  a lot of the decisions and choices we make are to avoid unpleasant feelings like loneliness, shame, embarrassment, rejection or powerlessness… rather than in pursuit of feelings like dignity, honor, pride, self-worth and courage.

we act out in class so others don’t see that we don’t know the answers… to avoid feeling ashamed or embarrassed.  we have sex with people we know we shouldn’t, and sometimes don’t even want to, just to avoid feeling lonely and to prevent feeling rejected.  we’ll mistreat or abuse others, even though we know it’s wrong, just so we don’t have to feel powerless in our lives (which we often do).  are you starting to see? do you understand just a little better? does it make more sense to you now why we often ignore your advice and wisdom? it’s not because we think you’re wrong or want to piss you off (well, sometimes we do), it’s simply because your advice usually offers rewards that we’ll appreciate more when we’re adults … while we’re more focused on feeling as good and as safe as we can RIGHT NOW… IN THIS MOMENT.

as young people, we’re constantly being barraged by wisdom, lectured, and preached to by adults who have learned their lessons… but remember, just because your advice might in fact be “good” advice doesn’t mean we’re going to integrate it into our lives quickly. our priority as young people is to survive and feel as good as possible, and if it means defying you or ignoring your sage words… then there’s a possibility we’re going to disappoint you on occasion. so keep this in mind, and use your understanding of our motivations to more creatively try to motivate us to follow your leads… because frustratingly for adults, defiance is a normal part of the process of us growing up.

in fact, when it comes to our underachievement, “laziness” is a lazy explanation.  beneath our appearance of lazy is always a more accurate explanation. our “laziness” could be the mask we wear to hide that we’re ashamed of having fallen behind. or it could be the mask we wear to hide that we feel unprepared, deficient in skills or embarrassed for not knowing something we’re “suppose to know”. for us, it’s less painful to be called lazy than it is to feel stupid. in our minds, lazy means we’re capable, but we just “chose” to not try. but if we try and fail, than we feel stupid, and this feels bad… so we just don’t try and take the “lazy” label from others instead of the “stupid” label from ourselves. at least this way, we protect our ego’s and keep our pride.

we sometimes underachieve because we’ve only been spoken to about achievement, and not inspired by people who have actually achieved. sometimes we don’t work as hard as we should because the adults in our lives don’t really know how to hold us accountable for our efforts in ways that motivate us… they just rely on shaming us or threatening us to get us to work harder, which rarely works (though there are a few of us, usually older, who are motivated by shame and threats… but we’re few, and you’ll have to know us pretty well to know this).

sometimes we perform below our abilities because some of our teachers and parents find it easier to blame us for our “laziness” than to look at themselves for new ways to inspire us (even though it is more our responsibility than yours). sometimes we underachieve because the expectations of us have been lowered so much for so long that we can do nothing but meet these low expectations. sometimes we underachieve because there are other activities that draw our attention or are more entertaining than studying. and sometimes we underachieve because we don’t value learning as much as we value feeling popular with our peers… and these aren’t excuses (although they may sound like them)… these are alternative explanations that you’ll need to know if you’re going to light a lasting fire under us. we’re young, and as such, we do require guidance, we do need to be taught and we do need limits and boundaries. we need to feel that people have faith in us to work hard and meet higher expectations. we may whine and complain and make excuses when you hold us to these standards, but it doesn’t mean we don’t need you to. for us, it’s not about who’s to blame for our low achievement, we just need help becoming competent, self-sufficient young adults… because despite what you may think or what we may say… we most definitely prefer success over failure.

we know it’d be much easier for everyone if we were all simply born with work ethic and intellectual confidence… but that’s just not reality for all of us. so if you know a kid who seems “lazy”… don’t be lazy… dig a little deeper and find the real reason we’re not working harder and achieving more… and then push a little smarter and harder to get us to.

Most of us grew up thinking that invisibility was a superpower possessed only by superheroes. Even as adults, when we play the game with our friends asking each other which superpower we’d most like to possess, invisibility always makes the rotation, especially if we’re thinking about all the ways we feel nagged by others or burdened by responsibilities.

But beneath our playfulness and imagination is a more painful interpretation of this idea of invisibility. Think for a second about a moment when you didn’t feel seen by others… when the thought crossed your mind that at that moment, no one was thinking of you, or worrying about you, or cared at all about what happened to you. A moment when you felt utterly alone, but wanted real badly the company of others. Think about a period in your life when you craved someone to understand who you really were, and what you were really feeling… but looked around or through your list of phone numbers, and had no one to do this for you.

For so many young people, feeling invisible isn’t a sensation that fills them with wonder… feeling invisible is a sensation that is crushing beyond words.

Feeling misunderstood compels young people to act in ways that people understand and draws attention… but isn’t really who they are.

Feeling invisible drives young people to think “why bother, no one sees me anyway”… and then to act recklessly because in their worlds, there’s nothing to lose.

Feeling alone forces young people to seek others who might claim to see them more honestly, and might not be good for them… because the need to feel like they exist is that strong.

Feeling unseen stirs paralysis… inhibiting any effort that might improve their lives because to them, no one seems interested anyway.

I see weight of invisibility everyday on the faces of my students. In the words they speak… and in the words they don’t speak. And I see the influence of invisibility every day in their risky behaviors and apathy.

But here’s the thing… I see the kids who are struggling with feeling unseen because it is my job to see, and because I never forget how painful it feels to wonder if anyone cares enough to look… and if I had no other responsibility given my title as “counselor”, seeing young people, and I mean fearlessly seeing them for who they really are and not who we think they are or should be, would be more than enough to inspire them to be more invested in their lives.

Which is why it confuses me so that we have so many young people struggling as profoundly as we do… because all they really need, after their plates are filled with food, their backs are clothed and their heads are covered by a roof… is for the adults in their small, but significant lives, to look at them… without a need to see anything other than what is real for that child.

Because then it’s easy. Once we know the true need… we can go ahead and meet it.

is that why you don’t try harder to get to know us? are you so afraid you’ll find something dark about us that you won’t know how to deal with? are you so worried that you’ll end up feeling helpless to fix our “problems” that you don’t even try to understand why we’re struggling? we may put on good shows that make you think we’re fine, but we’re often struggling with, or questioning something in our lives. we need you to not be afraid of us or of our truth. we need you to understand us or at least try to. we wonder about the big issues like future, love, death, loyalty, suicide, sex, temptations and right and wrong, whether you wish we did or didn’t… and we also wonder why it seems so uncomfortable for so many of you to just sit down with us and talk about these things.

there’s a lot of scary, unpleasant stuff in this world and we know how overwhelming life can be, but if the adults in our lives don’t show us how to be brave enough to face the demons that lie inside all of us, how can we be expected to rise above our demons? maybe when you were young, you were told simply to move on and quit whining, or maybe people treated you like a freak if you did express such confused or provocative thoughts… but whatever your reasons were for bottling stuff up, they don’t help us.  it’s a different time now and we’re exposed to different things. we can’t keep bottling up our fears and confusions because they just keep collecting and it feels like poison inside us.  we’re young and haven’t been around that long and every day we’re exposed to new ideas, experiences, social issues and pressures, and every time we come across something new (which is all the time, especially with all the new technologies and media), we have questions or we feel new feelings that we can’t quite get our heads around.  it’s true that we hate admitting that we don’t know everything and feel overwhelmed at times… just like everyone else, but we want you to know that if you choose to ignore the stuff that weighs us down because it’s “too stressful” for you, or because you love us so much that you can’t bear to acknowledge our pain, then we are much more likely to act in risky ways or make poor decisions.

inconvenient as it may be to you, we as your kids or students would be much safer and would feel much more supported if you had the courage to want to know what lies inside us, even if it disagrees with your beliefs or how you were raised… and we may even need you to help us find the words. if we have to keep our insecurities, fears, confusions, doubts and anxieties bottled up because everyone’s too prideful, rushed or scared to ask us what’s going on, we’re much more likely to be destructive… but if we have adults in our lives who show us how to be brave and help us look inside ourselves with confidence and fearlessness, then we’d be much more likely to make better decisions and build healthier relationships.

because that’s the best way to get us to live healthy lives. if you have a problem with drinking too much, the best way for you to prevent us from developing a drinking problem is for you to do the hard thing and get and stay sober.  as you may know, behaviors and habits can get passed down from generation to generation… just like eye color or height can get passed down.  stuff like hot tempers, aggression, drinking, violence in relationships, drug use, promiscuity, teen pregnancy, poor work ethic, dishonesty and even eating disorders get cycled through families.  we learn from the environments we grow up in, and if certain behaviors are “good enough” for our parents, many of us will just end up mimicking what you do when you’re around us. what we’re asking is that you find a way to break your bad habits… if not for you, then for us.

we’re asking you to look in the mirror, even if it’s painful. and we want you to know that preaching to us about the dangers of  bad habits isn’t nearly as loving, or effective, as showing us the courage to break them.  and while parents might feel they’re doing the right thing by lecturing us to not follow in their footsteps and to learn from their mistakes, for us, they’re just empty words.  breaking habits and family patterns takes strength of character and courage, and if you can’t do it… how are we supposed to be able to? and while some of us do have the resiliency to resist following the unhealthy leads of our parents, a lot of us are just too vulnerable and impressionable. and we’re not saying it’s easy. but we need you to understand how important it is to us that you dig deep and figure out how to be better role models for us than your parents may have been for you.

and if you do show us how to free yourself from the patterns and scars of your pasts, than we’ll absorb your bravery and resiliency and have the futures we all want us to have. the truth is that we do love you and look up to you, even when you’re doing dangerous, scary or unhealthy stuff… and we just need you to show us how to walk the paths you want us to walk.

If teenagers can be conditioned to believe that “getting by”  is a goal they’ve chosen for themselves, or that their futures are limited by the circumstances in which they grow up… then they can be conditioned to break stereotypes and become much much more. Despite all that we read about inner-city youth, it is this simple. The behaviors and choices of our struggling urban youth are manifestations of their environments. When asked, their ideas about themselves sound more like cliche sound bites than honest reflections… and strangely, their inauthentic senses of self gives us hope, because it means their true natures have yet to be defined or discovered.

The only antidote to the toxic messages of inability that so many city children have absorbed is a crystal clear understanding of two truths.

1) That up until the moment they become aware of the ways they’ve been conditioned, their lives and their futures have not been their own.

2) They are without question, responsible for every word they speak and every action they take.

Black. White. Russian. Indian. Chinese. Hispanic. Middle Eastern. Muslim. Jewish. Catholic. Baptist. Wealthy. Poor.

Regardless of demographic, if a teenager can be guided to understand that the strengths and weaknesses they currently possess have been cultivated by messages from family, from music, from friends, from movies… than they can guided to realize that they do in fact have a say in how the rest of their futures play out. They can be freed from the delusion that they’re self-made and introduced to the idea of determining their real selves. And this is what they need to know to begin taking ownership of what they do with their days. In school. At home. In parks. With others. On their own. And this is when we might start to see the conviction and effort we so badly want to see.

Every day I hear the conditioned words and witness the conditioned choices of teenagers expressing a profound lack of fortitude, ownership and creativity. And what is saddest about what we’re seeing from so many inner-city teenagers, is that their deficiencies were not chosen by them… they were given to them. It is absolutely true that many city children are raised in broken families, exposed to traumas and neglect or compelled to endure stresses caused by economic hardship, but what they haven’t yet learned is that while these truths may steepen the incline, they in no way prevent ascent. The fortitude to learn and achieve is just as much their right as it is the right of anyone born into privilege… they just need to be guided past the maze of built-in excuses and justifications.

And this is where opportunity lives. The opportunity for individuals in positions to influence to stir the self-awareness needed to spark ownership… and the opportunity for the young people themselves to begin identifying and pursuing the lives they want to live.

Jeans sagging below backsides. Swear words every 3rd word. Reactive aggression. Sought conflict. Violent relationships. Drug use. Teen pregnancy. Failing grades. Issues with authority. Gang involvement. Bullying. Whatever the cliched behavior we’re witnessing from our inner-city teens, all they need is permission to be different, and a person insightful and direct enough to intelligently hold up a mirror and hold them accountable for the choices they make… and yes, it is possible to validate circumstances without pitying… and it is possible to hold accountable without being insensitive to circumstance.

If we’re trying to find the right buttons to push, we have to make sure our efforts are driven by an honest belief in their capacity to work harder and achieve more. There’s no room for guilt, pity or blinders when trying to light a fire in a child… because there is nothing more oppressive than low expectations or unrealistic goals.

If we’re trying to re-condition young people to believe in their actual abilities rather than accept their rumored inabilities, then we have to make sure that we never convey satisfaction when low expectations are met. And if we’re trying to incite personal revolutions in so many inner-city children who’ve been shackled and brainwashed by subtle, sneaky and crushing stereotypes… then we have to be transparent and relentless in what we know… which is that they’re living in a world that is either forgetting, or neglecting just how impressionable young people are, and that they are in fact powerful and capable far beyond what they currently feel.

No, my words here don’t answer the question of how to run classrooms in under-funded urban schools filled with under-performing students, but a deeper understanding of the obstacles and needs of our kids is a great place to start… and just as our inner-city youth are far more capable than they’re showing… so are the rest of us.

and slowly crush our confidence. it seems that many people with authority or experience think that because we are young, or because we’ve had difficult lives, or because we’ve somehow been oppressed for how we look or how much money our families have, that we’re not capable of the same successes as other, more privileged people.  making things easier for us is far more oppressive than challenging us. making things easier for us only sends the message that you think we’re not as capable as everyone else… and it keeps us from building our mental muscles to their fullest abilities. the dangerous thing here is that because we’re young, we’d much prefer things to be easier than harder.  and because of this, we’ll usually just accept the lower standards rather than ask to be challenged. and if you do lower your expectations of us, we’ll end up just feeling pleased with ourselves for accomplishing small, basic tasks, rather than feeling the pride of pushing ourselves beyond what we thought we were capable of.  the bottom line here is that we are capable of more. it is not in our “best interest” to make things too easy on us. and the only way we’ll find out how great we can become is by being challenged and inspired to work harder and aim higher. so even though we may not have had easy childhoods, we won’t benefit from being patronized… but we will benefit from your faith in us to do better.  if there are people in our lives who don’t allow us to “coast” or use our lives as excuses, than you’ll get to see us shine and overcome.  otherwise, if people keep relying on lowering the standards to “build our self-esteem”, we’ll grow up unprepared, hiding behind false arrogance and not knowing how amazing real confidence rooted in ability really feels.

and because of this, we often feel like strangers in our own families. we have different styles, different ways of speaking, different opportunities, different influences and different expectations of ourselves… and this often makes our lives very confusing. we love our parents, but we don’t understand them, just as they don’t understand us. and this causes us great conflict. we go to school and need to make friends and fit in, but when we go home, the ways we try to fit in at school seem childish, shallow, disrespectful and unnecessary to our parents.

our parents grew up in a completely different environment with their own pressures and opportunities and values, and as a result, we often argue over how we should act and what our priorities should be. for us, fitting in feels like survival. if we don’t fit in, we feel alone, lost and scared. if we don’t acclimate to the values and pressures of our peers, we get teased and bullied. and if we don’t abandon some of the ways of our parents, we’re left on the outside looking in.  and it breaks our hearts to “betray” our parents as much as it breaks the hearts of our parents. but we are teenagers, which often means we’re going to be more selfish than deferential. these are the choices we’re compelled to make as children of immigrant parents and our parents just don’t see how and why we make the choices we do. it’s not that we don’t love them, or even respect them, but when most of our time is spent away from them and in the company of our peers, it’s inevitable that we absorb the ways and manners and styles and priorities of those around us.

we understand the desperation our parents feel when they’re watching us evolve into “pop culture” or “typical american” kids… and we can even understand why they try so desperately to impose their culture and faith upon us. but their refusal to accept us for who we are hurts. and all we wish is for our parents to partner with us in finding ways to juggle both worlds.  our choices to “fit in” are not just “rebellious” acts. we just feel that to survive our teenage years and high school, we have to make decisions that go against our “differently” raised parents.  we’re not thinking about ways to aggravate our parents, we’re just doing the best we can to satisfy both their expectations of us and our expectations of ourselves… and if there were ways to remain connected to our roots and the fundamentals of our cultures and faith AND establish our own identities as young people raised in american society… this is what we’d want. all we need is for our parents to be willing to partner with us in finding this balance.

So, you’re young, but you’re now old enough to start dating, unless of course you’re not old enough because you parents want you to wait until a certain age (in which case, you might need to decide if you really think going behind your parents back to date is going to end well). Either way, if you’re considering “dating” and entering into relationships with other teenagers, ask yourself these few very important questions. What qualities do you value in other people? Kindness? Honesty? Sense of humor? Intelligence? Or are looks and popularity all that matter to you? What do you want to “feel” when you’re in the company of your boyfriend or girlfriend? Do you want to feel safe? understood? respected? Or do you only want to feel appreciated as pretty or handsome to the person you’re dating? Also ask yourself what don’t you want to feel when you’re in the company of your boyfriend or girlfriend. And ask yourself if you’d be brave enough to end the relationship if you started to feel the things you don’t want to feel… like controlled, unsafe, pressured, manipulated, or under-appreciated.

Being in relationships can be very confusing. And sexual relationships can be even more confusing, especially if you don’t feel like you know everything you need to know about safety and the risks associated with sexual relationships. Your emotions can be very strong and they can drive you to say things and do things you might not normally do. It is very important that if you decide to enter into a relationship that you also try to keep your perspective and not lose sight of other things that matter… like your family, your friends and your future. Always keep in mind that you are young and that you also have long term goals, because there will be times when it feels like the only thing that matters is your boyfriend or girlfriend.  Be careful not to get so consumed by the relationship that your start to neglect school or your health.

Finding balance between your relationship with your boyfriend or girlfriend and the rest of your life is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT… and if you feel yourself losing perspective and getting obsessed or overwhelmed, you might want to ask yourself if you’re ready to be in a relationship, or if the relationship you’re in is the right one for you at this point in your life. And if you can’t get clear about these questions, find someone you trust to help you get clear.  Remember, healthy relationships will make you feel whole and good and safe and confident and they’ll make you feel excited to move forward in your life with the goals you had before the relationship… while unhealthy ones will make you feel anxious, jealous, obsessed, unsafe and they’ll make you forget about the goals you had for yourself before you entered into the relationship. Drama does not mean love… jealousy does not mean passion… and losing your appetite or ability to sleep soundly isn’t always a good sign (although sometimes, strong crushes on a boy or a girl can make you a little less hungry). So choose your partner wisely, continuously evaluate whether or not you think it is a healthy relationship, be brave enough to end it if it does not feel healthy… and enjoy it, SAFELY, if it does feel healthy, and you’re allowed to be dating.

Flirting and asking someone out can be very scary. Do you express your real feelings to someone and risk rejection? Or do you play games, mask your feelings and try to find out if the other person likes you first? Understand this, no one wants to be rejected.  No one wants to feel unattractive. But everyone, especially young people, want to know what it’s like to like someone, and be liked back by that person. So here’s the best advice… trust yourself. If you like someone, let them know (confidence is also an attractive quality), and trust yourself to handle the rejection if it happens. Trust yourself to get past the pain of being “turned down”  if it happens, and trust your “quality” enough where you think others will want to date you… even if it’s not the one you’re interested in right now. And then trust that just because someone didn’t feel the same way about you that you felt about them, it doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with you.  It just means it wasn’t the right “fit”. The only way to find anything out for sure is to be clear with the other person about who you are, what you want and how you feel. The more confusing you are with them, the more confused you will be about how they feel. So be brave and when you flirt, flirt with honesty, confidence, sincerity and the understanding that sometimes people “click”, and sometimes they don’t.

instead of adults. because  it’s not that we want to be having sex at age 13 or drinking and experimenting with drugs at age 15… it’s just that some of us don’t see many other children our age playing board games or coloring or playing kickball or stickball in the streets. sure, a lot of our recreational options depend on where we live, but we’d like you to know that regardless of our neighborhood, city or state, we want to enjoy our youth. it seems a fog has been rolling over younger and younger kids that brainwashes many of us into thinking that we need to look and act older.

maybe it’s the movies and tv we’re watching or the music that we’re listening to or the video games we’re playing that are shrinking our needs for imagination. maybe it’s because everything is in front of our eyes and at our finger tips and there’s no need to imagine anymore. or maybe it’s the violence in the streets that is compelling us indoors when we use to be outside playing and creating and imagining. but wherever the pressure’s coming from… we’re not ready for it. we’re not ready for sex and drugs and the risks and responsibilities that go with adult behavior, no matter how convincingly we say we are… and we want to laugh and play in ways that aren’t mean or disrespectful to ourselves and our own bodies and spirits. but it almost feels like we’re not allowed to stay, and play young. it feels like we don’t have enough options and the more news about war and dishonesty and cruelty we see, the less likely it feels that we can go back to the innocence of playing like children deserve to play. we look to our peers but a lot of them are acting in grown up ways also… and we look to adults, and they’re often telling us to grow up and cautioning us to not be so naive and innocent… so we end up thinking that it’s not okay to be playful and youthful and that it’s actually something to be embarrassed about.

essentially, what we’re saying is that we need your permission… we need to be shown how to play and we need to be given opportunities to adventure. we need to be spoken to about the risks of adult behavior and at the same time made to feel safe enough to get lost in our imaginations without the fear of being teased or surprised… and we need to grow up in homes or taken on vacations to new places where we can simply act our age… and be appreciated and even revered for acting our age. so maybe you might not want to over-react when we play spin the bottle (like you probably did). maybe you don’t need to buy us the tight clothes and make-up even though we keep nagging you to so we can fit in. and maybe, just maybe, you can find a patch of dirt or plot of grass in a park somewhere and run around with us (if you’re not already doing so) because we’d love to see you smile at us when you see us playing like children.

and there’s nothing we or you can do about it.  it’s like being born black in a racist society, being handicapped in a world that ignores people in wheelchairs or having acne, a big nose, thick thighs and a bad hair cut when you’re a teenager… we simply need to find a way to be at peace with who we are, regardless of how others feel about us.  no matter how uncomfortable you are with us being gay, we can’t change the truth of who we are and who we are attracted to any more than you can.  despite what you may think, we do not choose this lifestyle just to be different, we don’t “become” gay just to rebel or make our parents angry, and we are not perverts or deviants. there’s no voodoo that can be done to “cleanse” us and there’s no prayer you can send into the cosmos to change our “nature”.

we want love, connection and healthy relationships… just like everyone else. we have ambitions, want acceptance and appreciate family… just like everyone else… and yes, we get hurt when you look at us with loathing or shame… just like you would if someone you cared about didn’t like something about you that was fundamental to who you are. because it’s such a harsh, judgmental world, we’ll sometimes try to convince ourselves we’re straight when we’re young… but we can only deny or hate ourselves for so long.  we’re just built differently than heterosexuals, just like someone who shines in the spotlight is built differently who thrives in solitude.  regardless of our or your religious upbringing or philosophical beliefs, eventually, we need to be who we are… just like you do.  we don’t lie or keep the secret because we feel it’s wrong to be gay (although some of us do grapple with the notion of “right” versus “wrong”)… we’ll lie and keep it a secret from you because we fear most of the rest of the world thinks it’s wrong.  some of us do experiment when we are young because we aren’t certain of who we are or who we’re drawn to.  it is confusing being young. if we were hurt over and over again by men, we might explore relationships with women… if we were hurt over and over again by women, we might explore relationships with men… but here’s the thing, and it’s very, very important… no matter what you think about being gay, whether you’re our parents, our teachers, our counselors, our priests, our pastors, our rabbis, our bosses, our brothers, our sisters or the people we most look up to… you can only hurt us and our relationship if you try to impose your beliefs on us or rush us into making decisions that we’re not ready to make. so please, just try your hardest to care about us more than you hate the idea of us being different from you.

Let’s just get the scary word out there. Suicide.  It’s a word most people are too afraid to say to young people.  Suicidal thoughts are more common than anyone wants to realize.  Kids and adults all over have thoughts about death and yes, even taking their own lives. When things are rough, and they are staying rough over a period of time, many people start thinking about ways to end the “rough” times. This is when thoughts of “suicide” can enter your mind because it seems like “a way out” of the rough patch. Understand that thoughts of suicide don’t make you crazy, it just means that you’re struggling to find a way through something scary or painful and that you simply need a little help finding your way through… and most importantly, that you WANT to feel better.  While asking for help and being honest with someone about how deeply you’re struggling may be hard… know that it will help. Feeling lonely or alone stinks, and the best way to feel connected to others is to share your secrets and to be real with people.  Don’t worry so much about how people will look at you and don’t silence yourself just because you’re afraid no one will understand. Be honest.  Be open.  Be brave enough to say out loud  what you’re going through because it’s very likely that the person you choose to talk to will have gone through something similar… and if they don’t respond in a way that helps you feel better, talk to someone else, and keep searching until you find someone who puts you at ease… and trust that good, understanding people do exist, either in your family, in your circle of friends, or a teacher or counselor at school.  And know that every effort you put forth towards trying to feel better will feed your confidence and remind you of just how brave and strong you can be. Death is permanent, but your sadness, confusion or pain are absolutely NOT permanent… and you will feel better again soon.

If you’re getting bullied, harassed or teased, know with absolute certainty, that you do not deserve to be treated this way.  It is not okay.  You do not have to “just accept it”, and there is nothing about you that is “asking” to be bullied, harassed or teased.  All it means is that the person treating you this way is insecure and lacks courage. To put an end to their mistreatment of you, dig deep and find the courage to look them in the eye and ask them to stop.  Let them know, without being threatening or aggressive, that they need to stop.  Let them know that if they continue to treat you or talk to you this way, you’ll let an adult know… and not because you’re scared, but because they’re not listening and you will stand up for yourself. And remember, they want you to feel too afraid to tell someone… so they can keep doing what they’re doing. This is why the bullies created this rule that “snitching” will get you hurt… so that they can keep you scared, and they can continue bullying. And if you do tell someone, and they don’t do something to help, go to someone else. And keep going to someone else until you find the adult who will help… just never give up and never “get used” to being bullied, harassed or teased.

even if you think they’re silly. do you want to know why we pierce ourselves, get tattoos, wear the clothes we wear, put make-up on the ways we do, listen to music that hurts your ears or use the language we use? because it’s actually quite simple, and it’s not just to aggravate our parents or get attention (although sometimes, it is).  we experiment with different “identities” because for us, having an “identity” means that we’re visible and that we are somebody distinct.  during our teen years, we’re going through so many changes and we feel so much doubt and uncertainty inside, that having an “identity” gives us something solid to hold on to.  we can say… “i’m a jock, i’m a rebel, i’m alternative, i’m gothic, i’m the self-destructive kid, i’m the risk taker, i’m gay, i’m a ladies man, i’m a popular kid, i’m the cheerleader…” and on and on and on. we look at adults and they seem so formed, and we think to ourselves that we want to feel as formed as they look… so we choose an identity that we think might help us feel visible and confident and connected to other like-minded young people our age.

we know a lot of you wonder why we choose such “strange” identities that often conflict with your beliefs or your sense of “sane”… but you should know that it’s only sometimes that we choose identities to spite you or to cause you irritation. usually we choose an identity that reflects some quality or need inside us…like the need to feel less afraid of judgment, or the need to express creativity, or the need to feel and look more powerful. and sometimes we do just end up with an identity that is shared by a few other kids we’ve made friends with. but this doesn’t mean the identity we adopt isn’t genuine, and it doesn’t mean we’ll discard the identity just because you call us “followers”. as soon as we adopt an identity, we’re going to keep it for a while and we’re going to make it ours… so do your best bet is put aside your judgments, and be curious about what’s going on inside our heads and hearts that drove us to look and act the way we do. and then right after you express your curiosity about the identities we’ve selected, remember to continue to appreciate the character underneath the show you see. our experimentation with different identities and labels may or may not become permanent parts of our personalities, but whether they do or don’t, if we’re not causing others harm or putting our futures in jeopardy, try to keep your cool and just stay as connected to us as you can.

Most books about parenting or dealing with young people focus on doing the “right” thing with them.  But as we all know, we don’t always do the right thing or say the kind words.  Kids push our buttons.  We’re sometimes (and often) not in the mood.  And our lives and needs occasionally feel more important than theirs… which is when we do damage to our connections.

Damage to our connections with our kids is as inevitable as it is serious.  Without healthy connections, we can have no influence and we can lose sight of what’s going on with our kids, which can lead to other bad stuff.  Knowing when the connection is damaged and how to repair our connection with them is vital in preventing risky behavior and influencing healthy behavior.

Obviously as adults, we’d all like to handle situations with our kids perfectly and prevent miscommunication and disconnect.  But this should not be at the expense of discussing the utility of mistakes and the growth that can come with good repair work after relationships have been damaged.  The mistakes we make with our kids can become profound opportunities to teach and learn lessons… as long as we’re humble enough to own them and self-aware enough to recognize them.

The list of tempting “reactions” to our kids’ behaviors is long.  We’ll hit, yell, scold, shame, over-react, punish too harshly, insult or just plain be mean.  Our emotions in these moments are driving us, not our intellect or pursuit of their development.  Our unfiltered human expressions of emotion, painful as they may be to our kids, can either end up giving them permission to express themselves thoughtlessly, or they can be used as the vehicles to take them (and us) to the healthier place of mindfulness and thoughtfulness.

After we’ve “reacted” and caused damage to our connections, what do we do?  Do we blame them for triggering us? or do we own our recklessness and find ways to hold ourselves accountable?  Do we allow our guilt for having messed up to drive us to buy them stuff they haven’t earned or give them privileges they’re not ready for? or do we express our guilt to them and share with them the ways we’ll try to be more constructive and thoughtful in response to their behaviors?

Repair work is nothing more than the efforts we put forth after we’ve screwed up or role-modeled qualities we don’t want to promote in our kids.  It role-models self-awareness, humility, courage and communication skills and it can go a long, long way in building trust and credibility with our kids.

Knowing that we can “repair” fractured relationships doesn’t mean we should give ourselves permission to be reckless and thoughtless in how we respond to our kids’ behaviors. This would simply end up role-modeling empty apologies.  Repair work is only useful if it stirs lasting changes in communication, judgment or behavior.

Given the fragility of children’s ego’s, we need to remain very mindful of just how powerful our reactions are and just how deeply they affect our kids.  Obviously, we’re going to feel and react at times without thought, but when we do this, if we can go back to our kids and listen to how our “impulsivity” affected them, than we’re increasing the likelihood that something good comes out of something “bad”.  No, we don’t want to baby our kids (unless they’re actually babies), and there will be times when we need our words and decisions to leave a mark (and I don’t mean physically), but we can’t just leave the mark without being sure that we’re leaving the mark we want to leave.

Repair work ensures that lessons are learned and that the damage we’ve done isn’t permanent.  The conversations we have after damage has been done to trust and connection are the mechanisms for growth and change, both for them as well as for us.  So when (not if) you screw up, in your home, office or classroom, with your kid, your client or your student, at some point shortly after you lashed out thoughtlessly or selfishly (and once you’ve cooled off), get a moment alone with the kid and have a conversation.  Repair what you’ve broken and show your kid how to do the same.

We haven’t heard them all, because humans have an infinite number of them… and the ones kids make are usually the best.  No matter how absurd, shocking, irritating or funny they are, they do serve purposes.

“My alarm clock didn’t go off.  My teacher’s a racist.  I had a long day. My parents were fighting all night long and fight all the time.  My friend got shot this weekend.  I had to take care of my little sister.  I sprained my ankle.  It was raining, I stubbed my toe, I sneezed 5 times in a row, my head hurts, my ears ache, the President of the United States is black, I’m white, you’re fat, I’m Hispanic or my family’s poor”.

I often ask my kids if they know the difference between a reason and an excuse (usually just after they made an excuse), and 9 times out of 10, they pause, smile a sheepish grin and get my point.  It’s very easy for young people to confuse legitimate reasons and excuses or justifications.  Even the above list of excuses challenges us to think about what’s legitimate, and what’s an excuse.  For example, if one of our students lost a grandparent recently, does this justify getting failing grades all year long?

Our reactions to their “explanations” can be very subjective.  When our kids come to us with their “explanations”, it’s our job to assess the validity of their claim, whether or not their claim actually justifies their behavior, or whether or not we’re going to accept their “explanation” and how long we’re going to accept it.  Remaining mindful of our own emotional reactions to their “explanations” or circumstances is crucial in making the decision that is best for the kid.  Sometimes we’re just too tired to call them on their lame excuses and challenge them, and sometimes we just feel so sorry for them that we make allowances for them as a gesture of our sympathy.  Either way, we need to be mindful of the reasons behind our decisions and try as hard as possible to make the decision that teaches them the most.

Challenging our kids (as well as ourselves) to think about the difference between reasons and excuses compels them to move closer to the “adult” behavior of taking responsibility and away from the juvenile behavior of blaming outside forces.

Excuses are designed to justify behavior.  We make them for ourselves, and we listen to others make them.  It’s rare to meet someone who never makes excuses and takes full and complete responsibility for every decision they make.  For our kids, excuses are often their first and last resort.  But for us, the adults in their lives, the 2 most damaging things we can do to our kids development are 1) make excuses for our own misbehavior, mistakes or lack of effort, and 2) make excuses for our kids misbehavior, mistakes or lack of effort.

When we accept or make excuses for our kids, we’re essentially lowering expectations of them.  We’re delivering the very powerful message that we do not have faith in our kids to do right, even when circumstances are difficult.  Lowering expectations of our kids is a trend that society as a whole seems to be following.  We use race, gender, neighborhood, family dynamics, sexual orientation, family income or any other differentiating detail to “explain” a young persons behavior or performance… and this does nothing but inhibit our kids’ growth and diminish their fortitude and effort.

Obviously, there are forces that make things easier or harder for certain kids.  But there is a huge difference between harder… and impossible.  Kids that grow up in neighborhoods where violence is “normal”, may have a harder time focusing on their futures… but it is not impossible and they are just as capable.  Kids who belong to a demographic that statistically shows lower average academic performance doesn’t mean they lack the ability to perform as well as the demographic that shows higher average academic performance levels, it just means they need the right support… and to be challenged thoughtfully.

When our kids have real factors working against them, it simply means that the adults in their lives have to work harder to get them to rise above the built in excuses or “explanations”.  The hard part for many adults is finding a way to both validate the challenges they face AND hold them accountable for their effort, behaviors and performance.  And for anyone who doubts whether this can be done… it can.  We simply have to give our kids the time, the support and the space they need to deal with their harsher, more unfortunate or challenging realities… and then we have to stop pitying them and stop them from pitying themselves… and then we have to take them by the hand, move on and get back to work.

As soon as our kids hear from the adults in their lives that less is good enough, they’re going to achieve less.  As teachers and parents, we can deliver this message in many ways. The most common ways we send the messages that less is enough is when we lower standards and expectations or when we make things easier on our kids despite their obvious capacities to do more.   But this is not what’s best for our kids.  It may be what alleviates our guilt or gets our kids to like us or love us more… but it will not prepare them for independence.

DESPITE their circumstances and WITH  the heavy baggage that many of our kids carry, they need to continue to work and perform.  They need the adults in their lives to role model courage and how to endure and overcome challenge, and they need us to partner with them until they develop their own momentum.

This is not to say that we ignore our kids’ struggles and just rush them forward. In fact, our kids need time to make their excuses, whine, complain and talk about the obstacles they’re facing.  They deserve opportunities to cry about the hard stuff they’ve been through and the pains they carry with them every day.  But they can not have endless opportunities.  As the adults, we have to separate the times we listen and validate from the times we challenge them to work and push through.  Kids need from the adults in their lives the structure that teaches them that there’s a time to sit and feel and mourn and grieve… and there’s the time to step ahead, even with heavy hearts or uncertainty.

Making excuses can become habitual… we all know this.  And lowering expectations can be very sneaky and there are countless ways we can justify accepting less from our kids (as well as ourselves).  But just like with every other worthwhile cause, with a little self-awareness, transparency, accountability and effort, we can get better at seeing through our kids excuses, validating them AND holding them accountable, and making sure we’re doing everything we can to help them become the best versions of themselves they can be.

in fact, and we’re sure this will sound strange, but it’s really logical why some of us do it. and we want you to know that cutting ourselves, or burning ourselves, actually works when we want to feel something different. we’re going to try to explain it to you, so read slowly and carefully, and pause when you’re reading to make sure you understand. because we need you to understand and not just run to call 911 or hurry us to the psyche unit (although for some of us, an evaluation and an opportunity to focus on our mental health might actually be necessary). you see, when we go through any experience, we end up feeling things inside. when bad stuff happens, we feel sad, scared or overwhelmed. when good things happen, we feel excited, joyous or connected. being affected by our experiences and relationships is inevitable. and when we feel painful or confusing things, if we don’t have the self-awareness or vocabulary to understand our feelings and label them correctly,  sometimes they just stay stuck inside us. and if these feelings stay stuck inside us, and we remain confused by them without any way of communicating them or asking for help, they eventually turn toxic and overwhelming… which leads to desperation because we so badly want the pain to go away.  and it’s this desperation that can lead to us cutting our own skin. in trying to figure out how to release these stored up, overwhelming emotions, we sometimes end up turning to physical pain.  again, this may sound strange, and you might be asking yourselves “why cause physical pain to try to deal with emotional or psychological pain?”… and again, it’s not that complicated, so keep reading.

for those of us who are younger, emotional pain can feel nameless and faceless and beyond our own understanding… which is why we cut (and so you know, we’ll use all kinds of things like scissors, hard plastic, sewing needles etc). we’ll cut ourselves because a cut to our skin is obvious, isolated, and healable… which inside pain isn’t (at least not in our younger minds). in addition, a cut to our skin is something we are in control of, where as the emotional pain we’re feeling is usually caused by someone else, and therefore, beyond our control. so it boils down to choosing actual physical pain which we’re in control of, over abstract emotional pain which we feel like we have no control over… and it’s not to kill ourselves, and it’s not always for attention. often, it’s just for the release of brain chemicals that happens when we cut. often, it’s because the people in our lives aren’t taking our experiences seriously enough. often, it’s to punish ourselves for acting in ways that we’re ashamed of. and sometimes, it’s for the excitement we feel when we’re doing something wrong or unhealthy. unfortunately, it is a coping strategy that has become much more visible and as such, many of us have adopted it as a way of dealing with our feelings… but if you think about it, it’s no different than drinking, smoking, having sex or engaging in any other risky behavior… it’s just another attempt by us to feel like our lives belong to us, and not to the forces affecting us.

look, we know it scares people when we do this, and sometimes it scares them so much that they turn a blind eye to our reality… but if it scares you, imagine what it’s like for us to feel so overwhelmed, and so unprepared to deal with our lives…  and so alone that we have to turn to causing ourselves even more pain as a way of coping. so if you know a kid, or suspect a kid you know is cutting themselves, try your best to approach them without panic and judgment, and do your best to engage them in a conversation about what they might be feeling and needing. because the more supported we feel by the adults in our lives… the less likely we are to cause ourselves harm.

for so many reasons. some of these reasons are healthy (like when we’ve been in a longer term, honest, committed, trusting relationship and have talked about sex with our partners and doctors). and some of the reasons are unhealthy and self-destructive (like when we’ve been abused when we were younger and have confused ideas about boundaries, or when we have been made, over time, to feel more like objects than like whole people).  for us, whether we’re straight or gay young men, or straight or gay young women, having sex is often a very confusing experience. even if we seem confident in our decision making or choice in partners, we’re often wondering and doubting inside our own minds. we wonder about our attractiveness. we wonder about our sexual “skills” or if our partners are enjoying us physically. we wonder about what our partners are thinking or whether or not they actually like us, or are just using us for our bodies.  many of us are even wondering if we’re causing shame to our families, really want to be having sex or even if we’re ready to have sex. for a lot of us, we sleep around because we’re looking for something that we feel we’re missing. we’re looking to feel loved. we’re looking to feel appreciated. we’re looking to feel useful, or to feel like we’re good at something.  for a lot of us, sex seems like the gateway to adulthood, and if feeling like “a kid” doesn’t feel so good, we rush ourselves. we have sex with more people than we should and more frequently than is healthy not to make adults angry with us (although sometimes we do)… we often sleep around just because we don’t value ourselves enough or feel that we deserve relationships defined by safety, respect, intimacy and trust.  many of us, male or female, gay or straight, allow ourselves to be used because we’ve learned through media, friends and family that our greatest and only real asset is our bodies. for us girls, we’re often portrayed as things, or objects or toys… and for us boys, we’re often glorified for treating women as numbers or conquests. and this is no different for those of us who are gay.  magazines accentuate body parts and sexualize everything. music videos illustrate sex more as a sport, activity or a competition rather than a relationship. songs refer to us girls as bitches and whores and smuts and chicken heads and all kinds of other demeaning words. and boys are being taught that to be a man, they have to have sex as soon as possible with as many women as possible. nowhere are any of us really being taught, especially by the media, that sex can and should be something shared, something mutual, something discussed and something safe. instead, a lot of us teenage boys feel entitled to say what we want to girls, and a lot of us girls feel like we have no choice but to be treated like less than boys.

you see, for us young women, we spend so much time being whistled at, harassed and pressured to be sexual, that eventually, we start to feel powerless to stop it.  and once we feel powerless to stop it, we often unknowingly start convincing ourselves that we “like” it just to avoid feeling powerless. and for us teenage boys, we put so much pressure on each other (and we get it from our elders as well) to start having sex, that we stop thinking about how the other person might feel or what they want. eventually for all of us, having sex stops being a meaningful experience, and simply becomes something to do.  sadly, many of us aren’t having sexual relationships defined by care, thoughtfulness and connection. and many of us don’t have healthy relationship role models in our lives… and in the absence of couples to look up to, or adults to speak to openly and honestly, we often end up mimicking what we see, watch, read about and hear. but don’t misunderstand, we’re not all victims and we’re not all sexist pigs and we do understand that there is such a thing as being sexually confident. and many of us do know about safe, safer and safest sex… but the point is that many of us don’t know what we need to know and do hide our insecurities, questions and doubts… which is why we need the adults in our lives to push through their own discomfort and sit and talk with us.

and it doesn’t matter if we’re white, black, hispanic, asian, indian, rich, poor, suburban, urban or in college… we’re all eligible for gang membership. and there are hundreds, maybe even thousands out there just waiting for another member.  bloods, crips, MS 13, latin kings, vice lords, surenos, nortenos, skinheads and white supremacists are the more common gangs, but there are countless other “sets” or factions in all regions of the world. each gang also has their own distinguishing features which you can keep a look out for. if you see any of us getting tatoos, doing grafitti, wearing beads, specific sports clothes, hats or team emblems or only some colors and not others, we might either already be connected, or we might be considering joining.  what we want you to keep in mind is that while the word “gang” often stirs fear and outrage, the factors that drive many of us to join gangs are very similar to the factors that drive people to join fraternity’s, sorority’s, high school cliques or even church groups. obviously, the activities of street gang members differ greatly from other groups or communities, but if you’re trying to understand us, or even influence our decisions to join gangs, having a greater perspective beyond what the media portrays will help.  for a lot of us, the main reasons we’re willing to mug, steal, hustle drugs, cut people, rob people or even die are simple. we’re willing to do all these things for loyalty. for the sense of belonging, safety and importance that comes with being a part of a community. we’re willing to sacrifice our futures, and sometimes even put our real family members at risk because the other gang members would do the same for us… and knowing this with certainty can make us feel amazingly powerful.

many people assume all gang members must simply be “rotten” or “evil” to do the things many gang members do, but it can be far more complicated. for those of us who grow up around constant violence and threats, we learn to seek safety in numbers and shut off our consciences or emotional switches. this “shut off” allows us to do some of the awful things we do without the regret, guilt or remorse most people would feel. and this doesn’t mean we are “evil”, it just means our survival instincts are overpowering our senses of right and wrong and our loyalty to our gang, our color, our flag, our neighborhood or the friendships we’ve made give us all the justification we need. sadly, any young person who knows deep loneliness, powerlessness, fear or invisibility is at risk of being recruited into a gang, especially the young people who don’t feel connected to or seen by their own families. so even if you don’t think the kids in your lives have any real reason to seek out the perks of gang affiliation, if you have any doubts, be sure to take a deeper look and ask the right questions… and than listen. this will give you the best chance of knowing where we stand, what we’re into, or what we’re considering getting into.

it’s an “emotional management” issue that people have labeled as an anger issue.  the problem is, we’re just not as angry as we often look. but we are hurt. we are overwhelmed. we are scared. we are ashamed. we do feel powerless. we do feel neglected, rejected and abandoned. and we are lonely and we do feel more hopeless and helpless than we’d like. and instead of being taught how to face and feel our real feelings, we reflexively just flip them in our heads and hearts into anger… which is why people think are problem is with anger, and not the real stuff underneath.

disguising our real feelings as anger has become a habit for those of us who you label as “angry”. instead of being taught that all emotions are natural and actually useful and beautiful, we learn to ignore them, deny them, repress them, or drown them in alcohol, drugs or other distractions. think about it. think about how you judge or perceive different feelings. do you look at depressed people as fragile or weak? do you get irritated with yourself when you let yourself feel lonely? think about what feelings you would choose to show if you had the choice…  would you feel more comfortable showing sadness? or anger?…  to express shame? or anger? … to convey loneliness or powerlessness or hopelessness?… or anger? and while you’re thinking about which feelings you think are more acceptable, keep in mind that we’re teenagers who think appearance is everything… and looking weak is not an option.

for most of us, the choice is easy (even though it often doesn’t feel like a choice)… and that’s to show the emotion that others see as more powerful, and not the ones that make us look weak or vulnerable.  as kids, most of our sense of self revolves around how others see us. and we’d much rather be seen as angry than ignorant, embarrassed, stupid, sensitive or even thoughtful.  it’s just how we’ve been conditioned. by our families, by movies, by athletes, by singers/rappers and performers.  we’re taught feelings are for wimps. tears are only shed by babies, “little girls” or the weak.  we’re taught power is gained by overpowering others, and not by picking others up.  we’re taught strength is measured by physical ability and not the capacity to do right when all others seem to be doing wrong. and we’re taught that confidence is measured by how little we care about what other people think about us, rather than by how true to ourselves and our own hearts we can be.  these statements may sound dramatic or exaggerated… but they’re really not. it’s how a lot of us think… without knowing it’s how we think.

these thoughts might be more extreme for some of us than others depending on where we grow up or who raised us, but the basic points about which emotions are more “acceptable” to others are pretty true for most young people. it’s just how a lot of us have been raised.  it’s an aggressive world we live in and we often feel like if we don’t match the aggression… then we’ll become the victims. and no one likes feeling like a victim. we’ve confused aggression with power and we’ve never been challenged to develop our emotional vocabulary or self-awareness. and we’ve never been taught that it takes far more confidence and courage to look directly at our vulnerabilities, than to look away from them. nor have we known many people who have role modeled the bravery to express how they really feel, even if it makes them “look” weak in the eyes of others.

we’ve only learned that anger looks strong and most, if not all other feelings look weak… and this is why so many of you think we have “anger” problems. which we don’t. so if you really want to address our “problem” and teach us how to “manage” ourselves in healthier ways, try not to address the anger you see or we show… look deeper, put a little more thought into your approaches with us, be more curious… and most of all, role model the courage to feel and express all of your emotions… not just the ONE that media says makes us look tough.

Being young is much easier and much more fun when you go through it with friends… but they have to be the “right” friends for you to enjoy your young years.  Loneliness and fear often drive kids to make friends with people who may not be good for them or their futures.  Many young people end up friends with other young people without thinking about “why”.  Do you try to make friends with the “popular” kids just because they’re popular? Or do you try to make friends with them because you have similar interests, values and goals?  Do you make friends based on how a kid looks, dresses or how much money their family makes? Or do you make friends based on the kind of person they are and what they stand for? Friendship is something we all get to define for ourselves, but as a rule, if a person is bringing more stress, drama, danger and conflict to your life, they might not be the “friend” for you.  If you can have the patience to wait for and choose friends that improve your life and bring laughter, safety, kindness and inspiration… your teen years will most likely be a lot more peaceful and satisfying. And if you end up becoming friends with people who you later realize are wrong for you, it’s okay to move on from them… you don’t need to be loyal to people who bring you down or put you at risk. The best way to find friends who improve your life is to join something that you enjoy… and make sure that when you meet new people, that you’re true to yourself… because it gives permission to those around you to be true to themselves… and than you don’t have to be something you’re really not.

Or if you accidentally do something that leaves you feeling embarrassed (like accidentally passing gas or ripping your pants), make a joke and laugh at yourself.  It makes the moment go by faster and shows true confidence.  Don’t get mad at those who may be laughing… simply join them for a bit, and than you can move on. And if your friends or other observers continue to laugh and tease and it starts to get irritating… smile, nod and calmly say “yeah, I get it, pretty funny… now can we move on”… and than move on, with or without the others.

Have you ever blamed “boring” teachers for doing poorly in a class? Have you ever said something like “how am I supposed to learn or do well in that class? the teacher’s so boring and I’m just not interested in the subject”. If you have, you’re not the only one… but… now brace yourself for what you’re about to read… when you use “bordom” as your explanation for doing poorly, you’re only making excuses and looking for the easy way out. I know, no teenager wants to be told they’re making excuses, but you need to hear it if you want to grow up and be seen as an adult. Education is not entertainment. As annoying as this truth is for you to read, education is education. It’d be great if all your teachers were effective teachers AND funny and entertaining… but it is not their job to entertain you (and as you probably already know, most of them aren’t that funny). It’s their job to educate you. It’d also be great if you were interested in all your subjects, but you just won’t be, especially the ones you find more difficult. There’s no gentle way to say this… but even if you’re bored and disinterested, it’s still your job to learn. And guess what, you’re still capable of learning and doing really well. You just have to do the work and put in the time. It’s called discipline.  When you want to be entertained, go to the park with friends or to the movies (just not during school hours).

School is for learning and growth (and some fun, maybe, after you’ve done your job as a student), so with all due respect… and again, brace yourself for some direct truth that sounds harsh…  you might want to stop whining and complaining about how “boring” everything is, and start being proud of yourself for doing what’s boring because it’s good for your future. Start feeling the dignity that comes with doing what is necessary for you to become an independent adult capable of making your own dreams come true.

Have you ever felt so proud of yourself for accomplishing something so challenging that you wanted everyone to know what you did?  Have you ever felt so confident in your character that you didn’t need anyone’s praise or recognition to feel good about yourself? Everyone wants to feel these ways about themselves; proud and confident. But most just don’t know how, especially young people.  Many kids think that hero’s only wear masks and capes but don’t exist in real life.  But this just isn’t true.  Look at your teachers, your parents or anyone you know who offers help and support (as corny as this sounds). We’re all capable of being heroic, but it takes a different kind of courage than most people think.  It’s not courage that makes people fight or act aggressive… it’s fear.  It’s not courage that gets kids to refuse to work hard or follow rules… it’s insecurity and self-doubt.  Courage is what you show when you do the hard thing like show kindness when people expect you to be aggressive.  Courage is what you show when you succeed at something where people doubt you.  Courage is what you show when you think about someone else’s feelings as much as your own. And kindness isn’t weakness. Showing kindness to others is far tougher in today’s society than showing aggression towards others. What shows weakness is giving in to your fears of being seen as “weak” and pretending to act tough by showing disrespect and aggression.  Toughness isn’t saying or showing that “you don’t care”… toughness is having the courage to admit that you do care.

We all have the capacity to be heroic. Whether it’s by writing a book to try to help young people… or by picking others up when they’re down.  You, reading this book, have the capacity to be a hero.  Whatever your race, gender, sexual orientation, home neighborhood, religion or financial situation, you have opportunities every day to feel confident, proud and powerful. All you have to do is find the courage to work hard at the stuff you’re afraid to fail at, be brave enough to show compassion when those around you are more comfortable being selfish, and display your character by proving to others that toughness isn’t shown though violence… it’s shown through thoughtfulness.