Teenagers say that the worst thing about school is the work. But for many teens, there is something else that can be an even greater source of daily stress.
Nathan at school: “Okay, now I’m going from history to French. I’m walking down the hall on the way to B Wing. Is that kid looking at me? Isn’t it that kid Travis? Why is he looking at me like that? What’s his problem?”
Amanda between classes: “Is there something wrong with my hair? Why are those girls looking at me? Damn, I knew it didn’t look right this morning. I need to check it out in the washroom. No, I don’t have time. Damn!”
It’s about the social pressure so many teens feel when they are in school.
“They’re always judging you. Being there in school; walking down the hall, or sitting in class. Everybody looks at you. They’re always judging. Maybe the kids at my school aren’t any worse than the kids at other schools, but the kids at my school can be pretty mean. Trust me, I know.”
In their heads they hear what they think the looks are saying: “Look at her. She thinks she looks cool? How can she come to school looking like that?”
“Look at the way that kid walks. Omigod. That kid is such a loser.”
Walking down the hall, running the gauntlet of all those hostile looks. Or just sitting in the cafeteria. It makes a teen want to scream at them all to go to hell. Or maybe hide. Or best of all, maybe not come to school.
“You don’t know. It’s really stressful. It is.”
Maybe they’re being paranoid. Maybe the other kids aren’t really judging them all the time. Let’s ask one of the kids in the hall.
“What were you just thinking when that kid over there just walked by?”
“I wasn’t thinking of anything. No, that’s not true. I was thinking about whether the new Worlds of Doom III video game will be even half as good as Worlds of Doom II. I mean, how could it?”
But real or imagined, the constant sense of being judged is a normal part of adolescence. Out there in the world of school you feel very vulnerable. You want so much to belong, to be accepted. Anything but the constant teenage nightmare: being an ostracized, ridiculed thing standing out there with everybody watching and everybody laughing.
Think about it. Getting up in the morning and leaving the safety of home for the world of total exposure.
“Every day I have to put on my out-there-in-the-world face. I do the best I can.”
Sometimes, though, it can be too hard. They don’t go to school.
“I’m feeling dizzy. I know I have a fever. I can’t go to school. I’m really sick.”
And some, because it is all too much, drop out.
We feel that pressure too. But as we get older, we do get tougher. Not so thin-skinned as our teenage children.
How can you help? Yes, it’s something that they have to learn to deal with – on their own. And you need to keep pushing them out there. But you do have an important role in supporting your kid.
We all need a safe haven. A place in our lives to which we can retreat, feel safe, unjudged, a place where we can soak up good stuff. Knowing it’s there helps us get through the day. Having it in our lives – like a boxer has his corner between rounds – having it there allows us and our kid to have the strength to head again out into the world.
So even though you still need to make some demands on them – you also need to cut them some slack.
“Hi, Kendra, how was your day?”
“Mom! Can’t you ever leave me alone? Just once.”
“I was just being friendly.”
“As soon as I get home you’re in my face. Can’t you just lay off?”
Instead of saying, “Listen here, young lady. A little respect, or you’re going to learn what unfriendly can mean.”
Sometimes it’s better to give them a pass.
“Oh, had a hard day? Have a nice rest of your day. I love you.”
When you think about it, wouldn’t you like it if people recognized that you have hard days too? Very hard days. Wouldn’t you like it if sometimes you got treated that way?
Anthony E. Wolf is a clinical psychologist and the author of several parenting books.