February 10, 2013

Motherlode: With kids in high school, parents often taken aback

By KJ DELL-ANTONIA

If high school is, as Jennifer Senior writes in "Why You Truly Never Leave High School" for New York magazine, corrosive and traumatizing, then it begs a question: How (barring home schooling) can we steel our teenage children against the institution's effect on their sense of themselves?

Senior has collected, in her usual thorough way (you may remember her as the author of "All Joy and No Fun: Why Parents Hate Parenting" in the same magazine in 2010), the current social science research into adolescence -- that moment when, as one researcher put it, "people become who they are." What she's gathered boils down to this (grossly simplified): During their late teens, individuals experience everything more intensely, good or bad. Those experiences create preferences, beliefs and a self-image that adheres. Who we think we are as teenagers remains with us long past what aren't, for many of us, the "glory days."

So, Senior proposes:

If humans really do feel things most intensely during adolescence, and if, at this same developmental moment, they also happen to be working out an identity for the first time -- "sometimes morbidly, often curiously, preoccupied with what they appear to be in the eyes of others as compared with what they feel they are," as the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson wrote -- then it seems safe to say this: Most American high schools are almost sadistically unhealthy places to send adolescents. ...

At the time they experience the most social fear, they have the least control; at the time they're most sensitive to the impressions of others, they're plunked into an environment where it's treacherously easy to be labeled and stuck on a shelf.

Those are labels that stick, Senior's piece suggests. Reading her article is likely to catapult you back into your own adolescent trauma (universal reaction in the comments is best summed up as either "totally!" or "that is so not me"), but I propose we seek a more constructive take-away: We may still be nerds, pretty girls or jocks, but our own children may not yet be living in those narrow boxes.

Brene Brown, author of "Daring Greatly," described how she sees parents reacting to their children's high school experiences, and it's nothing to be proud of:

Brown says it's remarkable how many parents of teenagers talk to her about re-experiencing the shame of high school once their own kids start to experience the same familiar scenarios of rejection. "The first time our kids don't get a seat at the cool table, or they don't get asked out, or they get stood up -- that is such a shame trigger," she says. "It's like a secondary trauma." So paralyzing, in fact, that she finds parents often can't even react with compassion. "Most of us don't say, 'Hey, it's OK. I've been there.' We say, 'I told you to pull your hair back and wear some of those cute clothes I bought you.' "

If we take one thing away from Senior's article, there it is: what not to say.

Less directly, researchers seem to suggest (based on their work and, just as often, their experiences) that one problem with high school is the "big-box effect": High school is a giant building full of people with little in common beyond their age. As humans, when we're dropped into a pack of strangers, we label, sort and bond. If we can give our teenagers the opportunity to follow their passions toward groups of people who share them, they'll also get a shot at internalizing a broader view of who they are. In a high school of 1,000 people, you may be a debate nerd. At a similarly sized debate camp, other labels await.

Contact KJ Dell-Antonia at:

kj.dellantonia@nytimes.com

 

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