High school is tough. It’s so tough that many adults, even decades removed from the social hell, still feel some anxiety if they have to step foot in a high school again. Side effects from being pent up for hours with a bunch of insecure, still-maturing teenagers (while being an insecure, still-maturing teenager yourself) resemble post-traumatic stress. This is obviously extreme, but it’s not uncommon.
High school is a rough time for everyone. And I want parents to know that there is no way to protect your teenagers from this. You cannot control what happens within those walls, and, for the most part, neither can many of the teachers or administrators. This is disturbing, but true.
What’s even more disturbing is that those social pressures extend beyond the school sphere. Teenagers have a widespread need to feel accepted. Once again, parents do not have much control over this (unless they subject their children to some sort of Draconian rule, which in many cases just causes a teen to rebel anyway, defeating the purpose).
For parents, I’m sure that this is scary. This life that you created, that you so desperately want to protect, is going to experience real pain and struggle and fear that you physically cannot protect them from. It quickly becomes downright terrifying when, in the mix of it all, a child – a tiny being with a soul and real energy, but a lack of the wisdom of age and a lack of a fully developed pre-frontal lobe – starts using controlled substances.
Just ask my parents. They watched their little girl, a child who had shown exceptional intelligence and clarity throughout childhood, turn into an alcoholic trying to navigate the troubled waters of adolescence. As a child, I did the D.A.R.E. program. My mother was always very honest with me about her struggles with alcoholism – she quit drinking before I could develop any memories of her drinking – so I was resolved to never ever EVER drink. My teen years, however, held a very different reality in store for me.
The moment I started drinking, it was love. My fate was sealed. Little did I know then that I would have to endure the fight of my life because of this drink that I loved so much. I decided to quit drinking for good after I went to the hospital for the fourth time due to alcohol poisoning. When I began to receive medical attention that night, not only was my blood alcohol content .3 but I was also in the early stages of hypothermia as I had been passed out in the snow for over 20 minutes. In all honesty, I should probably not be alive right now. I was so close.
Literally, I was near death. I was finally forced to face this eternally-impending mortality that we all experience as a result of being alive. I often wonder if there was anything that my parents could have done differently to alter my struggle, and I feel with absolute certainty that there was not. There was nothing they could have done to keep me away from alcohol. It was magnetic.
What my parents did do, however, was communicate with me – accept me as my own being with the complexities and strengths and weaknesses that we all share because we are simultaneously dying and living. My parents gave me a lifeline of communication with people who loved me, totally and fully, for the person that I was, and am, and will be – that is what made the difference.
So I want to say to parents, “Be that person. Be that protector, that guardian that you want to be, in the most innate way you know how. Connect with your children. Communicate with them.” Do not be afraid to talk about the uncomfortable situations because the reality is that life can be very uncomfortable, and that is okay. That is what makes life great – this juxtaposition of light in darkness, of finding strength in weakness, of the fear that is so present in love. Be for your teen what you hope they could eventually be for themselves: an honest, questioning individual, just trying to make sense of this incredible gift of life that we’ve all been given.
Emily Fisher is an undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. She is expected to graduate in the spring of 2017 and is majoring in psychology. You can read her blog at www.LeadUsNotIntoTemptation.blogspot.com.