I am not my daughter. I know this, and yet I lay my own teenage fears and insecurities on her, empathizing perhaps too much. She is much braver than I was or am.
I worry for her unnecessarily and don’t understand her annoyance when I try to share my sympathy or support. I spend hours sorting through my memories, reliving particularly painful events – the Dorothy Hammel haircut, the boy who turned me down for the Sadie Hawkins dance, flubbing my only line in the musical. I imagine she experiences a similar awkwardness. But times have changed and that saying that nothing ever changes could not be farther from the truth. Our kids are growing up in a very different time.
We had the buffer of space and time. For them it is nearly impossible to be a private person. Every move is noted on twitter or Facebook or Tumblr or some other social network I’m too old and clunky to know about. People, voices, messages, images, and news bear down on them every waking moment.
All three of my teens spend nearly every waking hour wearing earbuds which pound out a personal soundtrack for their lives. I wave my hands at them to get their attention in much the same way I call our deaf dog. They yank the ear buds out, annoyed before I’ve said my first word.
There is no quiet in their lives. How can they think amidst such constant noise? When I pose this question to them, they tell me they can’t think if it’s quiet. I sigh.
Just the thought of being a teenager in this age makes me weary.
I share stories of my own youth with my children, but it seems like a fairytale of sorts, very little of it possible anymore. Even our illicit flirtations with Jägermeister or Whippets seem tame in light of the designer drugs available to teens of this era. Pac-man, floor length prom dresses, pep rallies, and school spirit are quaint ideas from a time long gone. School work aims them towards the test they will take rather than the world they could explore.
As a parent, and as a citizen in this world, I worry about the effect of this life lived under such pressure, amid a barrage of noise and images and the scrutiny of a constant public microscope.
I remember from my Adolescent Psych class a phenomenon called, imaginary audience. Teens (and some adults) perceive the world as if everyone around them is watching their every move. Social media makes this imaginary audience seem even less imaginary.
But if you perceive the people around you as an audience, does it make you a performer? Living on a stage creates a pressure that can be hard to bear, especially for an emotionally strung out, hormonally charged, and many times exhausted young person.
We’ve watched as famous young people crack under that kind of pressure. But are young people, famous or not, feeling the same burden? Are the callous attitudes and unnecessary meanness simply frustrated reactions to a world that invades their privacy, pushing them to perform, and consuming their very souls? Are these kids reacting to the stress of living life on a stage created by their own perceptions and today’s pervasive technology?
Times have changed. What’s a parent to do? I’m still uncertain, but the only path I can find any footing on is one that passes no judgment. It requires that I follow them down the road they are choosing, resisting the urge to offer too many directions but helping them to hold the wheel steady. They need me to support their dreams even if my own dreams for them look very different because, of this I am certain – their dreams have been created in a world I can’t even imagine.