I am not my daughter. I know this logically, but it doesn’t stop me from assuming that she feels the same things I felt when I was her age or reacts to situations the way I did when I was a teen. I lay my own 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 endless hours sorting through my memories, reliving particularly painful events and imagining her experiencing a similar awkwardness. But times have changed and that old 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 that they don’t have in this age of instant feedback and constant images. You can’t close your door. The TV doesn’t turn all fuzzy at midnight and the phone is never busy. There is constant scrutiny 24/7. There is always someone available to chat or skype or text. It is never quiet.
Every move that is made is noted on twitter or Facebook or Tumblr or some other social network I’m too old and out of it to know about. You can’t untag some images and the lenses are everywhere recording your every move whether you want it or not.
It is nearly impossible to be a private person. People, voices, messages, images, and news bear down on you every waking moment. It makes it hard to sleep or think. All three of my teens spend almost 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. Sadie Hawkins dances, 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 always watching their every move, paying attention to only them. Social media makes this imaginary audience seem even less imaginary.
As a middle-age woman I’m far removed from this predicament. In fact, I’ve noted on many occasions that women my age are basically invisible. We aren’t a threat to anyone, so people mostly ignore our presence. There’s a freedom to be had there and I must admit I appreciate it more than resent it.
But if you perceive the people around you as an audience, does it make you a constant 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 much of the same burden? When we witness callous attitudes and unnecessary meanness, are they simply frustrated reactions to a world that is invading 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?
I’d explode too, or shut down. There is not much room for anything in between.
I know that my teens are facing pressures untold and I wish beyond wishes that I could help them, but I suppose my meddling and assumptions are not what they need. They need the only thing I’m qualified to do – listen and love. And the only way I’ll be able to hear them is to lay down my own memories of being a teen. What they are experiencing is vastly different even if the emotions created by this stage in life are universal.
Times have changed. What is 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.