Jessica was a seventeen-year-old high school junior when she attended her class retreat. The second evening of the retreat was, according to the teens who had attended the retreat before, “heavy, deep, and real” and tended to be their favorite experience of the retreat. Students were beginning to lower their guard and trust one another and the adult leadership team.
Months before the retreat, I asked that their parents send me digital pictures of the teens when they were babies and as young children, doing something funny or slightly embarrassing. I then took the digital pictures and set them to music in a slideshow. During the retreat, as pictures of themselves, their parents, siblings, and friends flashed before their eyes, a previously rowdy group of adolescents grew still, legs crossed in perfect silence, eyes glued to the screen.
The point of this exercise was to jar teens out of their naturally self-conscious, preoccupied state to see themselves and others through a different lens. We wanted the students to look through the eyes of their parents or guardians and their God—those who gave them life, nurtured them, raised them, and helped them grow from the little children in those pictures into the young adults they were becoming.
Afterward the teens were separated into groups, and asked to process the experience by answering the question, “What was it like seeing yourself through your parent’s eyes.” Jessica, a member of my group, had tears streaming down her face. I looked at her and invited her to share what was on her mind. She said:
It was weird. I mean, it’s like I never thought about it like that, you know? It’s like I know (pointing to her head) my parents
love me. They say it a lot, really. But I guess I don’t think about them actually loving me (pointing to her heart). I know we
always talk about how much we want to get away from our parents or want them to leave us alone, but down deep, that’s
not what we want. I do want my space and freedom. But I also want to spend time with my parents. It’s just hard when all we talk about are things in my life that disappoint them—my grades, my friends, the way I dress, and my music. I wish they could see that I’m more than those things—not that those aren’t important to me, but that I’m deeper than those things.
Jessica’s feelings are not unique. I’ve heard this sentiment expressed by teenagers countless times. But I know that many adults—parents, teachers, clergy, and lay ministers, both professional and volunteer—would be shocked to hear this. This generally is not the impression given by the teens in their lives. In fact, it is the opposite.
Many adults feel as though they’re doing teens a favor by giving them their space. In the words of one volunteer youth minister, “I can’t tell you what a relief it is to hear this. I’ve been reading them [teens] wrong. This gives me hope that they do want me around and that I’m not just another authority figure they feel they have to rebel against.”
In fact, and often unconsciously, teens can interpret that space as adults pulling away from them and feel abandoned. Other people don’t get involved with youth ministry because they assume young people wouldn’t come if they’re around. One adult volunteer told me: “It has taken me years to volunteer to help with the youth ministry. I’d always assumed the kids wouldn’t come if they knew adults were here.”
Over time, I have learned that it isn’t a case of whether or not we are present among teens, it’s how we are present among them that makes all the difference. Most adults keep a safe distance from young people because they aren’t privileged to see what I see and hear what I hear. Despite their words and behavior to the contrary, young people, more than anything else, desire a meaningful relationship with their parents and other significant adults.
Not only do younger generations want meaningful relationships with adults, but most adults I’ve known and worked with want with the same with young people. For a host of reasons these relationships do not exist in many homes, schools, and churches. Mutual fear and distrust is widening an already expansive crevasse between older and younger generations. Both sides are waiting for the other to take initiative in closing the gap. It’s like two friends waiting for the other to take the first step to kiss and make up.
As adults it is our responsibility to take the initiative to close the gap. As Chap Clark says in Hurt, “Adolescents need adults. The problem is not that adults cannot reach adolescents. The problem is that adults have not invested the time, energy and commitment to reach adolescents.”
The responsibility to take the first step is ours. In general, adolescents do not have the strength and confidence to make such a move; their egos are still in the development stage. Compounding the difficulty for teens is the perceived power differential between youth and adults: the adults are on top and teens are on the bottom. It is unfair to expect them to reach up to us.
A parent once asked me, “Why must I reach out to them all the time? When is it their turn?” Behind this question lay love and frustration—love for a young person and frustration that the work of building a relationship with them feels one-sided, with adults doing all the work and teens not doing their part. This is understandable. Certainly, even relationships between teens and adults require work on both sides. But the initiative to close the generational gap and establish a healthy relationship is incumbent upon us.
We must reach out to them.
If we really want to share life and faith with teens, we must reach out to them. Chap Clark suggests, then, that we adults “must roll up our sleeves and go to adolescents, listen to them, and unconditionally care for them.”
Yet when most adults encounter a teen’s resistance, they display one of three primary reactions: (1) sound the retreat and flee from the enemy, (2) charge in head first trying to change them without building a relational rapport, or (3) wave the white flag of surrender and try to be their buddy. None of these approaches works.
Over the last two decades our retreat from the adolescent world has not created a safer space between them and us. Instead, it most often creates a felt experience of abandonment. Teenagers don’t want us to leave them alone, nor do they want us blasting down the door, storming into their lives with no regard for their privacy and autonomy. Finally, most teens have plenty of friends. They don’t need another buddy.
Roy Petitfils is a counselor at Pax Renewal Center for individual, marriage, and family therapy. He is the author of three books including What I Wish Someone Had Told Me About the First Five Years of Marriage.