Like many teens I’ve worked with, I didn’t grow up in the most functional of families. I was born to a single mother who worked three or four jobs at any given point to make ends meet. Most nights she worked late. From the age of thirteen onward I spent many weeknights home alone in an empty house feeling lonely, sad, and angry. Of course I couldn’t articulate that at thirteen, but I was hurting, and I wanted to make the hurt go away. I turned to food.
Every day I would come home and try to eat things that made me feel better. And week by week, month by month, I was needing more and more food to make me feel better. By the age of fifteen I could no longer be weighed on my doctor’s scale, which maxed out at 350 pounds, and I was forced to be weighed on a scale at our local butcher shop. As I stood on the steel platform and watched the long red needle spin and land at 420, I murmured “That can’t be right.” My mom, with tears in her eyes, assured me we would do something about my weight. We didn’t.
Being a poor kid on scholarship at a private school was hard enough on its own. Being morbidly obese didn’t help. It felt as though I was picked on constantly. And the more I got teased the more I ate when I got home. By the time I was a senior in high school I couldn’t fit in the desks in several of my classes and those that I did squeeze into left welts and bruises on my stomach and side. Wearing a 6X shirt and size 64-inch waist, now weighing 480 pounds, I was embarrassed to leave the house and almost never wanted to go to school.
Midway into my senior year a teacher pulled me aside and informed me that I was becoming obnoxious, which wasn’t like me, and he wondered what was going on. I had no idea what he was talking about. I told my mom, and she suggested that I be nicer to people. I didn’t realize I wasn’t being nice.
Today I attribute that obnoxious attitude largely to my desire to be seen. At some point during high school I stopped getting picked on. I went from being bullied to being ignored. As strange as it may sound, being harassed was preferable to feeling ignored. I was the biggest human being in my town, yet most days I felt like no one could see me. Unconsciously, I left behind Mr. Nice and ushered in Mr. Jerk. Mr. Nice was invisible. Mr. Jerk got me attention—negative attention, to be sure, but at least that was something.
Rejection, contrary to what many suggest, is not our greatest fear: being invisible is. I’ve experienced in my own life and in the lives of teens I know that rejection is preferable to not feeling that you are seen. We need attention, especially during our formative years, and we’ll stop at nothing to get it—even if it means attracting negative attention.
People will get as big as it takes (through food or steroids), as thin as it takes, have as many piercings and tattoos as it takes, wear whatever hairstyle and clothing it takes, and act in whatever way necessary to receive attention. For teens, attention is like oxygen to the soul. And in the most unfortunate situations they’ll take lives, including their own, so as to not feel invisible. It’s no wonder that as of this writing, suicide is the third leading cause of death for teenagers today. If I can’t be seen, then why should I be here at all?
Sometimes it’s not that young people feel totally invisible, like I did, but that they feel a certain part of them is not being seen. Such was the case with Stephen, a high school junior who, on paper, had every reason to be happy. He was a great athlete, and he had a wonderful personality and lots of friends. His parents were genuinely kind, warm, and delightful people—to which he would attest. On the surface, it didn’t make sense at all that this young man was depressed, having suicidal thoughts, always irritable, and now verbally lashing out toward his parents.
When we first met for counseling, he was smiling and very friendly, which is rare in youth at the first session. We seemed to hit it off right away, and he didn’t hesitate to tell me that he hadn’t been feeling like himself lately. In fact, he wasn’t sure what that even felt like anymore. He was aware that he was losing his temper with his parents, and starting to do the same with peers and teachers. But he couldn’t figure out why. Just as I was about to bring the session to a close, with three minutes left, he said, “Oh, and I’m adopted.”
I said nothing and just looked into his eyes. Knowing how important it is, for guys especially, not to feel overexposed too soon, I broke eye contact and asked “What’s it like for you—being adopted?”
“It sucks!” he said harshly as if I, the counselor, was an expert who should know that being adopted sucks.
“So,” I said, “For you being adopted is a really tough thing.”
“Yeah. It is,” he said and then stood up, smiled, shook my hand, and said while walking out the door, “See you next week, man.”
I began our second session by asking, “What was it like for you last time? When you left my office, what were you feeling? Thinking?”
“Well,” he paused, “I dunno. I mean, I guess it was good.”
“But what were you feeling when you left?” I said.
“Oh…relieved, I think,” he said, looking away.
“What happened last time that made you feel relieved?” I asked.
Stephen paused and then said, “I think it was the way you looked at me when I told you I was adopted. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I’m always scared to tell people I’m adopted. Either they look at me like an orphan or they try to convince me that I’m better off than I could be, and that I should be grateful to have such wonderful parents and a wonderful life, considering my alternative. But you didn’t do that. You just looked at me for a while and asked
what being adopted was like for me. That was cool.”
In the following weeks and months Stephen shared with me how he was picked on as a kid for being adopted. He would cringe as he recounted stories of kids in middle school calling him a “redhead orphan.” Stephen allowed me to walk with him toward healing those painful wounds because in our first visit he experienced me seeing a part of him that others did not, but a part he wished they would. Even though he was aware of his many blessings and grateful for much of his current life, there was a part of him that felt neglected, unworthy, and unwanted.
In Sue Monk Kidd’s novel The Secret Life of Bees, August Boatwright, a black woman who farms bees for honey, takes in Lily, a girl who has run away from her abusive, single father. Lily soon discovers that ironically, this was the same place her mother ended up when she left Lily’s dad years ago.
Lily struggles to understand why her mom would leave her, and August suggests that when people are hurting they need to leave the situation they believe is hurting them. Lily responds “Was it the wounded places down inside people that sought each other out, that bred a kind of love between them?” To which August responds, “But it’s something everybody wants—for someone to see the hurt done to them and set it down like it matters.”
Teens need us to see their pain, even if there has been no perceived harm done to them. It may be that they experienced a particular situation as painful or that there was a relationship or time in their life that caused them hurt. During these times, what they need most is not someone’s logical explanation of how they see the situation, but validation. Rather than making the person feel like a victim, this validation legitimizes their experience and shines the light of hope into their darkness. It offers meaning to what would otherwise feel like a random, possibly sadistic experience.
In Mark’s account of Jesus’s interaction with a wealthy young man, (Mark 10:17–22), it reads “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” Jesus made it a point to see that young man, and in so doing loved him in such a powerful way. The French word used in this passage is regarder, a verb that means “to watch.” In my personal Bible, I’ve written the word “regarding” over the words “looking at” in this passage. It says a bit more. It speaks of a respectful, attentive look. In fact, when we don’t feel respected and attended to we use the word “disregarded.”
I often wonder what the young man felt as Jesus gazed at him. When I was nineteen, I believe I experienced that gaze. By my second year of college, I was weighing in at over five hundred pounds. One day, bribing me with hot donuts, some friends persuaded me to visit the Catholic student center on campus. While sitting on a sofa eating donuts right out of the box, a Catholic priest walked up to me and introduced himself. At that point, I hadn’t darkened the door of a church in five years, and I dreaded conversing with a man of the cloth. I didn’t want to give him my spiritual resume or have to lie to him if he asked me about going to Mass when I had no intention of doing so.
The priest looked deep into my eyes and smiled in a way that no one had ever smiled at me before. Instead of asking me to attend Mass, he invited me to lunch. After that lunch, he invited me to another, and another. At least once a week throughout the Fall and Spring semesters, he invited me to spend time with him, usually at
a local pizzeria sharing its signature meat pizza called the “T-Rex.” I remember feeling, “This guy doesn’t seem to notice that I’m obese and poor.”
Today I realize that he did notice, but that didn’t throw him off, because he saw something deeper in me. When I was a 500-pound 19-year-old he saw the 220-pound healthy, 41-year-old husband and father who is writing this book. He saw the entrepreneur, the minister I could and would grow to become. He saw me. The way he saw me affected the way he treated me, and the way he treated me drastically affected the course of my life. I can say without question that I am who I am and where I am today as a direct result of being truly seen by him and by a few others at the Catholic student center. How we see others matters.
The young man in the Gospel ultimately walks away sad because he had many possessions. I’ve read and heard interpretations of this Gospel story that assume the young man spent the rest of his life off track, that he left Jesus with no intention of ever doing what Jesus asked—“sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Mark 10:21).
But since the details of what happens to the young man after he leaves, disappointed in Jesus’s answer, are not known, I’d like to think that at some point in his life, the man was touched by the way Jesus saw him and did indeed turn his life over to Christ.
As much as possible begin every interaction with an open mind. This is not easy, but it’s difficult to see the reality of the young person in front of us when our vision is being blurred by our reconceptions and assumptions. Adolescence is a time of rapid change on every level. When I was teaching in the classroom, every day I had a note on my desk that read, “These are not the same kids that were here yesterday; get to know these kids.”
I know, it sounds too simple actually to be effective, but I’ve found this to be a very useful tool in counseling, mentoring, and parenting. The reason it’s so effective, especially today, is that many young people spend their days looking into their cell phones, tablets, computers, and the like. The amount of real eye contact they experience is minimal. So when you do engage with teenagers in this way, it has an impact on the person, even if
The majority of young people today are wary of adults. They don’t necessarily assume that we’re mean or out to get them, they just don’t tend to trust us. A genuine smile tells them we’re not the enemy. It also tells them they are someone worth smiling at.
Even if their answers are brief or they act a little weird about this, it is usually because they are nervous. But teenagers like the attention, and appreciate your effort to let them know you care about what they think. When we make a habit of asking them questions and then patiently listening to them while they answer, young people feel seen. They experience this as us focusing on them in a positive way, and it contributes to their positive self-esteem. It’s another opportunity to build trust and a pathway for open communication.
Times have changed, and young people in some very important respects are different than I was as a teen—as you were as a teen. But that desire to be seen remains constant. The experience of being seen by another is a powerful form of intimacy. Deep inside each of us, at every point in our lives, but most especially during the turbulent period of adolescence, we need to be They need to see themselves through the eyes of significant others. When this happens we feel known, understood in some way. This is especially important for young people who have been wounded. What may seem like a distrust of others is usually matched by an equal desire to be really seen.