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RevolTeens: A Letter of Apology to the Class of 2020, by Christine Lively

Dear Class of 2020,

On behalf of adults everywhere, I would like to apologize. As adolescents, teens, emerging adults, your time between childhood and adulthood has been horrible, and it’s our fault. Your adolescence has been marked by terrors from the time you were born right around September 11, 2001 until your graduation now 19 years later, our country has been at war. You have attended schools that are falling apart structurally, and you have faced the terror of school shootings while also experiencing the terror of practicing being a potential victim of one every year growing up. You’ve been subjected to the incredible and unrelenting stress of high stakes testing every year in school. And now that you’ve survived all of that, your celebration of making it to the end has been canceled, and you’ve been cut off from seeing your friends, teachers, coaches, and anyone else who is not your family without any kind of warning. It would almost be funny if every single part of your growing up didn’t require you to face the possibility of death. It’s our fault, and I am sorry. 

I started writing the RevolTeen column and reading young adult fiction because I really like teenagers. I think teens are some of the funniest, most creative, most passionate, and most interesting people I’ve ever met. I believe that working with teens helps me to think through my own adolescence and give it some perspective. I think that many other adults, however, get to their high school graduation and think, “My God, the last six years have been horrible, but I made it and I never want to think about it again!” This is where the problem lies.

I heard a graduation speech this year that really brought this problem into perspective to me. The speaker may have been trying to be funny, but they weren’t. They told the graduating seniors: Now that you’ve graduated, you can spend the rest of your life working to forget how terrible high school was and move on to your “real” life.

What kind of garbage is that? Yet, I think that most adults feel this way, and it’s an attitude that we really need to change.

Basically, adults have accepted that life between the ages of 12 and 18 is horrible. We’ve also decided, “Look, it was a terrible time for me, so it’s just going to be terrible for my kids, and there’s nothing we can do about it. Sorry!”

So, what do adults get out of this attitude? Well, we get to commiserate. “Oh man, you think your middle/high school years were bad? Let me tell you what I went through!” We share these stories as if we survived battle, and for a lot of us, that’s what it felt like. We also get out of trying to help you with your problems. I mean, if we’ve all decided that being a teen sucked for us so it’s going to suck for you, we can just ignore your complaints. We can answer any pain you tell us about as an unavoidable trial of growing up. What do you want us to do about it? We’ve set you up in a no-win situation. If you try to talk to us about what you’re going through we can put you off with, “Of course you’re miserable! Everyone’s miserable at your age!” You see, we’ve crossed that graduation threshold and listening to you would just force us to relive the pain of our own adolescence. We’ve graduated, so we don’t want to talk about it. We’re trying to forget all about it. We also get to stay comfortable by not doing the hard work of changing systems. The middle school and high school experience has remained the same for generations in America. There have been incremental shifts and more accommodations for students with different abilities, learning styles, and talents, but the basic structure is the same. Changing entrenched structures and systems is hard. If we’ve resigned ourselves to the fact that it just “can’t be changed,” then we don’t have to actually do anything but keep things the way they are.

Class of 2020, we have failed you.

I write every month about “RevolTeens.” I love to highlight the teenagers who don’t accept adolescence as a time to be merely endured or survived. I want them to know that we adults see them and are in awe of their optimism and stubbornness. They’re the characters in every great teen coming of age story who fights back against the bullies, or goes out and stays weird in the face of rejection and judgment, or makes the football team when all the kids and adults at their school think they’re worthless. We all cheer for them.

But teens aren’t revolting for the romance of it or to become stars. They’re revolting because we tell them from the time they enter Middle School until the day they graduate high school, “Nobody likes Middle or High School. You just have to live through the next six years, and then your ‘real’ life can start.”

I have three young adult children of my own, and I work every day in a high school library. I talk with other parents and teachers and we’re all drained. My parents used to hope that my brothers and I would be successful enough in high school to get into college and have a good start in life. My parent and teacher friends now spend our sleepless days and nights just hoping our kids and the kids we work with will live to see their graduation. These are dreary days.

Class of 2020, you have survived. You may be holed up at home. You may be sick of logging into your laptop to find your schoolwork for the day. You didn’t get your graduation. But you have survived. You are the greatest RevolTeens of them all. Living is a revolution. You’re revolting against hopelessness, against stress, against anxiety, against depression, against generations of adults who didn’t make adolescence better for you than it was for us. You are a wonder.

Adults, we are revolting. Surely we can do better.

About Christine Lively

Christine Lively a school librarian in Virginia. I read voraciously, exchange ideas with students, and am a perpetual student. I raise monarch butterflies, cook, clean infrequently and enjoy an extensive hippo collection. Christine blogs at https://hippodillycircus.com/ and you can follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/XineLively

Adult – One of the Biggest Obstacles to RevolTeens, by Christine Lively

If teens are going to change the world, and they absolutely are – they always do – they need the adults who love them to support them and have their backs, while giving them the space, time, and room to revolt. If our hope is that our RevolTeens will challenge injustices, solve the problems we’ve failed to solve – or that we’ve caused, and generally improve the future then we need to remove one of their biggest problems – the adults who love them.

When my kids were small, we had friends, family, and other assorted adults to spend time with them. When people showed an interest in playing with our kids or doing things with them, my mantra was, “Kids can’t have too many people who love them in their lives.” I am certain that I was right about that. Those adults and that time they spent with my children was important and showed the kids that they were important, interesting and lovable to people who weren’t their parents. Those relationships were essential to them developing confidence, self-worth, and happiness. 

Working with and raising teens, I’ve realized that kids’ need for adults who value them doesn’t change. What changes is adults’ ideas of what a kid needs. However great and noble our intentions, many of us somewhere along the line have changed from fans and cheerleaders when they are little to overzealous advisers and nosy counselors as those same kids enter adolescence.

Making a kid’s childhood happy and joyful is usually simple. Most of us see the children in our lives and immediately feel joyful, hopeful, and excited about this time in their lives. We also feel confident that we can engage with them and make them happy. Playing, singing, celebrating, and just being with a little kid is a blast. They know what they want and their needs seem clear cut. Play, sleep, eat, repeat.

The teen years seem far more mysterious. So many of us have conflicted and frustrating memories of our own adolescence. The common mythology is that each person’s life trajectory is determined by their performance in high school, we want nothing more than to set them up for maximum success. We advise them, coach them, harangue them, and alienate them at just the time when they need as many allies and fans on their side than they did as toddlers and young children.

Are our intentions good? Probably. Does that matter? No.

If you are a parent of a teen or someone who works with teens, you’ve felt it and you’ve seen it. We want them to read the right books, take the right classes, participate in all the right extracurricular activities, play the right sports, have the right friends, attend the best schools, and “be successful.” Just writing that sentence made me stressed out and tired. If the kids we care about are academically minded, that whole list is tiring. If the kids we care about have any challenges, or don’t have any easily identified strengths in adolescence, we start feeling desperate to help them “stand out” and excel. It can paralyze them, make them feel even more alone, and cause rifts in the relationships they most depend on.

I have a son who is a junior in high school. He’s overwhelmed with all the “life altering decisions” he feels he has to make in the next year. We want him to be happy and successful. He and I were having a conversation about college options, gap years, and other things he needs to consider when he shouted, “Mom, I have no idea what I’m doing!” It was an epiphany moment for me. I took a second and looked at him and said, “Nobody knows what they’re doing. I don’t know what I’m doing. If you stopped any adult on the street and asked if they feel like they know what they’re doing, I bet nearly all of them would say no.” Yet, we continue to give our teens this overwhelming pressure to not only know what they’re doing but also the pressure to constantly be working toward their goals and to always be moving toward success. We become a menacing kind of Greek chorus of teachers, counselors, family, and every other adult in their lives constantly asking them where they’re want to go to college, if they’ve finished their homework, and on and on…. No wonder they’re revolting!

People will often point out that most of the sweeping revolutionary ideas, social movements, and cultural changes in our country have been started by and sustained by young people. Teens and young adults who aren’t fully invested in maintaining the status quo and who want to fix injustices are the ones who not only speak up, but who refuse to be quiet until the problem is addressed and fixed. Countless young adult books, teen centered movies, and teen fantasies center on teens upending the adults who are holding them back.

It’s a well used theme for good reason. If the adults close to teens are one of the obstacles in their lives, they have to spend time and energy fighting us before they can ever take on the world. If we stand with them and encourage them, they can take on the world with support and advice from people who love them. We can make a difference for teens who want to change the world by not adding to their stress and supporting their revolutions instead of becoming another obstacle for them to overcome.

What can we do?

Stop offering (or forcing) help on teens. Instead, we can all focus on being available and curious. Being a student is an overwhelming battle every day to prove yourself and your worth. Teens are literally graded on their performance multiple times each day. Asking them if they need help is always a good idea, and honoring their answer is the very best way to be helpful. Help isn’t always helpful, but honoring requests is.

Stop framing their interests as potential ways for them to excel and stand out. We all give a lot of lip service to the value of failing or dabbling in the things that interest us. As an adult, I have tried my hand at bread making, knitting, drawing, writing fiction, running a home business, and many other things. I’ve failed at all of them and learned from those failures and attempts. When I did try, the only thing at stake was a little bit of money and some of my pride. I never felt that my success or failure in any of those things would determine the trajectory of my whole future. Teens need to feel that, too. Find ways to help and support them in letting go of those expectations.

Start appreciating them again. We often know what we love about our teens, but are so busy helping them “get good” at things that we forget to celebrate those qualities that we love. We always ask toddlers and little kids to show us their newest acquired skills and we’re quick to marvel at nearly their every move. We can start doing that with teens and again focus on helping them enjoy and experiment just for the pursuit of joy rather than to find something to add to their college applications.

Listen, listen, listen, and only give advice when they ask or are clearly dealing with a critical situation. My daughter, who is now 22 and always patient with me, has taught me this skill. It was so hard to learn and practice. When my children come to me to tell me about a problem, my immediate reaction is to offer to help, offer solutions, and to generally try to fix it. What she has had to tell me many times is that she just needs me to listen. Listening is what they need. They get more advice, help, and instruction than they could ever follow. They need to be heard and feel heard so they can start to figure things out themselves.

RevolTeens are not a new phenomenon. They are a time honored force for change. The best way for all of us well-meaning adults to help them is to not become an obstacle ourselves, but to support them, love them, and let them lead the way.

About Christine Lively

Christine Lively a school librarian in Virginia. I read voraciously, exchange ideas with students, and am a perpetual student. I raise monarch butterflies, cook, clean infrequently and enjoy an extensive hippo collection. Christine blogs at https://hippodillycircus.com/ and you can follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/XineLively

RevolTeens: Teens Speaking Out and Raising Awareness for Mental Health, by Christine Lively

Trigger Warning: This post talks about mental health issues including teens and suicide

Adolescence is a time of life when we expect kids to become more moody, more unpredictable, and to experience physical, emotional, and mental turmoil. It’s also a time of life when parents, teachers, and communities begin an onslaught of advice with an ominous message that goes something like this: The decisions you make over these years will determine your success or failure for the rest of your life. This combination is a recipe for mental anguish and we all seem to accept this pressure cooker period as a necessary phase of life – we’ve all been through it, and it was awful, but it ends. We know what this does to teens. Many of us look back on that time of our lives as something we escaped from or endured rather than something we learned from, yet we haven’t changed or improved the experience for teens today.  They’re stressed out, and they need help, just like we did. I have lived with debilitating clinical depression for as long as I can remember, and I didn’t have anywhere to turn when I experienced mental health crises. My own children have experienced mental health issues, and I know how harrowing and all but impossible it is to find mental health services for children. The obstacles to finding help and support are inexcusably difficult.

Thankfully, there are a growing number of RevolTeens who aren’t waiting for adults to make the changes they need. These RevolTeens are creating programs and services to help themselves and each other. They’re just like we were and they keep proving David Bowie right, “They’re quite aware of what they’re goin’ through.” They’re not waiting for help, they’re helping each other.

8 inspiring, young mental health activists you need to know about published on Mashable profiles extraordinary teens who are not waiting for us adults to do something.  “These young advocates are developing apps, founding nonprofit organizations, coordinating fundraising drives, and building campus-wide support networks. They’re taking advantage of the work activists have previously done to decrease the stigma of talking about mental health, and they’re creating their own legacy by fundamentally changing the way young people discuss and seek help for mental illness.”

Ose Arhegham, Miana Bryant, Gabby Frost, Samuel Orley, Katie Regittko, Max Rothman, Satvik Sethi, and Amanda Southwort are RevolTeens who have taken on changing the way teens talk about and find help for mental illnesses. They’re changing stigmas and building support communities to help teens acknowledge and treat their own mental illnesses in heroic and selfless ways. Reading the stories of these young people makes me realize how important it is for these messages to come from young people themselves. Unfortunately, many of these advocates have risen to action because they were unable to get the help they needed themselves, or because they’ve lost friends and loved ones who’ve died by suicide. These tragedies were not prevented by the adults around them, and their revolt began. They’re not waiting for someone else to make change.

Cloe Sorensen is a RevolTeen who has taken on the critical challenge of suicide prevention. She, like nearly all teens in America has experienced the overwhelming loss of friends to suicide. She was moved to advocacy and started within her own community, “Initially, that meant leaning on existing relationships with family and friends to grieve, and coming up with ways to advocate for mental health at Gunn. Sorensen started the Student Wellness Committee to encourage students to be more aware of their mental health, including a referral system where her peers could refer friends anonymously for in-school counseling. Another successful initiative: Youth Empowerment Seminars, where students learn stress-relief techniques such as mindfulness and breathing exercises.” 

After those initial efforts, Chloe confronted the obstacle that so many young people face: They can’t seek out and receive mental health care without parental consent before the age of eighteen. This prevents so many teens from finding help or from even admitting that they need help and removes their agency. It stops them from even looking for the help they need and can lead to tragic results. “Now a student at Stanford, Sorensen spends much of her time working with the Stanford Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing on the launch of Allcove, a network of youth mental health centers in Santa Clara County geared toward youth 12 to 25 years of age. In addition to onsite mental health services, basic primary care, wellness services and the educational/career support offered at each center, young people can access a variety of support services without parental consent, including treatment for early psychosis and substance abuse counseling. Sorensen also founded Youth United for Responsible Media Representation, a group of students working to reduce suicide contagion by training the media not to sensationalize coverage in the aftermath of tragedy.”

Chloe’s efforts have no doubt changed and likely saved lives. She has changed the way teens seek help and brought services to those who had no way to get help before. She’s revolutionized mental health care for teens all without waiting for us adults to take action.

Those of us who work with teens see this firsthand that teens have too much to do, feel too much pressure, and feel there is no one to help them. We know that so many things should change to give teens the time, space, and support that they need to be more in control of their lives and to even enjoy their time. Mental health services are life saving and should be easily accessible to teens, but we know that they are not.

Seeing these teen advocates is inspiring at first read, but reflection brought me the realization that these kids have to revolt at least in part because they couldn’t depend on the adults around them to help and in so many cases, the adults around them were another obstacle to overcome.  I think about the kids I work with every day in the high school library. I help them with their school projects, help them find books to read, and talk with them about what’s going on in their lives. Yet, I don’t know if any of them would consider coming to me to get help with a problem, or if they believe I could help them if they asked. Who do they turn to when they know they need help? How hard is it for them to find the services they need? I know that there are dire and life altering consequences when they don’t get the help they need. While I am in awe of these teen mental health advocates, their revolt should also be a call to action for all of us who work with and love teens. They need help. We need to give them that help, or get out of their way so they can find a way to get it for themselves.  

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Call 1-800-273-8255