Why is vulnerability so scary to teens (and most adults, for that matter)? A few weeks ago, I heard an author being interviewed on the radio. She had written a book about her experiences of raising her child in poverty as a single mother. In the book, she describes how she left a bad relationship, had the baby on her own, and worked as a maid to make money. Her story intrigued me and I looked up the book on Amazon. The book had already gotten very popular and had many reviews. I read through some of them, and, just as I had suspected, there were some critical reviews, not about her writing or style of the book; these people were reviewing her actual LIFE. She was criticized for the following: choosing to have a baby with the wrong kind of man, leaving the man when he wasn’t all that terrible and denying the baby of it’s father, being “whiney” and blaming everyone else for her problems, choosing the wrong job (this reviewer thought there must have been other better jobs besides a maid), and getting pregnant in the first place. And, these reviewers had all kinds of support for their criticism by other reviewers. This was not news to me, as I had noticed this criticism trend happening in other reviews of personal life stories. And, those critical reviews, while there were far more positive reviews, are the ones that unfortunately tend to carry the most weight psychologically. Criticizing someone’s personal life story or experience is tantamount to pouring alcohol on a bone-deep cut, and then not caring what happens next. I felt sick inside after reading the reviews and I was secretly hoping the author hadn’t read them. This is the risk we take when we tell our truth: when we expose ourselves, we take that risk.
So, what does this have to do with teenagers and vulnerability? There is a theme: vulnerability, for the most part, isn’t rewarded by our society and in fact it can often invite ridicule and cruelty. Let me point out some differences in this author and the average teenager. First, the author was already an adult and had significant life experience, having gone through some very lonely and extremely difficult times; her resiliency was already proven, activated and in use. She also had a fully developed pre-frontal cortex, which is the executive functioning area of her brain, so she had access to her own “inner management”; this part of the brain isn’t fully developed until age 25 so teens are much more emotionally raw and impulsive due to no fault of their own. The author was also likely prepared for the possibility of poor reviews, as we all know is a risk when one becomes published.
Now let’s look at our teens. Their task is to separate from their parents and discover who they are outside of their family of origin (this is not a choice, it is developmental), their brains are “under construction”, making them exquisitely sensitive emotionally, and instead of having to publish a book before they are publicly criticized, they endure it constantly through social media with none of the brain skills or life experience of an adult. The image that comes to mind is a soldier coming home from a losing battle: filthy, exhausted, broken, discouraged. And they have to do it all over again the next day. This is what a day in the life of a teen is like.
The capacity to be vulnerable is central to good mental health and close relationships. Remember, we all have vulnerabilities; to deny this is to fall into perfectionism, idealism and unrealistic expectations. My intention with this post is not to offer a solution or a “how to” guide. Instead, put yourself in your teen’s shoes and allow them to affect you. I will close with the famous quote by Teddy Roosevelt: “It is not the critic that counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.” Your teen is the man in the arena, and you can choose to be either a critic or an ally.
Lisa K. Wheeler, M.A., LPC
Supporting Resiliency in Teens and Adults