When I Was Your Age

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Last week, a student walked into our office looking a little down. He was less zippy than usual. No smiles or jokes. He surrendered himself to a lobby chair and stared into space rather than chatting with the other kids. Missing was the banter that is typical of this kid. Clearly, he was not himself.

For most juniors, 11th grade carries many more pressures than does 10th grade. There are reasons why people might speak in tones of dread about “junior year.” There are pressures and priorities that seem to pile up all at once: grades, relationships, sports, ACT/SAT/AP exams, theater/debate/student government, community service, part-time jobs, final projects, and exams, all of which seem to be important. In addition, there is the constant overhang of “This matters for college.” (Which students hear as, “Don’t screw this up!!”). In addition, the challenges presented within a school community these days can be a heavy dose of serious reality. No wonder this kid looked dazed and was gazing into space. I said to him, “Hey! You doing okay? You look like it’s been quite a week.” His response was a deep exhale that revealed the following:

Yeah. It’s been tough with everything going on at school. I was kind of blowing off steam in English class, saying how junior year is hard. My teacher’s comments, however, only added to the weight:

‘When I was your age, I was taking a half dozen AP exams and getting up at 5am every morning to practice piano so that I could perform at the highest level. You have no idea what ‘a hard time’ looks like. And, if you aren’t making the most of every hour of your life, what’s the point of even being alive?’

So, I mumbled, 'Yeah. You’re right' and didn’t say anything else.

It’s a tough time of year for a lot of folks, and the eruption of non-support is probably not unique either to this boy or to his teacher. Because stress is contagious, being a teacher to rooms full of stressful students is undoubtedly taxing. As parents, we certainly know that it’s hard not to get a bit worked up when our kids do. Even so, I wish that this teacher had taken a different approach. A teacher with years of experience would surely not be surprised to see high school students feeling stressed from running the end-of-year gauntlet of junior year. And, for this boy, at least, the last few weeks had been (at least subjectively) stressful and difficult, even if seemingly for his teacher, not demanding enough to cross the threshold of true difficulty.

What is one to make of this?  Many thoughts come to mind, some intensely emotional and others rooted in brain science. Let’s consider a few:

– If you aren’t sympathetic to kids, maybe teaching isn’t your true calling. (OK, I just had to get that off my chest.) This student wryly wondered aloud whether this teacher is ready to retire.

– Whether as a teacher, parent, or student, there is little value in creating a hierarchy of suffering. As the great sage Mel Brooks observed, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” I have rarely seen folks appreciate having their difficulty one-upped by another who just had to describe how much worse it had been for them. Resist the urge to try to “top” other people when they share what’s hard for them. Although you may think you are commiserating, sometimes it’s enough to simply say “Wow, that sounds as though you’ve had a lot thrown at you.” It can help them to feel that you’ve heard them.

– Kids (and adults for that matter) aren’t equally good at asking for help. The sentiment of “I am really having a hard time right now because my grades are slipping, and I don’t know what to do” may turn into “School sucks, and who cares about grades anyway?” In the case of this student, who couldn’t come out and say it directly, the underlying thought was this: “I really felt overwhelmed by school and life. My friend was expelled, and it left me feeling sad, angry, and unmotivated.” In other words, somewhat reductively: “Junior year has been hard.”

Although not always easy, the most helpful response may be something such as, “I’m sorry to hear that. I suspect that’s true for other people too. Is there a way I, or someone else, can help?” It can help to listen, not just to the words, but for the message behind the words. How does one do this?  To start, by invoking one simple phrase: “Tell me more.” (Delivered warmly.) Ideally, we can be well regulated enough to be fully present for kids, and express genuine curiosity and concern.

– This teacher has effectively told this student not to trust himself or his own instincts. No, we don’t want to encourage kids to feel sorry for themselves, but at the same time, with far too many kids succumbing to anxiety and depression, we need to remember that it’s important for students to be able to recognize when they are overworked or overwhelmed. Knowing when you need to rest or recover a bit is an incredibly valuable life skill. Great work requires good rest. We don’t want kids to underachieve, either by not working hard enough or not resting enough. Physical workouts without recovery do not build strength faster. Brains are no different. Balance is necessary. Progress is individualized. It’s probably not healthy to suggest that kids are not aware of their feelings and dismiss what they are saying about them. When they say that they are at capacity, we, as adults, should recognize this as a call for support. Just as I am the only one who knows when I am really full from eating, so, too, only I can know when I’ve had too much activity or stress and need to dial things back.

– If you’re trying to help a student get through the grind or persevere when the going gets tough, a little brain science can also help. The cognitive functions, collectively known as executive functions, include things such as problem-solving, decision-making, and prioritizing, which are pretty darned useful when trying to balance what feels like way too many tasks with far too little time. Other executive functions include understanding different points of view and emotional and mental flexibility, skills which help us reframe things and “put things in perspective,” skills that are especially valuable when you are stressed.

Neuroscientist Adele Diamond, a preeminent researcher on executive functions, observes that “If you’re sad or stressed, lonely, sleep-deprived or not physically fit, executive functions will be the first to suffer and will suffer the most.” So, while most of us are not neuroscientists or even teachers, we know that we can effectively help students both as people and as students simply by helping them feel a little less stressed or lonely, something that requires very little on our part. When we do that, we help restore that kid’s executive functions of mental and emotional flexibility allowing him to put things in perspective and solve problems for himself. So, if you have or see a kid who is struggling a little, know that empathy may help more than explanations, and expressing the warmth, care, or love you have for kids may produce more benefit than lectures.