Oh, you work with teenagers?

I love working with teenagers.

I make this or similar statements often when describing what I do. The responses I receive generally fall in to two categories, with very few landng somewhere in the middle. The first type of response occurs when I am talking to the minority of people who also work with teenagers and love what they do (pairing emphasized due to the unfortunately large and infamous group of people who have decided to work with teenagers despite believing they are demon spawn). This response often comes in the form of a smile and nod, sometimes accompanied by an anecdote that exemplifies why the adolescent age group is enjoyable to work with.

The second and more common response customarily includes a look that to me suggests I have just grown a second head or confessed to eating babies. The look is usually followed by a shocked statement about how impressed or surprised they are that I can do/enjoy/survive such a job. The accompanying tone of voice indicates that I might as well make a living carrying shards of glass from place to place between my toes. Even more fascinating to me is that this type of response often comes directly from my adolescent clients, who ask me if I’m crazy and insist: “Miss, I would never want to work with teenagers.”

I recently spoke at a high school career day and in one of the classrooms, an 11th grade student asked me what the best and worst parts of my job were (a classic question, if I may say so myself). I told the group that the part of my job that

involves interacting with teenagers is the only part of my job that I always like. I explained that even the frustrating times (and oh, there are a-plenty) are part of the good times. Adolescence is not easy and I am constantly impressed by the resilience of the teens I work with. Honestly, with everything that is happening in the teenage brain I sometimes wonder how most of us made it through the time period unscathed.

One of my coworkers recently shared this quote with me, so I shared it with this room full of high school students (and now with you!):

There isn’t anyone you couldn’t love once you’ve heard their story.
-Mary Lou Kownacki

It doesn’t matter how obnoxious a particular teen might seem from an outside point of view. I have the privilege of knowing their story and understanding some of the why behind their actions. The aspects of my job that I dislike most are those that interfere with my ability to support my clients as they work through this point in development and strive to overcome barriers they face in their environment. This is essentially what I told the students at career day. Some students (though surely not all) who had their heads on their desks sat up straight to listen and when I finished my answer, I heard one girl whisper to her friend That was beautiful.

I am not telling you the last part to celebrate my own awesomeness (though I was pretty impressed with myself; I take compliments and positive feedback from teenagers very seriously). I am sharing it because I wish more people genuinely appreciated how important it is to support adolescents. And also to illustrate that although every effort to help/care/encourage/reassure this age group may not seem productive, that does not mean we should stop trying.

Many people say they understand the challenges of adolescent development, but still appear shocked when a teenager makes a foolish decision (It’s like, hello? Did you even look at that link?!). Of course it is necessary for teenagers to learn from their mistakes, but indignity is not an essential part of learning and teenagers are too often made to feel that their behavior is not only inappropriate, but abnormal and/or shameful.

The fact that even teenagers don’t think they are worth working with probably suggests that we need to change the way we talk about and with teens. It is worthwhile and somewhat disturbing to consider how our society devalues this entire age group and then laments the way they suffer from low self-esteem and bully each other. I know I am suggesting something crazy here, but maybe teenagers aren’t the sole root of this problem.

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