“Hey, what’s up?” (me)
Cautious stares. (girls)
“Wanna chat?” (me)
Careful nods. (girls)
“Then let’s go catch up.” (me)
Tentative steps to my office across the hall. (girls follow me)
It was late after school on a Friday. The Common Room was empty except for two students. One sat in a wing chair, slouched forward, long hair covering her face. The other straddled a foot stool, forearms resting on her knees, palms up, fingers outstretched. Facing one another, their foreheads touched ever so slightly, conveying that unspoken gentle connection so common with adolescent girls.
I’ve always believed that good educators learn to read a room at a glance. And my reading of the Common Room when I entered that late afternoon suggested that something was up (maybe) but that it was okay for me to check in (probably). I’d heard a soft and comforting, “It’s alright,” pass from one girl to the other as I approached, and wondered whether this was a “We’d rather handle this on our own” or “A bit of adult help would be nice” moment. When my offer to talk was accepted, I had my answer.
The next half hour was spent in quiet and thoughtful conversation. I was humbled by the trust this young girl placed in me by sharing what was going on in her life. Supported by her friend, she told a universal story of what it means to be an adolescent girl. Mom, dad, fights – knowing you’re loved but struggling to negotiate independence alongside parental concern. Body image, grades, peer group – trying to love who you are when everyone around you seems flawless. And then there were a couple of more serious issues – nothing I will share here but things that I realized were hard. I let her speak, offered tissues, and watched with care as she peeled back the layers of a complicated yet ordinary life.
Being authentic is important to me. It’s also essential in my role as Head of School because students smell inauthenticity a mile away. So I won’t ever glibly say, “I know how that feels,” if I don’t. I’ll say other appropriate and supportive things, but not that. In this case, however, I did say that. And I meant it. She was telling an adolescent tale that was remarkably similar to my own, not in every detail, but in the way she felt responsible for those around her, helplessly watching a loved one struggle with serious mental illness, and overwhelmed by feelings that mixed compassion and love with anger and sorrow.
For the most part, she talked and I listened. Her friend gently held her hand and offered comforting words. After a while, I shared with her the things that helped me so many years ago. My best friend. My dog. Music. Long walks. An occasional good cry. The things that were close at hand.
I told tiny and appropriate bits of my own story, and in so doing helped her realize she was not alone. Others had walked this difficult path before her, and had emerged unbroken and, in time, stronger. Everything she was feeling was normal. The sorrow, the anger, the sense of loss – these things were painful, yes. But oh, so very normal.
The next day she sent me a note to thank me for taking the time to talk. She wrote, “You helped me realize that it’s okay to not be okay, and that was something I really needed to hear.” Such simple but important words that convey a message more teens need to know. It’s okay to not be okay.
Sadness is not depression. Worries are not anxiety. The roller coaster of emotions experienced every day by teens is not a sign of mental illness but part of growing up. It serves a developmental purpose, and that is to strengthen and build resilience. Yet according to Dr. Stanley Kutcher, Dalhousie University Professor and international expert in adolescent mental health, we are increasingly pathologizing what is, in fact, a normal life. And that’s problematic.
I am not saying that children and teens don’t suffer from mental illness. It is rare but it does happen. And I am not telling parents to ignore concerning signs. Not at all. If you are worried about your child, speak to your doctor. But realize that what most teens really need is simply to be told that uncomfortable feelings are a normal response to difficult times. The intense sadness when parents separate or a loved one dies – that’s normal. The overwhelming feeling of dread when a sibling is seriously ill or mom’s new job means a new city – that’s normal.
It’s also important to recognize that normal comes in all shapes and sizes. Some children and teens are naturally more finely tuned, so their normal looks intense. But it’s still normal. Tears, tantrums, elation, ecstasy – it’s all normal.
I encourage parents to share with your daughters memories of your own adolescence. If you experienced times of self-doubt or sadness, tell them what it felt like. If you battled with mom or dad, let them know what happened. And if there were moments when you felt that the world was a dark and lonely place, please talk about it. They need to be told they are not alone in feeling this way. They also need time, a friend to lean on, sleep, exercise, and assurance that things will get better.
“You helped me realize that it’s okay to not be okay, and that was something I really needed to hear.” Please remember these words. And please pass them on.