Hard Knocks and Home Truths

It started as an ordinary day but would turn out to be one of the most significant of my career. I was running a workshop in a school for Soar, an organisation that seeks to develop character and emotional resilience in teenagers. The group was made up of seventy-five young people aged sixteen or seventeen, and the day started, as they always do, with an air of awkwardness as the young people sized me up and made their early judgements. Was I one of those well-intentioned adults who come in to preach to them about how to live their lives? Or was I worth their time and attention?

I told them about a period of depression I had experienced a few years before and how a subsequent breakdown made me want to stop living. As I spoke, the barriers between us fell away. Eyes widened, hoodies were pulled back. They knew I was not there to patronise them with neatly packaged advice on how to succeed in life. I was there to be real with them. And I knew, from the thousands of other teenagers I had met all over the world, that it was this they craved most of all – for adults to talk with them about life rather than tell them how they should be living theirs.

The workshop was going well and the ‘watch what you say or you could be ridiculed’ mood gradually dissolved. In its place was an openness they had never experienced with anyone apart from their best friends. At the first break one girl came up and asked me if I could ask the teacher to leave. She told me her name was Chloe. There was something they wanted to talk about as a group and they would be more comfortable if they were alone with me.

‘Look,’ I said, ‘your teacher was a teenager once and went through all the same shit you guys do, so cut them some slack. I know it would be easier for you, but for my safety and for yours they have to stay. And If anything comes up that needs following up, then they will be in a position to help.’

This wasn’t good enough for Chloe and her best friend, who was standing beside her. So I tried again. ‘They’re not stopping you talking. You’re stopping yourself because you’re afraid of what they’ll think of you. Don’t give anyone the permission to silence you if you have something to say. You have a voice, so use it.’ This seemed to break through their steely expressions, and they returned to their seats.

We had just started the second part of the workshop when the same Chloe raised her hand. What happened next still brings tears to my eyes, even years later.

‘We have something to talk about as a group,’ Chloe said. ‘My friend died by suicide a few months ago and we haven’t talked about it. He was my best friend. Everyone in this class knew him, some very well, some not so well, but everyone is feeling broken and yet it feels like the adults don’t want to talk about it with us.’

All of a sudden Chloe seemed bigger to me, as if she was standing taller. She stared at me, through me almost. I thought she might scream at me. It felt good. As if this needed to happen.

‘Why do you think the adults haven’t talked to you about your friend and how he died,’ I asked.

‘Because they’re afraid.’

‘Afraid of what?’

‘They’re afraid we won’t be able for it, that if they’re honest with us and allow us to talk about why it happened, that we’ll either copy him or we’ll be too weak to handle the conversation. But mostly they’re just afraid to be honest with us, like they are with many things. And they think we don’t see what’s really going on, but we do, and it’s time they stopped sugar-coating life and insulating us from the truth.’

She had barely finished her sentence when a round of applause broke out across the room. We talked about her friend, his life, what he meant to her and his other friends in the room. There were tears, and there was laughter at how unique he was. It felt like some healing happened for that group of young people who took control and talked together about someone they loved.

Hearing Chloe say what she said was not new to me. I had heard a version of this before from teenagers in countries all over the world. She may have been saying it in a different accent, but its message was the same – that teenagers are able for so much more than we adults give them credit for. They are not snowflakes. They are emotionally tougher than we realise and we can best support their development if we stop masking the realities of life and are more honest with them.

The workshop ended and I was packing up my things as young people streamed out, some stopping to say thank you and share what they got from the day, some only thinking about what was on the menu for lunch. The room was stuffy and I was looking forward to being on my own to digest all that had happened. I made my way through the corridors as they heaved with young people getting things from their lockers and making their way out of the school for lunch. As I was crossing the car park, lugging my bag and a speaker, someone called to me. She broke away from her friends and came towards me. It was Chloe. This time her expression was not stern but warm and bright. 

‘Thank you for that,’ she said. ‘That wasn’t like the other workshops we’ve had. It was . . . different.’

‘Thank you,’ I replied. ‘How was it different?’

‘We get adults in here all the time telling us to talk about our mental health but we don’t see them doing what they ask us to do. They expect us to open up and talk about our feelings but they never do. You were willing to do both – tell us about your harder times and how you felt, and you weren’t afraid to let us talk for real with no filter.’

‘You’re wrong,’ I said. ‘I was afraid to give you that much freedom in case I didn’t know how to respond, but I decided it was more important that you got to talk about your friend.’

Chloe had the last word: ‘Well, that’s what we need more of – for adults to not be afraid of what we have to say.’ With that, we said our goodbyes.

As I drove home, I thought about how we overcomplicate our communication with teenagers. If we truly want to have a relationship with young people, we just need to be more honest with them. That means talking about our own disappointments, failures and fears, so that they feel less alone in theirs, all the while letting them know that we’ll always have their back. We need to be respectful and patient with them, and show tenderness when they are in pain, even if that pain may seem minor or fleeting to us. And most of we must follow Chloe’s advice to go first, take the lead and trust that they will follow.