Tag Archives: teens

The Adolescent Feeding Grounds

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I’m reading about the teen brain a lot lately, because much of the work I would like to is with teens.  I have worked a great deal with the preteen crowd, but working with the developing brain of a true teen, and all the excitement, passion, and reward seeking behaviors that go along with it, is so fascinating to me.

When I was a teen, I lived in another country than my parents, as did many of the kids at the boarding school I was fortunate enough to attend.  Right there, you might stop reading, or think – “oh, those first world problems, give me a break.”  But problems are problems, and a teen who is having trouble with her peers in an affluent community is just as much at risk of harmful behaviors as a teen in poverty.  Teens want friends, they are social beings.  As a kid, in one of those more affluent communities, the risks I took were (not surprisingly) with drugs, alcohol, and sex.  The drugs were higher priced than at some schools, I’m sure.  The standard clicks weren’t there, at least standard as I had seen in the movies; it wasn’t so much the jocks and the nerds, at least in my perspective (though I was kind of both), but the kids who did coke, the kids who smoked pot, and the kids who drank.

I’m sure there were some good kids who did none of these, but I never ran into them.

Behind all of these kids was an interesting segment of the population: parents who chose to have their children leave home at fourteen or fifteen years old, to have other people keep track of them.  My parents, I like to think, didn’t have much choice.  There were no English speaking high schools where we were in Saudi Arabia.  The oil company my dad worked for paid for most of my tuition and all of my plane fare.  Tough opportunity to pass up on.  And, I have to say, I do not resent them for it.  I think my life course changed significantly because of the amazing adults, who were not my parents, that I formed parentified relationships with.  And while I had caring adults all around me, ultimately, and maybe even more than for your average teen who has to report home each night, the decisions I made were mine alone.

Dan Siegel talks about this phase of life, a time when kids are pushing away from their parents, trying out what might look like independence, in his book Brainstorm (2013).  And while independence is truly a goal of this age, there is also an intense desire to create a sort of family of choice amongst one’s peers for support.  That’s exactly what I did.  I found my group, and I loved my group.  In fact, I still love them, and feel that they are something of a true family to me.  Fortunately, I had learned enough in my first fourteen years of life to find friends who loved me back, and who looked out for me.  It’s been over twenty years since I was that teenager, and yet I think so much is still the same.  I went to a party at a college when I was sixteen.

I told all the college boys I was eighteen.

Of course they fell for it.

Do you see sixteen year old girls?

Honestly, I have no idea if they are fourteen or twenty-two.  And I thought I was some kind of genius.  I started drinking great gobs of alcohol when I was fifteen.  So, after a year of such practice I felt pretty aware of how much I could consume without becoming unconscious.

Fifteen.

For one second, just pause there.  My daughter is five years away from that number.

Fifteen year olds are children.

I drank a lot that night, but when I look back on it now, I’m sure there was some kind of crazy drug in one of those drinks because I only have fragmented memories of the night that ensued.  I lived.  I don’t think I was sexually assaulted.  That’s good news.  And I have to thank the other two crazy sixteen year old girls who were with me for that.  They refused to let me leave, they refused to do anything until I was by their side.  I still managed to wake up with what looked like someone had punched me in both sides of my neck.

Hickies.

Imagine how much worse that could have been?

Friends are so important to your child’s survival.  Make sure they are choosing good friends (and not that they look like good friends, but that they are good people).  I went to another party the following year where the teens were drinking.  That was my crowd.  I tried pot, but alcohol was my drug of choice.  Coke was just too serious.  I’m not sure where I formed this opinion, but I’m happy I did.  Alcohol was not something my brain desired an addiction to, but it is for many kids.  If they have that switch, it can get turned right on.  I remember a girl friend pulling some guy off my body while I tried to sleep on the couch.  I remember another guy creeping his hand up my shirt while I slept on a pool table. (Why all this sleeping?  Well, I was drunk and couldn’t go home.)  And then he promptly ran about the party telling everyone he’d had sex with me.  Jeeze.

Imagine if Instagram had been around then.

Or Facebook.

Jeeze, even phone cameras!

And the party where I had to pull a boy off of one of my friends who had blacked out.  I mean, they are teens, they are driven to achieve rewards!  Sex is quite the reward.  But for me, sex wasn’t the goal.  Being free was the goal.  Being wild was the goal.  Challenging everyone’s perceptions of me as a good girl was the goal.  Little did I know, I didn’t have to put myself at such great risk to do that.  I could have done more of my underground writing.  I could have made feminist art.  I could have just been myself.  But, there was no one who could tell me who that was.  My parents were a once every two-week phone call away.  I saw them twice a year.  Obviously, they weren’t going to help me form this identity.  And so I formed it myself.  And fortunately for me, I discovered that I could be shy and a bit introspective, but still have power, if I wrote.

I could destroy friendships with my words (some of my not-best moments).

I could retaliate against a history teacher with discreetly planted letters in all the faculty mailboxes.

Words, these things that had always tripped me up in speaking, were flowing out of me in writing.  And let me tell you, I had some amazing English teachers.  I can never stop thanking them for teaching me to love a good story.

But, I totally digress.  Teenagers are in a phase of life that is more challenging to survive than any other.  They make weird decisions all the time.  They have a constant dialogue that sounds very self-focused.  And they are full, and I mean, brimming, overflowing, exploding with good ideas, desires and passion!  For those of you who keep your teenagers close, by choice or because we can’t all afford to send our teens to boarding school, try to remember your own teenage years.  It’s confusing to push away, while still needing some advice.  You’ve heard the idea of picking your battles.  This is the time!  Who cares if they want blue hair?  Is it going to kill them?  Or are you just embarrassed of how others will judge you as the parent of the blue-haired kid?  Nose piercings?  Maybe not your favorite.  And it’s so much better than having sex with that older guy they met at the coffee shop.  I’m not saying nose rings will prevent teen pregnancy, but I do believe that allowing some freedom might just save the day.  And while that freedom is being dished out, remind them of how awesome they are.  Celebrate their achievements!

I was never EVER told that my body was sacred.

I was never told that I was funny and smart without alcohol.

I didn’t know that I could be a writer or an artist, or both.

I was never told that falling in love could be so completely mind-blowing.  I didn’t realize that when it was taken away a broken heart could hurt in a way that made my insides turn to ice and my ears crave heavy metal music, and I would never want to get out of my pathetic dorm bed again.

Being a teenager is hard work, and the best work.  If given the chance, this is when the brain develops into the adult they will one day become.

Feed it, nourish it, and remember it.

And, forgive it as it makes mistakes over and over and over again.  If you don’t love them and their developing teen brain, there’s a bunch of on-line predators who will.

(oooh, that was a little dark there at the end, but you get my drift)

Moonshine and Hickies

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We were young.  He was not my first boyfriend, but he was the first (and last) to write me a song.  He was the first to be insanely silly.  We were innocent together, and I laughed more than I thought was even allowed in a teenage relationship. My regular group of friends didn’t understand my new relationship, he was not a part of that group.  Not that we were cooler, by any means.  We just thought that high school was a time for drama and end-of-world scenarios.  I needed a bright light.  They could see it.  He didn’t wallow.  He bounced.

Like Tigger.

We bounced through our time together, listening to music, telling stories, as I gradually corrupted his sweet soul by introducing him to the alcohol of my homeland.  Siddiqui.  Moonshine.  We got loopy together, and boy, if I thought he was silly sober, drunk was like stand-up comedy hour.  I was so crazy in love, having so much fun, that I smuggled booze OUT of Saudi Arabia for him to have the opportunity to taste a beverage that could make you blind and possibly tear an actual hole in your liver.  If you aren’t familiar with Saudi Arabia, it is a dry (Muslim) country and alcohol is highly illegal.

To bring into the country.

From outside the country.

I’m sure there’s not even a law about bringing it out of the country because that doesn’t  make sense.  Why would anyone be that stupid? You can buy the real stuff on the other side.  Stuff that will probably not eat the bottom out of your cup. Stuff that will only make you blind if you drink 8 bottles in a row.  But, I thought I was just so damn special, I wanted to share the often lethal crap I drank at home. The question was, how to smuggle it out.

In the 80’s we used some nasty liquid chemicals to clean our contact lenses. (Seriously.  We had to clean them.  They were so expensive that you made one pair last a year.) We had these little containers that they would sit in, and you’d pour some bubbly acid over them to allow them to marinate overnight, magically cleaning them and prepping them to be popped back into your eyes the next morning.  This was all entrusted to a teenage brain.  I don’t even know what AoSept was, but it was not a nice liquid.  Once, in a moment of sheer brilliance – while attempting to become a pot head (a career move that didn’t pan out) – I mistook AoSept as saline solution and squirted into my dry eyes.  This is the same developmental brain that is trusted with driving, often while texting, always while day dreaming.  Makes you want to stay home.  I screamed like someone had ripped my eye right out of my head, and shoved a cup full of salt in the raw open hole.  Still, it was probably not as bad as the moonshine we drank in Saudi, so logically I decided to smuggle it out in an empty AoSept bottle.  It was a plastic, squeezy thing, and I spent the better part of an evening gradually sucking the Siddiqui up from a glass and into the container. Fortunately, I was smart enough to empty it out first.  Like swapping poison with poison.

Somehow I made it all the way back to New Jersey with my AoSept-Moonshine.  I felt so mighty, above any school rules, displaying it with my other toiletries in my dorm room.  I felt I was truly “winning.”  (see Charlie Sheen?  “winning” is often correlated with behaving like a stupid ass.)  My boyfriend was impressed.  Well, he was probably just drunk, but I translated that into impressed.  And then we got horny, as teenagers do.  I mean, that kind of horny that ONLY teenagers can manage.  Like being satisfied with a quick squeeze, or a brief grope, or a bare skin sighting.  That was all it took!  Confusing, and exciting, and confusing again. Weren’t the teenage years a blast?  Especially when a giant constellation of zits would pop up just from being groped one too many times in a particular area?  Or when a hickey appeared the next day, but you couldn’t remember receiving a hickey because you were drinking too much contact lens fluid?  That was fun. This was that boyfriend.  I never had so many hickies in my life (other than the ones I had given myself as a kid, as I practiced what I thought would later be considered “kissing”).  I’m not even sure why hickies are a part of the whole sex category.  I mean, you put your mouth in one spot and suck on it until you cause vascular damage?  Is that where spider veins come from?  Are all those damn hickies we got as teens waiting beneath the surface until our 30’s and 40’s to pop up in an even less flattering, and far more permanent form?

I cry, UNFAIR!!  Where’s the humanity?

I want my spider veins to be a result of Johnny Depp’s stubble irritating my skin too much.  Not that I have spider veins.  Or Johnny Depp.

We were teens.  Add some 180 proof alcohol.  Slap on some hickies.  Life was good.  We were at a boarding school, parents were not around.  Life was even better.  There was a school event taking place.  Everyone was there.  Except me and my hickey giver.  We snuck into my dorm room to do what we did best.

After rolling about and having the safest sex around (the kind with your clothes on) for nearly long enough to wear holes in those clothes, or at least create a friction fire, there came a sound.  No.  I didn’t fart.  I was more embarrassed of such things in those days.  There was a sound in the hallway.  Everyone was supposed to be at the event, everyone besides us and other random couples who were probably doing the same thing that we were.

Whatever.

Probably just the wind.  Or an ax murderer.

Back to business.  We don’t want this fire to burn out!

There it was a again.

Footsteps.

Voices.

We sat perfectly still.  I mean, layed.  My door was locked.  What were we afraid of?  We were afraid of being kicked out of school.  Of having our smoldering pants detected.  Of being caught being teens.

“It’s okay.  I locked the door.  We can relax.”

Relax?  Well, not exactly.  We continued trying to suck each other’s teeth out.

And then there was a new sound.  More voices, footsteps, and a jingle jangle that distinctly resembled keys on a key ring.

We froze.

Our hormones were having a hard time switching from sex thoughts to fight-or-flight thoughts.  There was a ridiculously long moment in which neither of us could even move.  This must be why the people having sex in horror movies always get killed.

And there it was:  the key in the door.

“What do I do?”  My hickey giver started running around the room in circles, looking for a place to hide.  Of course, there was nowhere.  I was such a slob that my closet was crammed full of dirty laundry.  I spun my head around.  There was a window.  Maybe I should push him out.  I looked out, and besides the fact that it was one story up, there were people outside.  People.  Tours.  Prospective students.  I guess a current student falling onto their heads might be a bit disheartening.

“Just sit there and act like nothing is happening,” I suggested, displaying impressive skills at thinking under pressure.  Yes, my instinct in the wild would be to play dead.  I’m that sort of person.

He did.  He sat on the bed.  Probably with a pillow on his lap.  I sat at my desk, trying to look normal, pretending that my hair wasn’t all over the place and my clothes weren’t smoking.

The door opened.

The student giving the tour looked at us in shock.  The family touring the school looked like they could smell the smoke of our friction fire.  No one commented on my hair.

“Um.  Oh.  I didn’t know anyone was in the dorms right now.  I’m sorry.”  Said the poor student, struggling to come up with a way to make this seem like a normal part of life at our school.  Like we had been studying.

“Hi!  Welcome to Blair!”  said my giver of many hickies.  Tigger.  Always personable.  Outgoing.  I was just happy he didn’t stand up to shake their hands.

“Uh.  Yeah.  Welcome.  We were just talking.  Where is everyone?  Are we missing some sort of event or something?” I wisely pretended.  I’m sure they were fooled by my 16 year old acting abilities.  This was a school where boys weren’t even allowed into the girl’s dorms.  If we had any functioning brain cells we would have just thrown a dress on him and pretended he was a chick.  Anyway, the family looked embarrassed and the student giving the tour looked embarrassed and we looked like we’d been caught with our pants down.  Our work there was done.

No one had noticed my AoSept.  Winning!