By Michael Losoff, PhD
Director of Adolescent Services
We are all struggling to absorb the intense and frightening social unrest that has erupted following the brutal killing of George Floyd, exposing again painful and deeply unsettling inequalities and injustices that bubble below the surface of our civil life. There are two elements of this circumstance to which we as parents can attune in understanding our teenagers’ responses and helping them navigate the turbulent waters. The first is recognizing that rebellion and fighting unfairness lie at the core of teen emotional life. The second is finding a way to provide guidance and assistance, even as we ourselves may feel uncertain and anxious.
Challenging authority is the developmental hallmark of adolescence. Teens push against “the establishment,” whether it be parents, school, religion or indeed the political order, so that they can discover what they themselves value or believe in. It’s the main way teenagers form their identity and it’s an exercise that fosters healthy brain growth, to boot. In a nutshell, this is why political upheaval the world over and throughout the centuries is and has so often been driven by youth. With a brain newly able to register abstractions in the world, youth are drawn to see unfairness and injustice. Very active hormones produce the energy to act against what they register. “Taking to the streets” comes naturally and meets the developmental moment.
At the same time, even though they may be loath to acknowledge it, teens crave security. Pushing against a settled order propels them into a space where they may experience disorder and uncertainty. Living in that space may be important and even necessary to discover who they are and what values they wish to endorse, but equally important is that the world not crumble around them—that the order against which they push can withstand the challenge.
Again, our teens may not admit it, but they need our reassurance. This is a point at which the current upheaval can pose a challenge to parents. We ourselves feel outrage, uncertainty, fear. We ourselves crave the world to be settled and ordered. What we can do that our teens can’t, however, is see the bigger picture. We may not know just what light there is at the end of the tunnel, but we do know from our own experience that we will get through the tunnel. That sense of grounding serves as an anchor for our teens. If we find ourselves too upset by the current situation to hold that grounding—and there is plenty of good reason that we might feel that way—it is important to turn to other adults for solace or assistance, whether it be family, friends, or professionals if needed. Yellowbrick remains available to you or your teen in such an instance.