Some teenagers hate high school. They don’t want to be there and they don’t want to deal with difficult people or situations. They don’t want to do work they consider useless and boring. Teenagers can have a difficult time tolerating the emotions that being forced to go to school can elicit. Often teenagers feel that they should somehow never experience frustration. There are developmental reasons for these beliefs that have to do with earlier childhood experiences when they had no responsibility at all.
This feeling of being entitled to a blissful carefree life can carry over into the teenage years and it is exactly this feeling that must be allowed to die for the good of the teenager. Appropriate frustration and learning to do things they don’t like helps to kill it. If this doesn’t happen in the teenage years it will be very difficult for them to mature as adults. Frustrating a teenager’s omnipotent and narcissistic strivings and forcing them to accomplish things that they don’t want to do is very healthy. Why? If teenagers can’t manage their narcissistic aversion to frustration or learn to do things that they don’t want to do, life will feel cruel to them. The better they get at tolerating their frustrations and doing things they don’t like, the more enjoyable life will be for them because it won’t feel like they are constantly being cheated.
When teenagers complain that they will never use what they are learning in school the response is simple: “It doesn’t matter if you never use it. You are learning how to do things you don’t like to do. And that is a very useful lesson.” A teenager’s ability to manage their frustration and work habits are a set of skills developed independently of the material that is being taught at school. What I mean is that your teenager could be studying the history of the Star Wars Empire and these skills would still develop as long as they were forced to think critically and get things done regardless of how much they enjoy the assignment. In my opinion, this is one of the most valuable skill sets that teenagers develop in high school.
So, when teenagers are having a hard time with school work I believe that a useful response should have two parts. First, empathize with your teenager and help them to express the feelings of frustration and of being overwhelmed. It is very important for them to be able to put their feelings into words and to understand where these feelings come from. Second, you should also communicate to them that the better they get at learning to deal with these emotions the larger their advantage over others will be and the more success they will experience. You want to challenge the underlying belief that they should not experience frustration or suffering, framing these feelings as strengthening is a great way to do that.
The objective is also to help your teenager see that these intense emotions are tolerable and ultimately helpful, not hurtful. These emotions will be with them to one extent or another over their entire lives and feeling them repeatedly is like strength training. A useful way for teenagers to learn that these feelings are bearable is for them to see that their frustration and feelings of being overwhelmed do not overwhelm the parent. The more calm and collected the parent can be while their teenagers are having a hard time tolerating intense emotions the better. However, be careful not to come off as cold. The message you want to send is: “It’s OKAY to come to me with these feelings and they are important to me. I know it’s hard but that’s OKAY. It’s supposed to be hard, and you can do it.”
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By Miguel Brown