Adolescents are perched somewhere between childhood and adulthood, usually quite awkwardly, and nearly everything about them changes a little bit every day: faces and voices, big dreams, the quality of their understanding of the world around them, and even their sense of propriety and privacy. At this point in their lives, they are incredibly self-aware, self-conscious, self-everything.
Those of us who are privileged to be in the lives of adolescents must be very cognizant of the forces at play in the hearts and minds of these young people, and edit ourselves and our comments so that nothing we say could possibly injure their tender and growing egos. The discovery of their inner beauty, their inquiries about life, and their dreams of forever must be welcomed without hurried judgments and too-quick appraisals. We must show complete respect as they change and become someone else. We must be patient with them at all times.
But here’s the problem: If you ever do become unhinged for a moment and say something unkind to your adolescent child, you can never take it back. Once said, it can never be unsaid. Save yourself the embarrassment and decades of apologies.
Although I am sure that there are more, here are five phrases that should never be spoken to an adolescent or teenager:
1. I DIDN'T RAISE MY DAUGHTER TO BE A...
Your daughter is in your care and under your wing. This phrase, no matter how it ends, would not only hurt her but also be a harsh judgment of her life, her friends, her dreams, her everything. It is a hurtful accusation, suspicious, unkind, disrespectful, and diminishing.
2. YOU ARE NOT GOING OUT OF THE HOUSE IN THAT.
By the time your daughter walks downstairs to show you what she has chosen to adorn herself with for a particular evening, it is likely that she has gone through several choices. Now, finally, with all of her creativity realized, she has decided on the outfit in which she stands before you. Your first reaction must be a compliment.
You must find something you like. You owe her this, particularly if you are the dad. This will be proof that you are accepting her changing beauty and allowing it to flourish. If there is too much leg or arm or neck or décolletage, find the nicest possible way to let her know that she needs to make some adjustments. Try not to diminish or undermine her creativity and sense of self just because you do not agree with her sense of fashion.
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3. YOU'RE TURNING OUT JUST LIKE...
No matter how upset you are with your son, never tell him that he is starting to remind you of someone else. If you suggest that he is, in fact, more like someone else than himself, especially someone you consider some version of a failure, it is a permanently demeaning thing to say. By putting an actual portrait of an actual human being into your child’s head, you will tattoo the features of someone else’s failure on your child’s face. Never tell your son who he is just like unless it is someone you love and adore and want him to be more like.
4. YOU'LL NEVER BE ABLE TO...
Imagine what it would be like to hear someone who is supposed to love you unconditionally and forever say, “You’ll never be able to get into that great school . . . win the talent contest . . . live your beautiful dreams . . .” It is abject cruelty to tamper with an adolescent’s possibilities. Let her try even if it seems impossible that she will succeed. The joy is the journey. Throw nothing in her path, least of all your doubts about her ability.
5. I TOLD YOU SO.
This phrase is guaranteed to hurt somebody’s feelings. Imagine the son, humiliated already, near tears, walking up to his father, coach, or uncle, hoping for a little peace, love, and understanding. What could be worse than a shower of “I told you so” raining down all around him. Not much.
Possibly no part of humanity is more sensitive to getting their feelings hurt than adolescents and teenagers. These young men and women, just breaking through the final few walls of childhood to get to adulthood, are listening to everything. They hear and remember every word that is said to them and about them.
Once said, never unsaid.
This article was adapted with permission from the book:
Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA). ©2011. www.us.PenguinGroup.com.
About the Author
Tom Sturges is a mentor, teacher, coach, and volunteer, and the father of two sons. Many of the ideas in his first book, Parking Lot Rules, were nuanced and matured while he mentored a group of 32 at-risk children at a South Central Los Angeles public school. Founder of the Manhattan Beach, California, Unified School District’s inspiring Every Idea is a Good Idea GATE Program, he is an active volunteer with LA’s at-risk youth. When appointed a position as a mentor of a child from an inner city class, he was unable to pick just one child, excluding all the others, so he did the unthinkable: he asked to mentor all 37 children in the class. He continued to mentor them all the way through adolescence, an experience which inspired the award-winning documentary, Witness The Dream. Tom also created a learning program that develops creativity in children via the writing of lyrics, melodies and recording the finished songs. He teaches The Music Business Now at UCLA Extension, a course central to the UCLA-E Music Business Certificate Program. Tom Sturges is a golfer, and an inventor and the son of legendary writer & director Preston Sturges. He is also the President of the Los Angeles Chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences.