In the last couple of weeks, Facebook, Twitter, and news sites have made me privy to a number of open letters to Miley Cyrus, to young female fans of Miley Cyrus, and to young fans of Robin Thicke. The pop stars’ vulgar, offensive, and perfectly marketed performance at the Video Music Awards has brought the kind of media attention most pop acts see only in their dreams. The same performance has awakened parental nightmares. Is this what my daughter will aspire to be? Is this the kind of man my son sees as a success?
It’s true that our young women face strong pressure to be sexualized and provocative; our young men face the same intense pressure to be smooth, in control. To be players. At the same time, young girls screaming over the boy band One Direction are hoping against hope that they are the kind of girl their idols sing about: “You don’t know you’re beautiful—that’s what makes you beautiful.” Boys are hoping to somehow live up to the image projected by muscular actors and steroid-enhanced sports figures.
On top of being hot, young people are expected to be good athletes, excellent students, caring citizens. And they should, of course, have stellar social lives.
But they won’t.
They’ll have acne, and they’ll grow too tall or too round, or they won’t grow enough. They’ll be shy or they’ll be overly loud. They’ll be ignored by the one they love; they’ll see on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram that they haven’t been invited. Or they’ll be popular and wonder if people really love them for themselves or only for their bodies or nice cars; they’ll be at the top of the social totem pole and they’ll wonder how they will ever hold on to their places. This is the difficult nature of Western adolescence.
There is so much to be anxious about. What levels of anxiety are natural, and how much is too much?
Freaking Out: Real-Life Stories about Anxiety, a book edited by Polly Wells, has 13 firsthand accounts of what it is like to be a teenager with anxiety. There are no morals to the stories, no 10 steps to normalcy. Just 13 young people telling about their experiences and how they have come to terms with their anxiety. The book is intended for a teen audience and is recommended for readers 12 and up. Since the situations range from children with OCD or a particular phobia to those who struggle with cutting, drug abuse, and gender issues, the book seems better suited to use by, or in conversation with, an adult.
Young people who are struggling with anxieties themselves may find relief in reading about others who have faced the same struggles. Parents of teens can get a refresher course in what it feels like to be living in the fishbowl of middle school or high school and get a better understanding of what their children may be facing. Youth leaders and pastors could learn from it too—suffering young people come in many shapes, sizes, and personalities.
While the book is not written from a Christian perspective, as a youth leader and a parent of teens, I found it very helpful. In one story, the young author talks about how important it is for adults who are not their parents to take time to get to know young people, to talk with them, and to reassure them that they are not alone and that they are valuable.
Sometimes I think we adults see teenagers as so foreign, so different from themselves, that as fellow church members we tend to avoid that age group just when they need us most. Young and old alike, flaws and all, it is vital that we find our value and self-worth as imagebearers of God, as his most beloved creation. That is the truth and the hope we can hold out to teens who are having a hard time. Freaking Out reminded me of how easy it is to lose sight of that in the midst of the epic changes of adolescence, surrounded by a culture that wants us to define ourselves by every standard but the true one. (Annick Press)