From the series: 21st-Century Teenhood and Toxic Stress

I have often asked myself how I — a former academic philosopher with no children, no desire ever to have children, and no experience teaching high school — have been able to engage with adolescents so seamlessly in this pressure cooker of a psychic theater. Before reading Alice Miller’s Drama of the Gifted Child, I’d chalked up my professional success to being a naturally good mentor with an extra intellectual edge; it was a quirky talent I could not explain. Now I know that something much deeper runs between me and my students: our shared experience of that semi-invisible psychic theater — mine because of mental illness in my family, and theirs because of what’s becoming an entire societal surveilling apparatus bearing down on them with the message that superheroism is the new norm. Swept up in this frenetic vortex, every sane parent runs the risk of morphing into a helicopter monster; every college-bound student assumes the role of “gifted child.”

The gifted child: behold the consummate doer, not merely gifted in intelligence, but especially talented at detecting the needs of others and satisfying those needs through one achievement after another. One would think that success under the appreciative gaze of loved ones is the perfect recipe for happiness. Yet for many, the inner reality is so different.

Teens today are well acquainted with darkness and despair. Besides their dreams and aspirations, they live with the gripping fear of failure and the nagging suspicion that even small glitches lead to loss of love and social connection. They are no strangers to extreme acts of self harm. It is no longer a surprise for me to be in session with a tearful 11th grader who has just returned from the funeral of a peer. More than a few applicants have written loving tributes to a best, deceased friend in their Common Application essay. Among many other things, college admissions has become an occasion for mourning.

I think it’s because of this shared experience that my students and I can mourn together. And rage and cry and curse their toxic stress. And transform all of that raw reality into personal growth. Don’t get me wrong; we also laugh and exchange social media posts and rant about the news and sink into that oh-so-sweet haze of happy victory when we get word back about dream schools or that perfect internship. We can do all of this — really run the gamut of 21st-century adolescent emotional life, not shying away from its radically increasing intensity (and sometimes even using it as a resource) — because students feel heard and seen by me and the team I’ve trained. If my colleagues and I engage in one activity more than anything, it is listening.

As a culture, we seem so focused on teens, poring over the newest neuroscientific revelation about their brains in the hope that they get that darn time-management thing down and be better mini adults. We study them to mold them into something from our perspective. What is their perspective? Do we adults know? And can we get over ourselves and really hear them, even if they don’t yet have the language to tell us explicitly? Listening: in the words of Brenda Ueland, it is a “magnetic and strange thing, a creative force.” Through it, we renew each other and lighten things up: we love each other more.