This is a week of birthdays in my family of origin. My dad turned 88 on Saturday, and on Friday I turn 55. I’m not a numerologist, but perhaps there is some magical significance about our ages since they are both multiples of 11.
More than numerical coincidences, our birthdays have led me to think more about the impact that these numbers do or don’t have on attitudes and perceptions – ours and others. For my dad, being 88 opens all sorts of doors and opportunities. As he says “If I forget something, I simply explain it away by being an octogenarian”. And who can blame him? People are impressed by that number, especially when they look at my dad and talk with him. He hardly has the appearance or mind of someone who is almost 90.
My middle age status brings a broader set of assumptions about where I am in my career path, my parenting responsibilities, my children’s’ accomplishments, and more and more frequently, what will the next 10 years hold as I head towards (gasp) retirement. The ones that really get me are the questions about my children, and the expectations of what they should be doing, all based on . . . of course . . . their age.
This was a topic of discussion recently with some friends, particularly the pressure that is put on many teens and young adults. Age 16 – start thinking about career path, taking the right classes, studying for SAT’s or ACT’s, part time jobs to gain experience. Age 17 – college visits or charting a vocational path, taking ACT’s and SAT’s, preparing resumes, agonizing over scores because someone ALWAYS has a higher one, getting that GPA up before applying to schools. 18 – Graduate from high school and head off to meet the world full speed ahead.
Unlike a 55 year old, there isn’t a lot of wiggle room to slow things down or try out a few different paths to see what’s really right. And how many teens honestly know exactly what they want to do, where they want to go, or even what options are available? If we’re still learning, figuring out what to do with the rest of our lives, experiencing successes and failures, then why do we expect someone 1/3rd our age to have things all sorted out?
All of these scenarios assume that teens have had a pretty ‘normal’ existence growing up. But what if there has been a chronic illness – Lupus, PTSD, Crohn’s Disease, Major Depressive Disorder or OCD – that resulted in numerous absences from school, social life, summer jobs or volunteering? Now you have a teen whose developmental path has been derailed academically, emotionally, socially and who probably feels a bit more self-doubt and insecurity than other teens. How do they (or their parents) feel when asked “What grade are you in?” followed by “Oh, so you must be busy with those college visits and essays, how are they going”?
What’s the right thing to do? Push like heck to ‘catch up’ by creating one modification and accommodation after another to get every teen through to high school graduation and on that road to success? How DO we create a catch up scenario that can effectively reproduce several years’ worth of missed junior high cliques, research projects, clubs, babysitting, lawn mowing, Drivers Ed, best friends, worst friends, disappointments and successes?
For our family (and we are by no means representative of other families), the answer is “We slow things down”. Sure, our school district may be able to create a condensed curriculum that will allow our daughter to earn all of the credits she needs to graduate on our societal time line. But that will not come close to filling in the 5+ years of gaps in all of those other areas which don’t fall into the Department of Public Instruction’s graduation requirements. I could be wrong, but knowing my daughter, her strengths, her interests, the skills she has gained from her illness and the skills she has yet to gain because of her illness, some strong advocacy is needed before she walks across the stage to receive her diploma.
First, my daughter needs to be a part of the advocacy. This is a skill that every person should develop before they launch so that they can walk into a job interview with confidence, greet their new dorm roommate with a smile and a welcoming word or approach a boss or a teacher for clarification rather than risk being tripped up by a misunderstanding. My daughter needs to be an active part of the discussions with her teachers to explain the gaps that were uniquely created by her illness.
Second, we need to build a plan for success. Rather than just mapping out a schedule to get through 4 electives, 3 math classes, Government and Economics, we need to consider past triggers as well as tools that were helpful. This means looking not just at course content but at processes and skill sets. Things like note taking, analytical thinking, time management and research aren’t necessarily blended into every course. But these are all critical tools for the future.
Lastly, and this took me a while to recognize and then come to terms with, my daughter needs to recapture some of those years she missed. So many years were dominated by illness, hospitalizations, residential treatment and inertia. Before my daughter can fully be a 16, 17 or 18 year old, she needs a chance to be a 12, 13, 14 and 15 year old. Not a year at a time, but she does need a chance to developmentally work through those ages to enjoy and experience what each has to offer. For a child who so often couldn’t ask for or give hugs, who couldn’t express emotions of gratitude, appreciation, joy or love, being able to do and feel these simple things is a priceless gift. She needs to trust, feel safe, take risks and know that people are there to catch her if she stumbles.
So if my teenager needs to take a year or two to catch up, to truly live and feel, then please don’t try to put her star shape into a square hole. Don’t ask her the ‘standard’ questions about a prefab future. Try asking about her here and now or her dreams. Or better yet, let her ask the questions.
Nanci Schiman is a licensed social worker with a Master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has over 12 years’ professional experience in child and adolescent mental health, family support, advocacy, writing, public speaking and collaborating with local and national mental health organizations. On a personal level Nanci has three daughters ages 17, 19 and 21. The oldest and youngest were diagnosed with mood disorders at ages 9 and 10 respectively.