“I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.” – Amy, Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott
My daughter’s image flickers up on a wallmounted screen in our old Victorian attic flat. A fluff-puff ball of white is the first thing to see on this oddly modern intercom after she presses the doorbell.
“Hello pom pom,” I say through the speaker. She lifts her face from beneath an extreme bobble hat, the fish-eye lens warping her dark-rimmmed glasses, “Helllloooo.” Gravity pulls her lead-weight bag full of books over to one side, and her with it. I press the buzzer to let her in.
It’s GCSE year and it couldn’t come at a worse time. For a sensitive and loving fifteen year old girl, the pressure is immense. These qualifications are of course supposed to be the gateway to work, or more at A’level, in order for even more at Uni, and onwards as children metamorphose into cogs in the wheels of a grand economic machine. Qualifications are blind to the vulnerabilities of a teenager, and brutally selective, sifting all into orders of stratification over which none of them have any control. There has to be another way, surely to goodness.
Gracie recovers from her walk home through traffic and pollution. I ask “how’s your day?” whilst fetching her a drink from our galley kitchen.
What’s the teen reason for being? Self discovery in an opening world of opportunity and terror? Not only in the personal sense, (through relationships, sexuality and their sense of belonging) teenagers now face a brutal assault of bad news from multiple channels and a peer-to-peer commentary through social media. Parents like me who work on Earth crisis no doubt add to the burden, no matter how hard we try to adapt our findings to the delicate lives of a child or teenager. Let’s face it. They are going to find out anyway. But how do they navigate these choppy waters?
Gracie tells me about her day in bursts of recollections of conversations, deep sighs, results and annoyances. Usually, we find the humour, even at our most tired. There’ll be something either of us will say or do that makes us both laugh, or a Netflix stand-up comedy show will do the trick. But it’s come to the point where this is not enough.
Despite all that’s happened in her young life, the latest being my cancer diagnosis and treatment, my Gracie is a bright, shiny diamond. She works hard, has a vast moral imagination, and takes time to care about the bigger picture. Equality, equity, climate and ecological integrity pulses through her hormonal blood and Instagram accounts. She acknowledges she’s protected from racial abuse, but her LGBT+ work comes at some personal expense and isolation. She wants to end all prejudice. Homework essays both assemble facts and challenge norms. Here she is interviewed along with her friend Milly for Radio 4’s Rethinking Representation hosted by David Runciman. I’m so proud of her, she takes my breath away. But this isn’t what she really needs.
Discussions over her future are now hard, given Earth Crisis. Our normal expectations of ‘future’ are now so uncertain. It can be crippling. What she needs more than anything, I think, is resilience. And part of that is love from as many quarters as possible.
I hug my girl, tight.
I’ve got your back.
How do teenagers self discover when they are effectively either set loose on the streets or under strict curfew? An inrease in social violence, perceived or otherwise, means a restricted geographical range, less play, less emotional range. There are easy distractions, like screens (and far worse), and unbounded criticism for mistakes.
Yet mistakes are the ladder-rungs upwards.
At school, it’s down to the teachers to reflect teenage identities in a positive way. Yet those adults are bogged down in curriculum paperwork and many are having to act more like social workers, with ever-demanding problems of the children and even their families who’ve fallen through Austerity’s cracks and worse.
On top of all, is the drip-drip cultural devaluation of what young people have to say and give – the assumption that they lie, exaggerate and are manipulated by others. The ones who are ‘trouble-d’ need more love, not less. And most are brimming with new ideas, energy and crucial perspectives from childhood they haven’t yet forgotten. Emma Gonzalez and Greta Thunberg have taken it full-force, and it’s an adult-ing disgrace. They need thanks and praise, not shitty headlines.
I love my diamond. Diamonds are forged under pressure, tough, yet still can cleave if struck hard from certain directions. And there are plenty of harsh blows that could come, and will. From the very personal to the expansive Earth Crisis, the future poses risk in every direction.
Parents, foster parents, teachers, social workers, doctors – anyone who’s in contact with children and young people must acknowledge fully and do something about this ~ they are a gift, and need the best of and from all of us, not the worst. This is Lemn Sissay’s message too, and he’s bringing it via his own story from ‘s-care’ and metamorphosis through the power of poetry.
Cortisol is the stress hormone evolved to keep us on guard for all dangerous eventualities. But too much of it over long periods of time, especially in childhood, and the immune system is permanently suppressed. Effects can be decades away, but they will come. Cancer, osteoperosis, lupus, weight gain, auto-immune diseases, heart disease, clinical depression, anxiety and more mental distresses than you can shake a stick at. Stress in childhood is life-limiting.
Whether parental, tertiary, primary or secondary care and ‘prevention’, resilience lies in both the deepest love, the worst of stress (and so cortisol) taken away from children by at least one loving adult, preferably many, and in supplying the knowledge and capacity to adapt to change.
Teenagers don’t need constant criticism, teasing, bullying or strict rules. Yes, boundaries make sense when it comes to understanding risks; knowing what’s right from wrong. But we need to let go a little in order for them to learn to sail their own ship. As Kenneth Ginsburg says, this love has boundaries too. Let’s be clear, we are talking about agape and storge love here, not eros.
The English language is so pitiful when it comes to talking about love. More words are necessary to articulate love, one of the reasons for me channeling the flow of Fluminism. Fluminism is a love that is shared by all living beings in being symbiotic and involved in life-sustaining natural processes. It’s symbiosis, music and the interconnecting hyphae. It’s river confluences, oxygen generation and the best support for a lonely and traumatised child. I do what I can for my own girl right now but together we’ve decided to reach out for help. We’re finding emotional support ~ accepting my own limitations as a mother. And Gracie is learning to sail through the storm.
Despite the brilliant Standing Rock, Fridays for Future, the Sunrise Movement, Flint, and other mobilisations by the young like March for Our Lives, I’m concerned ~ increasingly horrified ~ that most children globally aren’t receiving any support for ongoing traumas. They are NOT feeling empowered. Unable to sail. And fewer still are ready for the traumas to come. And this makes me angry.
We all have a part to play. But it needs to be structural, storge love by default. Meanwhile, for information on cultivating teenage resilience in the face of structural s-caring, exam pressures and cultural-competitive-adult expectations, please do visit Dr Ken Ginsburg’s website, including 7Cs of teenage resilience.