I was recently asked to write a letter to a friend’s daughter who was turning 13. The letter I composed captures much of what I tell teens I’m working with (and what I want to remember to tell my daughter).
Here are a few of the things I wish I had known when I was your age. The strange thing is, many of these lessons still apply now that I’m an adult, but I sure wish I had known them when I was your age.
∙ Listen to your inner voice. Except for when you shouldn’t:
This one is tough. We all have a little voice inside that guides us and often helps us to make wise choices. It’s important to trust that voice, especially when you know the right thing to do. But here’s the thing. You have to know when not to listen to that voice–that’s harder. Because sometimes that voice is over-protective and it holds you back from trying new experiences with whispers that you probably won’t be good at whatever it is. On those occasions, you need to be stronger than that voice. What is cool is that you will know when to listen to it because it’s guiding you wisely and when to ignore it because it’s holding you back. (Although whether you choose to make a healthy decision is entirely up to you!)
∙ Sometimes you’re going to suck: The tricky part is that those whispers that tell you that you might suck at something are often right. I’d say 3 out of 10 times you might really be terrible at something and another 5 out of ten times you’ll just be rotten-to-fair (but not terrible). Every once in a while you’ll be pretty good right from the beginning. The thing is, you don’t know unless you try. So do it anyway, even if you suck. Because lots of times you’ll love doing something, even if you’re not great at it. I know that I would have been a cruddy soccer player but I also know I would have loved playing. I regret not taking more risks when I was younger. And it gets harder to do as you get older.
∙ “Fear of Trying Things” grows if you feed it. So does “Love of Taking Part in Life” Emotions are like muscles. The emotions that you feed grow stronger. Those that you feed by exercising them frequently grow bigger and stronger. The emotions you tamp down tend to wither and eventually starve. You get to decide which emotions you want to feed. If the emotion that you are tending to most closely is fear or anxiety, that is the one that will start to rule your decision-making process. On the flip side, if you make a decision that you are going to push through the anxiety and try new experiences, you will grow in a multitude of ways. You’ll grow your ability to take a risk without the fear of failing. You’ll have a world of experiences that you would otherwise miss. You’ll learn an incredible amount about yourself and what you’re capable of doing. And I guarantee you that you are capable of so much more than you know. So take a risk…
∙ But not all risks are worth it
There are risks that aren’t worth it:
Smoking leads to lung cancer.
Drinking and driving (or getting in the car with someone who is drinking and driving) is a deadly combination. You would not be able to live with the consequences if you were to hurt or kill someone because you drove while drinking.
Loads of teens send naked pictures of themselves to people they like. I know that sounds repulsive to you right now and maybe it will still sound like a terrible idea a few years from now. I’d like to think that you’ll always know that it’s a bad idea. I’m just mentioning it because, believe it or not, a lot of really smart kids I know make dumb decisions when it come to love. Those pictures always get out. THEY NEVER DON’T GET FORWARDED TO OTHER PEOPLE! (You can see I’m trying hard to emphasize that because sometimes when our heart is making decisions, it blinds you to that inner wise voice). That brings us to romance…
∙ Everything Happens When it’s Supposed To (especially if you’re taking advantages of those opportunities that come to you) You will absolutely, 100%, without fail get breasts, get your period and get a boyfriend or a girlfriend (depending on where your heart leads you). These life events won’t necessarily happen for you at the same time they do for everyone else, but they will happen. So try not to worry about any of them all too much. Love the moment that you are in. Remember to enjoy this time because once it is over, you never get it back (and, as I said, everything will happen in time, even if you’re not obsessing about it).
∙ About Where Your Heart Might Lead You I don’t know if you will find yourself falling in love with a boy or another girl. You might not know yet either. That can raise a lot of questions and worries. Falling in love can be a confusing thing (Especially when everyone assumes they know who you’re going to love and even you don’t know who you’re going to love–or sometimes you do know who you’re attracted to but it’s different from who everyone thinks you’re going to be attracted to). Not to mention that sometimes who you’re attracted to changes depending on the person. Here’s the thing. You don’t have to have it all figured out (besides, just when you think you have it all figured out, the answers might change). But ultimately, love is love and who you love is up to you. I just want to mention that it might not occur to the adults in your life that you might fall in love with someone they’re not expecting. That doesn’t mean it isn’t ok with them–it might just mean that they grew up at a time when things were less fluid and they didn’t realize that it was ok to be a “he” or a “she” or a “they” if that’s what felt right to them. (Let’s be honest, they might not know it even now unless you open that door and have that conversation with them. But adults are human too and sometimes they’ll need you to introduce new ideas to them. Have the conversation with them. Give them a chance to love you just the way you are).
∙ About Romance Boyfriends and girlfriends are wonderful but so are friends. This is a biggie–if I could go back and re-do one thing from my younger days (which I can’t because once a moment is over you never get it back), I’d focus less on the boys I liked and more on the girls I liked. With any luck, you’ll have many romantic relationships–and a few of them might be long-term relationships with wonderful partners. But most of those relationships will eventually end and you will move on. It’s pretty rare that these people remain in our lives (even the wonderful ones that you can’t imagine living without). And, by the way, I am so grateful that I didn’t marry any of the boys I cried my eyes out over! When I look back at the guys I was hopelessly in love with, there isn’t a single one I can imagine spending my life with. To tell you the truth, there aren’t many I can remember at all! (But since those relationships are going to end, remember what I said and don’t send naked pictures of yourself.)
∙ Each relationship teaches you something about yourself and what’s important to you. Never compromise what’s important to you for someone else–girl or guy. True friends won’t ask that of you. And since most romances are going to end…
∙ Focus on your friends Too many teens spend all of their time thinking about their boyfriends or girlfriends and forget about their other friends when they are dating someone. That’s a really big mistake. Your friends are there for life (you don’t have to marry them or choose just one). Grow your friendships. Water them with time and attention. Friends are the greatest gift you can ask for.
∙ “Balance” Matters Most There are many wonderful opportunities that are likely to come your way. Experience them all (take those risks) but not at the same time. Keep balance in your life so that there is always time for family, friends, self, work and play. You need all of them. At different times, different ones will take precedence, but there is never a time when you shouldn’t strive to have a little bit of all of them in your life.
∙ Work hard to do well (whether you end up doing well or not). Good grades don’t matter–but working hard for good grades does. You will always be able to look at the effort you put in and feel proud if you know that you’ve given it your all. Sometimes an A means very little when you know you didn’t work hard for it. And sometimes that B means everything when you know that you had to work your butt off to get it. “Working hard” is another muscle that you want to develop for life. And, trust me, there are a million colleges that would be great places to end up. You’ll get into a bunch of them no matter what your grades are. Everyone who truly wants to get into college, gets into college. And it will be a great college! But the habits you develop now will determine how you do later. So start to work on working hard (that one might be more a reminder to myself than to you…)
∙ Love the work you choose There are a lot of terrific careers out there. Some pay more than others. You are going to spend more time at your job than just about anything else in your adult life. Try to choose something you feel good about and love doing, even if it doesn’t pay the most.
∙ Life always gets better (and if it doesn’t, you’re not doing something right) In my humble opinion, you are going through some of the tougher parts of life around now. There are a lot of decisions that you don’t get to make for yourself (like whether you want to study chemistry or not). You do get to decide how you’re going to respond to what life demands though. Choose to make the most of your time and make it the best experience it can be. And when a situation seems intolerable, ask yourself whether it will still matter in a day or a week. That often helps you gain good perspective.
BUT, I truly believe that life gets better as you get older. You will have more freedom to make choices about how you spend your time and energy. That’s why it’s important to choose to add positive experiences and people to your life. If your life isn’t all that you wish it were, then you have the power to change it. Never forget that.
∙ Be Kind That’s just a good one to keep in mind. It is never the wrong decision to treat someone with kindness. It never backfires or leads you astray. So that’s just basic good advice. When you’re stuck and not sure how to respond to someone, choose kindness. After all, if you still want to be mean and spiteful later, you can always go back and act that way later. It’s easy to undo kindness. On the other hand, if you choose ugly now, it’s harder to take back!
∙ Get Enough Sleep Lots of science shows that our brain cells regenerate while we’re sleeping AND that while we’re sleeping, the cells in our brains shrink, allowing the cerebrospinal fluid to seep in around the cells and bathe our brain in goodness, washing away harmful toxins. Bet you didn’t see that one coming, huh? But yes, sleep is high on my list of good advice (even if it’s at the end of this list). Also, sleep is a good brake to impose on yourself before you make any big decision (like whether to be mean or kind, or whether to go out on a date on Friday night or hang out with your friends, or whether to exercise your Fear Muscle or your Love of Taking Part in Life muscle, or whether you should send that naked picture of yourself–I’m only emphasizing that one because no one else is going to remember to tell you about that!)
I’m sure there are lots more pieces of wisdom that I could share but these are the ones that rank pretty high on my list.