Remember learning how to identify the lowest common denominator in math class during elementary school? I always liked that. It was like a fun puzzle.
A lot of my work reminds me of that: picking apart the pieces of the puzzle. OK, your kid always drives you crazy and never listens. But he does, sometimes. Things aren’t always bad. Let’s talk about the last time things went well. When he listened, what had you done? Ah, you hadn’t screamed at him! Interesting. Or, his sister was there. Another time, he didn’t quite listen, but he also didn’t storm out and tell you to go fuck yourself.
Once you figure out what pieces of the puzzle make things work, you can bring them into play more often, and replicate those times that work out well. It sounds simple, but when most of your day is spent alternating between berating and begging your child to go to school, or do anything around the house, you might miss those times when things are actually calm.
At times, it’s something strange. A particular time of day when kids and parents tend to get along, or after a certain family member visits. At other times, it’s really damn obvious. Especially with my teens.
Teens tend to have hidden camera syndrome–the idea that people are watching you, constantly. Why wouldn’t they? You are the most interesting person to currently, and possibly ever, exist. People want to look at you, talk about you, and quite often, they get jealous.
At least, this is what I’m told.
A lot of my teens are angry. Particularly the girls. They’re constantly getting into fights, both verbal and physical. They have throwdowns with their teachers and mothers. They even get into it with the cops.
Despite this, they can never identify that the common denominator in all of these altercations is themselves.
Teen: “My teachers just don’t like me. Everyone else is talking and running around, and I’m sitting there doing my work, and my teacher only yells at me.”
SJ: “Wow. That’s just bizarre. What must your teacher be getting out of this? Tell me exactly what happened.”
Teen: “Well, this other kid was talking shit, and I ignored him but then I punched him in the face, and I got suspended.”
SJ: “Right. Because of the face punching.”
Teen: ” No, because my teacher hates me.”
I know I have a lot of readers who are teachers. I’m sure you guys all fondly remember the first day of school, picking out that one student who seems perfectly nice, average, and willing to listen, and deciding to make that child’s life miserable. Saying to yourself, “I don’t care how good she is, or how hard she works. I will not rest until she is punished without cause!” Then you laugh evilly to yourself while thunder crashes.
It’s the same thing with other students. I witness it on the train, and then hear about it in sessions as well. Apparently there is some sort of staring epidemic in the Bronx, and I believe it’s spread elsewhere. The thought that someone might be looking at you for any extended period of time is unacceptable. The only way to cope with it is by becoming irate, yelling, and calling attention to yourself.
You know, because you just want to be left alone.
I can’t count how many shirts I’ve seen that declare, “I see you staring. Hi hater!” Um, what? Your shirt had a message on it, I took the time to read it, and this means I hate you? I’m consumed with jealousy? I kind of hate your ugly shirt, but the rest of you seems rather unremarkable, and I really have no opinion.
To listen to my teen girls talk, you would almost feel bad for them. It sounds like they all just want to be left in peace to study, read, perhaps engage in volunteerism. But bitches and haters keep bringing them down. I’ve heard it a million times. “Miss, I don’t have a problem with them, they have a problem with me. I’m nice to everyone until they start with me.”
It’s a very dramatic way to go through life. Always looking out for a slight, always getting embroiled in drama. Even though everyone involved absolutely detests drama. You know this because they posted it on Facebook. But somehow it follows them.
Or are they just the common denominator?
The idea that everyone who glances your way is staring, or that everyone who giggles is making fun of you, or that everyone who whispers is “talking shit” is all part of that unique teenage paranoia, a combination of self-absorption and poor self confidence. We’ve all been there.
Throwing into the equation my teens’ inadequate home lives, and need to assert themselves as “tough” to make it in a rough neighborhood, this leads to what we social workers call “epic smackdowns.”
It’s a difficult worldview to throw a wrench in. Despite previous experience, and despite the horror that is any adolescence, the world is not out to get you. Not everyone who tells you that you’ve done something wrong hates you. In fact, a lot of them care about you. Acknowledging that you have a role in the problem, and aren’t just a victim standing up for himself, is not an easy leap to make.
But we all know math class is hard.