Hey, remember high school? Remember sitting for roughly a third of your day in an uncomfortable desk, with a bunch of people you didn’t really like, listening to someone talk about something that wasn’t very interesting? Even people who claim they liked high school have to admit that most of the actual being-in-school part kind of sucked.
Which is why, as psychologist Lisa Damour argued in a New York Times column earlier this week, it makes all the sense in the world that so many teens answer the parental “How was your day?” with a terse “fine.” It’s not necessarily because they’re being snotty, or weirdly secretive, or any of the other things people assume about teens; a lot of the time, it’s because they’re mentally and emotionally drained.
“Adolescents may have fun at school with their friends, but they are also in close quarters with scores of peers they didn’t choose,” Damour wrote. “The rough adult equivalent would be to spend nine months of the year in all-day meetings with 20 or more random age-mates — and be expected to bounce home and share enthusiastic updates.”
No, thank you. The last thing I want to do when I get home from the office is rehash the time I spent at the office; most days, the first thing I want to do is put on sweatpants and not talk to anyone. Most days, this is the only thing I want to do.
But there’s room between asking a kid to perform false cheeriness and sitting in silence, Damour said:
Posing more specific questions usually helps. Asking, “How is that group project going?” or “Did you guys do sprints again in practice?” can move things in the right direction, especially when our tone conveys that we have no agenda or angle to pursue.
Even better, drop your line of inquiry if your teenager puts a topic on the table. Should an adolescent say, “English was stupid today,” a warm “How come?” can keep the conversation going. At my practice, I am often charged with engaging fragile adolescents on delicate subjects. Asking, “How come?” with genuine curiosity and without judgment has long been my most reliable ally in the effort to help teenagers open up.
It seems like pretty obvious advice, but it points to a couple things worth remembering: One, being a kid can be exhausting business. And two, spending a day as a high-schooler ought to earn someone the right to a little empathy, and a little rest.