Teenagers – What do we see?

teenage hoodies


We were having a laugh last night at supper. I was telling the story of going into a local Carphone Warehouse. I was standing by the counter waiting as the assistant went to get something when a couple of lads came in – low slung jeans, hoodies over their heads and muttering angrily. Instinctively I thought ‘shoplifters’. Then I caught myself and told myself off for being prejudiced. As I watched, one of them nicked a couple of things and they walked out. I just stood and gaped. My son suggested that instead of shouting ‘thief’, I should have run after them and told them off for the disservice they did to all hoodies by fulfilling the stereotype 🙂

This does not mean of course, that all hoodies are shoplifters. When I reflect back I also remember a sense of hyper-attentive energy and tension that they brought into the shop which is more likely to have triggered my ‘shoplifter’ response.

I’m told that we don’t ‘see’ with our eyes, we ‘see’ with our brains. Our eyes pick up a vast array of information and our brain sifts through to make sense of it. Life experience, habit and mood are just some of the things that will influence how we interpret what we see. We may or may not be right. I have found ‘mindfulness’ practice invaluable in helping me understand this.

It is important because how we respond can have potentially catastrophic or life-saving outcomes for ourselves or others. In Oxford where I live, police and social services failed to ‘see’ 350 teenage girls (and some teenage boys) who were systematically sexually abused and exploited by a gang of adult males. 1 of the 3 key attitudes identified by the subsequent “Bullfinch” Enquiry was:
 Girls were disbelieved due to the interpretation of their “precocious and difficult” behaviour.

The short film that I’ve made with Andy Carslaw – now called “Emmi” (http://www.fernyfilms.co.uk/emmi/) looks at how adults ‘see’ teenagers and what happens when a teenager feels trapped and frightened.

When all we see is a difficult, threatening or irritating teenager, how do we get beyond that? How do we begin to see the bigger picture, pick out warning signs and information that might give us a different interpretation? We can only begin by recognising that we have not seen the full picture. We need time to see other things. Perhaps the first thing we see is sloppy posture suggesting indifference. This could be indifference or it could be fragility well defended. And we need to notice our own response to that sloppy posture – how much it annoys or threatens us.

I was an annoying teenager. I was also a fragile teenager but I wasn’t going to let anyone see that. I’m now a mother and have had 3 teenagers. They are now all adults. They were also annoying and fragile.

Let us take that extra time to ‘see’ ourselves and each other more fully.

And with kindness.