If there’s anything more obnoxious than one Guardianista praising another, I can’t imagine what that would be, so I try to keep secret my almost primal admiration for this newspaper’s Weekend magazine agony aunt. So let’s just say I was listening to a podcast about the teenage brain, and I can’t for the life of me remember who the host was.
You might think this is only relevant if you’ve got teenagers, but no: it also works if you’ve got toddlers, who are basically the same as teenagers with less lip, and it may also help you if you’re dealing with anyone volatile, impulse-driven, completely at the mercy of their ungovernable moods, which, at various points in and around lockdown, is all of us, right?
My top three take-homes: teens are uniquely bad at reading human expression. There have been studies about it, yielding many conflicting theories, since it seems to make no evolutionary sense. Just at the point in your life when you most need a shortcut to figure out what’s going on, you lose this really fundamental skill you’ve had since you were a baby. You think your neutral-faced mum is livid. You mistake your dad’s sardonic expression for contempt. I paraded this new knowledge before my family so proudly, and they all reacted with such disgust, as if I was a cat with a dead crow.
Nevertheless, I can’t stop saying it. “You’re disappointed in my assessment results,” said the 13-year-old. He likes to meet things head on. God knows where he got that from, when all this time I’ve been role-modelling the opposite, leaving everything unspoken and just bitching about it to other people. “You think I’m disappointed,” I said, “because of your face-illiteracy; in fact, my face is shining with love and admiration.” “No, I think it because I read your texts.” “Huh. You really shouldn’t read my texts.” “At least I can read. I would have thought you’d be prouder.” That’s what’s happened. All the abilities that suddenly disappear in adolescence, the face-reading, the self-care, they’re all just voided from the brain to make way for the urgent task of minute-by-minute sarcasm. Glad I sorted that out. You’re welcome, psychology, let me know if there’s anything else I can help with.
Second, if you get into a conflict with your young, rather than take it to its full conclusion you need to deploy a series of tactics, many of which are non-verbal. Like, you could just sit down next to them and do a big sigh. Not a disappointed sigh, more of a “this sucks, doesn’t it? It’s horrible getting into an argument” sigh. You should maybe work on your sigh-range ahead of trying this, because it can be quite hard to tell the difference. If that doesn’t work, remove yourself from the conflict zone, and return with a biscuit. This is the realm in which they are most like toddlers. I haven’t attempted that yet; my fear is that it’ll work, and then I won’t be able to take anyone’s emotions seriously ever again.
Third, any time they’re cantankerous, or talking to you like you’re their incompetent valet, or performatively monosyllabic, 90% of the time it’s because they’re anxious about something. Maybe this is obvious. It certainly had the feeling of something I already knew, and yet, at the same time, was a revelation. All those behaviours, the valet thing especially, drive me crackers. Worries, on the other hand, I love; this was especially true when they were small, and their anxieties were ridiculous – does that sheep not like me? Is one shoe shinier than the other? I used to relish the work of “it’ll be fine”. It was more or less my favourite job; I made an opera of it. Sheep love everyone, they just have trouble showing it because their tails are so short! It is chemically impossible for patent shoes to degrade in shininess at a different rate! Everything will be fine.
If only I could be more subtle in my reassurances. “What are you worried about?”, I went in, beadily, to the same 13-year-old, who seems to have borne the brunt of my personal development this week. “My podcast says you definitely aren’t in a bad mood, you’re just worried about something.” “I’m worried that my mother is disappointed in my assessment results, specifically French.” “No, no, what are you really worried about?” “Climate change.” “No, what are you worried about that I can tell you will be fine?” “I’m very worried that this conversation will go on for so long that I won’t have time for other, less worrying activities.” “Give me one thing you’re worried about, and then I’ll go away.” “I’m worried that I only have £7.50 left on my Osper card.” “My podcast says to dig beneath the smart-arsery and I’ll find pure gold.” (It didn’t really say that.) “I’m going to hunt down that podcast,” he said, with some dignity, “and beat it to death.”