Lately, I’ve noticed a strange kind of reverse ageism in the psychology world. Until the past few years, not much was written about the joys of aging. Now, it seems like every magazine has a feature on it, telling – in great detail – how great it is to get older and implying being young is basically a waste of time.
I am moved to balance out this bias by writing here about the joys of youth.
As a psychotherapist who sees lots of LGBT young men and women in their teens and early twenties, I feel like young people in our community are getting a bad rap: they’re slammed for narcissism, cell phone/technology obsession, selfishness…you name it.
Let’s look at the big picture and address the joys, strengths and challenges of young(er) people in our community.
I define “youth” as people in their teens and early twenties. For most of us, these are the fun years, the wild years, the “let’s try anything and see what happens” years. It can be a time of great experimentation and delight, but also emotional yo-yoing, sorrow and loneliness.
After reading UCLA Professor Daniel Siegel’s book, “Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain” and hearing him speak recently at a professional conference, I am inspired by Dr. Siegel to take a few of his ideas and elaborate upon them for the LGBT community. I love this quote from him: “Life is on fire when we hit our teens. And these changes are not something to avoid or just to get through, but to encourage.”
From my work with clients, I know that this period is one of intensity and rapid change. Young people often feel very stressed out from all the growth and newness in their lives. Siegel says that brain changes during these youthful years bring about four types of exciting – yet scary – life changes:
Novelty seeking – When you’re trying to figure out who you are, you need to try new stuff all the time. You want adventures and discoveries, which is great. However, it’s all-too-easy to underestimate the downsides of taking risks (e.g., auto accidents, unprotected sex, substance dependence). Finding a balance is usually a challenge.
Social engagement – You want to be connected! You want to text, Instagram, Snapchat, Tweet and be in touch with your friends all the time. You probably don’t like being alone much, preferring to hang out with groups of people. This is all for the good: people with solid friendship networks feel more loved, secure and confident.
Increased emotional intensity – As a psychotherapist, this is the area that my clients most often ask me for help with. Life feels intense and it’s not your imagination: your brain is continually expanding and trying to keep up with what’s going on, and your emotions are bouncing all around. It’s exciting, but not easy.
Creative exploration – Ah, this is the best part! Young people are constantly able to think in new and creative ways as life throws them tons and tons of new stimuli, people and experiences. Your brain is excited to process lots of never-before-experienced information. Your life is exhilarating and full of surprises.
How can you find a happy balance between excitement/independence and feeling emotionally solid/grounded? It’s not easy, but here are some of the things that have been useful for my clients:
· Give your brain the rest it needs – sleep helps a lot
· Let your mind wander and relax – walking in nature, listening to music, writing, dancing or making art are good ways to notice what you’re feeling and sensing
· Move your body – aerobic exercise is the best. Dance at Rich’s or Gossip until the sweat pours off you
· Spend face-time with people you love and who love you – texting, Instagram and the like are not enough
· Let yourself be goofy – try things you may not be good at, see what happens
· Set some goals (but not too many) – it’s good to have projects and complete them
It’s wonderful – yet challenging – to be young. If you are young, know that this is your time for adventure and experimentation: enjoy it. If you are, like me, an elder in the community: let’s support, encourage and mentor our young people. They deserve it.