Last week I mentioned that I would be presenting for the first time a teen version of my seminar "Adolescent Psychology-The Teen Version" to high school students. To say I was terrified to stare down four consecutive groups of teens is an understatement. I spent more time figuring out what to wear for this event than picking out my wedding dress. There was a lot at stake here. Do I wear jeans and cowboy boots and go for the hip, or a pant suit that screams "I am an adult who knows more than you!" I went for the jeans. Though I didn't have any girls come up to me, complimenting me on my outfit, I felt it sent just the right message. " I am old, but not too old!" So every hour on the hour for four hours I gave the same seminar to the 9th, 10th, 11th and then finally the seniors. I got better and more relaxed with each passing hour, and I was surprised and impressed with the kids from all the grades with the attention and respect they gave to me.( It must have been the cowboy boots). They laughed at my jokes, and they looked appropriately shocked with stories I shared about teens who met with extreme consequences, or who had died as a result of faulty thinking.
I spent a good deal of time talking about the concept of risk versus reward. I explained to them that their brain is prewired as a teen to want go for the "high" of the adventure. Dopamine and adrenaline are at the highest levels they can be at during adolescence. So even without drugs and alcohol fueling behavior, their brain is like a devil on the shoulder urging them to just "go for it". I hoped that by telling stories where the reward was never paid out, they might start to think about some of the times their just "go for it" attitude could put them at risk.
I presented to 1200 students. At the end of each presentation I shored up my confidence, and walked up to groups of students as they left the auditorium to find out what resonated with them, and what their takeaways were. Here are their takeaways and the true stories that touched a nerve.
Takeaway 1: Be careful what you text/sext and who you send it to. I told a number of stories about girls and boys who had send naked pictures, or provocative sexts like the "wanna suck my dick" variety. One story that seemed to really send the message was about a 14 year old boy who had received a naked picture from a girl who obviously had a crush on him. Excited about having a naked picture of a girl on his phone, he immediately forwarded the picture to everyone he knew. Being forgetful, as teens are, he left his phone on the school cafeteria table after lunch period. The principal, on the post lunch sweep, finds the phone, and in trying to identify the owner so he can return it, comes upon the naked picture of one of his 8th grade girls. He saw that the photo had been forwarded to hundreds of kids. The boy whose phone it was, was arrested, charged with disseminating child pornography and is now a registered sex offender until he is age 32. When I got to the calculation part of the story, age 14 at offense, + 18 years as a sex offender, I asked the kids to do the math. As they yelled 32, I could hear how old that seemed to them. This was a consequence worth noting for them.
Takeaway 2: Take care of each other. I told a particularly upsetting story that happened in a town close to their own. After a high school dance, a 16 yr old girl goes to an "after party" in one of the town's wooded areas where teens "party". This was not her usual group of friends so she was not familiar with these particular woods. She drinks. Her cousin who had offered to pick her up at the party texts that she is on her way, meet me in the parking lot. The girl, unfamiliar with her surroundings, and trashed, asks her fellow partiers to point her in the direction of the parking lot. As these kids were also all inebriated, they thought it would be funny to send her in the wrong direction. At she walked in the wrong direction the woods ended in a swamp. But since it was pitch black she didn't notice, and fell face first into the swamp. No one heard her screaming, and she was found the next morning dead. The cousin, not wanting to get her in trouble, never told anyone that she never came out to the car. Thinking she had hooked up with some boy, the cousin figured she would find her own way home. She never came home, and no calls were ever made to find her that night. When I finished telling that story, which I did tell quite dramatically, I admit, there was dead silence. The message was loud and clear. You need to take care of each other!
Teens live with drama, and they need drama to punctuate their lives, even when it is morbid and upsetting. Do not be afraid to tell the scary true stories about teens whose actions resulted in life-altering consequences. As I was presenting yesterday, I saw their eyes glaze over when I was talking about their brain, but when I said the words they use but never hear themselves say, or told stories about death and destruction I had them in my pocket.
So the lesson here is get out of your comfort zone, don't talk to your teens like you are giving a lecture, be real, use their language, and use their experience. You could save a life!