Last week, the mother of one of my students texted me about her lovely teenaged daughter who has been coming to me for yoga classes to soothe her turbulent inner self.
After class, she texted: "How was she?"
I texted back: "She was great 🥰 She is in good spirits whenever she is here.
We did stretches for her back, shoulders & chest, two inversions, and practised diaphragmatic breathing which helps to calm the nervous system.
I told her to have a good lunch ❤️"
Two thoughts I had:
#1: How lucky this girl is that her mum loves her so much, to send her to yoga class. Beneath the surface of her initial frustration, she obviously cares deeply for her daughter.
#2: How can I be the kind of adult this young woman needs in her life right now?
'Is it any wonder teenagers rebel against becoming adults... so many of them have never seen a happy one.
So many disconnected, stressed, unsatisfied adults... not much to be inspired by.
Teenagers and children, in general, know how to be happy and make choices from what makes the most sense for their entire well being. And then a bunch of adults who got squashed in their expression of themselves are telling them how to grow up...when they are far from grown themselves.
And this doesn't mean they are not willing to do the hard stuff... often they are able and willing to have the deep conversations required that most adults around them get squeamish about.
So next time you see a teenager that is upset, disillusioned, angry, apathetic... let them know... you know exactly what that feels like... because chances are... some part of your own experience is also those things and often.
Life is hard, we do not have to be.
Focusing on the things that have meaning for you, the things that create you into the person you want to be, the things that fill your entire being with purpose... do more of that... teenagers already know how.
As I reflected on my student and her mother, I was also thinking of my teenaged self - how home used to be a battlefield between me and my mum.
I remember how I wished every day that I had even one adult in my life who was interested in what I had to say or think. Everyone (teacher, pastor, parent) was only interested in me as an object to control, manage and punish.
Adults need to listen to (not just hear) what our children are saying.
Can we listen to listen - not listen to respond?
In our weekly classes, my student rarely speaks. When I ask if she feels comfortable, she replies with a single, soft "yes". As the silence filled the room, I'd wonder:
Would she even tell me if she wasn't comfortable?
How could I let her feel safe with me to tell me?
So today during our class, I decided to begin by sharing a bit about my tumultuous teenaged years. I spoke about how I rebelled in my own ways against my mum - herself a strict schoolteacher who saw me going the way of the "bad girls" in the secondary school she taught at. I spoke about anger, depression and mental health, sharing stories of myself, and other adults I know, who still go through our own struggles.
"The reason why I'm talking about myself is to let you know you're not alone," I said. She seemed to understand. There was a moment of silence, and then for the first time, my student spoke. "Do you read poetry?" she asked.
Hearing her clear voice fill the room filled me with immense joy.
It turns out, she has been writing poetry since she was ten, is a self-published poet and is currently working on her second volume. I would never have found out I had an 18-year-old poet in front of me if I had not first chosen to make myself vulnerable. By sharing my messiness, she was able to see me not as just another adult in her life.
The key to genuine communication and connection is surrendering control of the conversation.
In speaking to her, I did not have a sermon or moralistic message to deliver. I had no idea how she would receive what I was telling her. By being open about my mistakes, my mess, my human self, however... I was able to create a space for her to fill - if she decided she wanted to.
My purpose in sharing my story was not to wallow in suffering or demonise our parents. It was to connect with my student based on our shared experiences and emotions. This approach encourages us to speak truthfully about our dark times, so that we can process and ultimately integrate them into ourselves and our journey.
Toxic positivity is the belief that no matter how dire or difficult a situation is, people should maintain a positive mindset. It's a "good vibes only" approach to life. And while there are benefits to being an optimist and engaging in positive thinking, toxic positivity instead rejects difficult emotions in favor of a cheerful, often falsely positive, façade.
Toxic positivity involves dismissing negative emotions and responding to distress with false reassurances rather than empathy.
It comes from feeling uncomfortable with "negative" emotions.
It is often well-intentioned but can cause alienation and a feeling of disconnection.
Let yourself feel your feelings, and let others share theirs without needing to fix them.
By showing that I was comfortable talking about hard things, it let my student know that it was safe for her too, if she so desired.
A Yoga practice should awaken the student's own inner intelligence.
How is this going to happen if all they hear in their head is my voice?
'Focusing on the things that have meaning for you,
the things that create you into the person you want to be,
the things that fill your entire being with purpose...
do more of that...
teenagers already know how.'
My student was already doing this in her poetry.
In her time with me, my focus should be less on filling her head with my voice, my instruction, and more on building her inner resilience by showing her the strength she already has in herself.
After class, my student's mother texted the following. My heart ached with happiness reading her words.
Link to my student's poetry: https://www.partridgepublishing.com/en-sg/bookstore/bookdetails/831597-war-of-the-rose
Title artwork by Deborah Paauwe: “Eternal Spell". Deborah Paauwe is an acclaimed photographer of Dutch and Singaporean-Chinese heritage based in Australia. In her work, Paauwe focuses on capturing young women and girls at the various stages of youth, which demonstrates the delicate balance of childhood and adulthood. Paauwe is also inspired by the tradition of obscuring feelings through blank facial expressions, and the concealment of her subjects’ faces.
Excerpt on "toxic positivity" adapted from:
'What Is Toxic Positivity' by Kendra Cherry (Feb 2021).
'What You Need To Know About Toxic Positivity' by McKenna Princing (Sept 2021). https://rightasrain.uwmedicine.org/mind/well-being/toxic-positivity