Learn to value your emptiness: Scott Fried on the secret lives of teens

Teen peering through gap“How was your day?”


“What did you do?”


Sound familiar? How often have you tried to get some information from your tween or teen about their day, or their math test, or a fight with their friend and found yourself facing a figurative brick wall.

Speaking at Montreal high school last week, motivational speaker and author Scott Fried told a rapt audience of parents that he knows why. He says teens get automatically defensive when we ask them questions. They feel put on the spot. But even more important, he says we wouldn’t get to the real heart of the teenage experience with those questions anyway.

To understand our teens, according to Fried, we need to understand the woundedness they are all carrying around inside. The emptiness they all feel, even if they can’t articulate it (though he says girls do that better than boys).

Every teen has secrets. Fried says we don’t choose them, they choose us. Those secrets may seem commonplace – they feel different from everyone else. Not normal. They don’t fit in. One day someone is going to figure out how different they are and out them in some humiliating way. Or maybe they are gay. Or someone abused them. Or they are bullied. Or their mom’s cancer came back. Or their dad lost their job. Or they have a sibling with special needs. Or their dad drinks too much.

Fried knows these things because when he speaks to groups of teens, they often write and email him the things they felt they couldn’t tell their own friends and families. He is the author of several books, including If I Grow Up: Talking with Teens About AIDS, My Invisible Kingdom: Letters From the Secret Lives of Teens and most recently A Private Midnight: a Teenagers Scrapbook of Secrets.

These secrets, all exquisitely painful, contribute to a peculiar sense of woundedness that all teenagers carry around. And to reach those teens, we need to know how to talk to them, how get past the “fine” and the “nothing” to make some sort of connection.

According to Fried, when teens are unable to make that connection in some way, they may try risky activities to try to cover up that void. He says he knows that from experience, from an unsafe sexual encounter in his early 20s that left him HIV positive. It isn’t always sex, of course. Some kids try to forget their secrets with alcohol or drugs. Cutting or eating disorders. There are lots of ways to make yourself forget.

Fried offered an analogy that is one of the best descriptions I have ever heard for why teenagers sometimes do stupid things. He says when a waiter puts a steaming plate of food in front of your average adult, telling them not to touch it because it’s too hot, most of them will listen. But not teenagers.

He says your average teen will touch that burning hot plate for three reasons:

  1. They don’t believe the waiter and they need to check to see if it’s really hot or he was lying.
  2. They secretly like to feel the burn in their fingers. Makes them feel alive.
  3. They’re really, really hungry and they don’t want to wait.

Now Fried says to substitute that hot plate with sex. Or drugs.

So how do we reach our teens? How do we get them to deal with that universal adolescent angst, to value it as the place from where new things can begin?

He says we can do that first and foremost by understanding how today’s teens think. He offers a very compelling list of three universal longings:

  1. All teens are waiting for a text message. Or an email. Or a comment on their Facebook wall. They desperately crave some external evidence of their own existence. He calls this their archetypal introduction to separation, in which they see a yawning chasm between themselves and the rest of the world. The upshot of this is that if you really need your teen to know something, the only guaranteed way to make sure they do is to text them.
  2. Every teen wants to be listened to, but not necessarily for the things they are saying. It may sound like a contradiction, but teens want to be remembered for what they didn’t say. They want to be understood and appreciated in and for themselves.
  3. All teens are deathly afraid of being caught in the act of becoming. They don’t want to be outed as inauthentic, unreal or in-between. They are humiliated by the thought of being exposed in their innocent difference. And yet, Fried says, they all also secretly wish someone would, because it would force a recognition of their true selves, and bring some resolution to the dread. It struck me that this is the essential plot description of most coming of age novels and films: the horrifying exposure of the secret, the end of innocence, the resolution.

Parents can reach through these fears and longings with several strategies, all of which sound simple and obvious, but are actually extraordinarily difficult to practice in the ins and outs of daily life.

Help your kids understand that everyone is actually made up of contradictions. Everyone needs to learn to accept that. And some emptiness can’t be filled. It needs to be there to make us whole.

Teach them about accountability, that it’s important to show up when you say you will and be there for someone. The way to change is to admit something about oneself in the presence of a loving other.

Offer unconditional love. Physical embraces. Ask yourself whose arms you want your kids to fall into when they are suffering. Most teens will not go to their parents or loving family members. Most teens don’t believe in unconditional love. They see strings. They worry about being unfriended.

Offer unconditional acceptance. Tell them “you are enough.” And then show them that. Regularly. It’s not about their GPA, the career you hope they may one day have, getting on the right team or acing a math test.

He challenges parents to be original. Teens despite unoriginality. Don’t just say “I love you” — try “I see you” or “I get you” or (more startling) “What does the emptiness inside feel like to you?” Or “If I listen to you without any judgement and not speak at all, what would you say?”

Talk less, listen more. Fried suggests we stay quiet when we are chauffeuring our kids and their friends around. Or make your house the place to be, filled with snacks and space for them to hang. And listen.

Respect their music choices. Especially the lyrics. Fried challenges us to remember the way our music got us through our own teen years. There is something about the melody or the words (however unpleasant and discordant they may seem to our adult ears) that articulates the emptiness.

Do stuff together that isn’t about talking. Watch a TV show. A movie. A hockey game. Go shopping or fishing. The best conversations with teens are non-verbal.

You know how you used to lie in bed with them when they were little, to read a story or sing to them or pat their backs while they fall asleep? Do it again. Teens give up their secrets in the dark. Just lie there. If they want to talk, they will.

Fried wants parents to understand that helping our kids avoid reckless behaviours means helping them embrace their woundedness and tell their secrets to themselves, out loud. This is the starting place.

Secrets are the scaffolding of our personalities,” explains Fried. “A life of self-improvement starts with self-acceptance.”


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