It Gets Better When You’re a Grownup

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How quickly we as adults forget the difficulties of childhood and adolescence. This post is for my under-18 readers and the grownups who care about them.

Blues in a Minor Key

I spent a lot of my youth in various degrees of discontent. I was not and am not an unhappy person by temperament. It was just that when I tried to make any headway socially, I ran into a brick wall of rejection, derision, and snobbishness. Although I went to some very good schools, getting up every morning was a struggle because I could see the futility of what I was doing day after day and how little relevance it had to what I cared about at the time.

Then college came along and life changed profoundly for the better. I believe life also became more pleasant for most of my peers. Of course I’m speaking in generalities. Some people have fantastic childhoods followed by miserable early adulthoods, but I think this sequence is the exception and not the rule.

So this post is for all the adolescents and teenagers who are frustrated or discouraged by the last few years. Hang in there. Adulthood is coming. There are some specific reasons why it’s hard to be you right now. I’ll outline some of them below. It does get better. And there are ways to anticipate and prepare for the happy day when you stop being somebody’s child and start being your own woman or man.

Kids are Cruel

Although I’m trying hard to avoid truisms, few truisms are so monumentally correct as “kids are cruel.” It’s hard to understand the magnitude of the brutality when young because children and adolescents haven’t had the experience of being addressed as an adult by an adult. This is a completely different experience than being addressed as a youth by an adult.

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When you’re an adult among adults the assumption is that you can take care of yourself and that you’ll decide for yourself. Before adulthood, elders presume they can choose for you. To resist this influence as a child or teen is “backtalk.” To do it as an adult is “having healthy boundaries.” As an adult, most people are courteous by default. It’s more common by far to worry about unintentionally disrespecting another adult than to intentionally give offense.

Meanwhile, as an adult, it’s easy to forget how mean youth are to one another. Adolescents will behave in ways that are outrageously rude by adult standards, but adult supervision and correction of such behavior is often thin to nonexistent and so rudeness — if not outright cruelty — becomes the norm. At the extremes, we call this behavior bullying, but bullying only labels the tip of a much larger iceberg that includes shunning, insults both subtle and overt, and the creation of exclusive cliques that leave others out in the cold. Not that all of these things don’t happen in adult life — they do. The difference is that in adult life, these behaviors are seen as outrageous, abnormal or even pathological, whereas the same bad behavior is too often the default among the young.

Adults Can be Cruel Too

When I pick my son up from school, I get to see how the staff interact with young children. Most of the time I am impressed, but more often than I would like, I hear school staff criticizing and berating very small children for what seemed to me to be relatively minor infractions.

The screeching volume and the acidic tone of the adults’ anger towards children can be breathtaking at times. What’s even more striking is that this is acceptable in the culture. I’ve heard different adults try to justify their tongue-lashing with either frustration (“I just couldn’t take it any longer”) or necessity (“they won’t listen when I am nice”), but I think it ultimately comes down to power differential. If someone were that rude to me as an adult, I could laugh it off, walk away from the situation, or seek a social or even legal sanction for the offensive behavior. All of these avenues are off the table for children and teens.

As an adult and safely off at a distance, I can recognize an adult who has lost their temper and understand that their judgment and reason have taken a dive. I know not to take what people say in anger too seriously. But to young people with less perspective and less ego strength, it’s hard not to believe that fury in adults equals some profound and personal character flaw in themselves. The undeserved effects of these repeated browbeatings can last long into adulthood.

No Exit

To be young is to be stuck in a very small fishbowl with no escape possible. Nobody picks their parents, for a start. In school, classrooms are assigned and sometimes seats are as well. As a youth, if you have a problem with someone, or someone has a problem with you, there’s little room to run.

As an adult, mobility and choice quickly eliminate so many problems. People change jobs, pick new friends or move to new cities to eliminate problems or take advantage of new opportunities. Until you’ve had and used this freedom fully, it’s hard to understand how many discontents can be solved by simply being somewhere else.

Ready… Set…

I could stop here and hopefully leave younger readers with some hope for what’s to come. However, there’s work to be done now if you want to take full advantage of your upcoming freedoms.

Most teenagers have visions and dreams of how life might be as an adult. Why not take dreaming to the next level and make some concrete plans? By refining and researching the life you imagine as a young adult, you can develop some realistic expectations of what’s to come. The odds are great that you won’t execute your plan exactly (or even approximately). But the act of planning and making firm commitments in your mind is worth the effort all by itself. Most adult freedoms are economic (the ability to rent where you like) rather than political (the ability to sign the lease). So take ample time to think about how work and money will fit into the picture.

Not all adults are equally successful and happy. As a young person, look around and find 20-somethings that are happy and successful by whatever definition makes sense to you. See if you can figure out how they got where they are. When you graduate from high school or college there will be a commencement address, and it is likely to be terrible. But YouTube has some commencement addresses that are outstanding. If you value technical innovation, take a look at Steve Jobs’ address or if you’re more artistic, check out what Neil Gaiman has to say. These are just two examples of the collected wisdom you can find online for free.

Whatever your situation and however you prepare to move into adulthood, the most important thing to remember is that this phase of your life, as with all things, is temporary. It will end and you’ll be faced with a different set of opportunities and problems than you’re dealing with now. The difference will be that as an adult, you’ll have far more tools and options for dealing with them than you do today.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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