Smells like teen spirit

Using the music of your adolescence to embrace this stereotypically chaotic time

Lyrics to this Nirvana masterpiece can be found here.

I can't be the only one who would rather forget my own adolescence. I was the worst combination of arrogant and average. At one point, in an act of rebellion against my mother, I wore the same (oversized) shorts every day for about a month without washing them. I filled notebook after notebook with poetry that I still refuse to revisit. I listened to Korn. KORN!!! And because I was too scared of my overbearing Cuban mother, I still hung out with risk-takers but took very few risks myself. I was both liberated and trapped, and often terribly dressed.

"Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana has been a ubiquitous, multigenerational, and possibly cliché representation of the dreaded, stereotypically tumultuous tornado that is adolescence. I invite you to view the music video and have the lyrics in separate windows side-by-side. It's possible most people can't decipher the actual lyrics… But is there anything more quintessentially adolescent than "and I forget just why I taste...Oh yeah, I guess it makes me smile...I found it hard, it's hard to find...Oh well, whatever, never mind?"

At face value, this song makes no sense...and in some ways, adolescence makes no sense. How can they look so grown, but still experience so many behaviors that remind us of elementary schoolers? How are they capable of such combined brilliance and ineptitude (yeah, I said it…)? And OMFG how much can a person sleep (or stay awake) in a single day?!

If I had to think back to some of the best moments of my adolescence, it would be the times my parents stopped fighting my storm and embraced it whenever it was tolerable to do so. The times my mom would ask me to "replay that song" because she actually liked it. The times my dad took me and my friends to the mall and smirked as he overheard our conversations about the meaning of life and our plans to move to Amsterdam after college.

At that age, I knew already that I wanted to grow up and be a teen psychologist and support parents in having better relationships with these incredibly un-cute versions of their children. Maybe my parents didn't know it at the time (after speaking with hundreds of parents, I'm actually very sure they didn't know it at the time) but I worked really hard to burn those moments into my memory for future reference. Maybe it was their parental instinct, or maybe it was my own therapist who had talked to them (yes, I was a teen in therapy who went on to become a child psychologist, feel free to read my blog post A Therapist in Therapy).

For many parents whom I serve, there are few if any positive experiences they can recall from their adolescence. I'd venture to say the overwhelming majority recall countless fights over school performance, a sense of isolation, and a generous helping of emotion suppression. If you were raised by what I call "generation 'get over it'" then there may be some wounds. This is why I invite (require?) parents to meet with me regularly.

My best work has been not so much in providing tips and pointing out what parents are "doing wrong," but in supporting parents in remembering their own childhood, supporting them in healing themselves so that they can be better equipped to put themselves in their child's shoes. This takes time and requires a degree of vulnerability. Let's work together to embrace this phase with the mental flexibility and agility needed to get to the other side.


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© 2020 by Stephanie Olarte