Transitions: The Later Teen Years

THE LATER TEEN YEARS are the ones fraught with the most anxiety.
Hormones speak louder than words yet often make us deaf to common sense. Whoever came up with the expression “patience is a virtue” raised a teenager. 

There are many coming of age stories. There are romantic ones (“The Twilight Saga”) and tragic ones (“Romeo and Juliet”). They can appear in every genre. The horror genre is perfect for stereotypes. “Carrie” being the greatest one of all. “The Breakfast Club” remains a benchmark coming of age film. My personal favorites are “Stand by Me” and “My Own Private Idaho.”

The cast of characters is always the same regardless of genre. The move towards adding a third dimension to these stock characters is gaining steam; characters to reflect our times. The blonde bitch (who now has a troubled past with daddy issues), the hot and dangerous brunette (who now will crave a meaningful relationship), the girl next door (who can now have sex with the boy she went to public school with or discover she is a lesbian). The jock, preppy, bad boy, boy next door, the bully (whose drunk father appears…explaining his behavior.) The storylines tend to follow the new boy or girl coming from the city and moving to a small town or the reverse. Usually there is only one parent involved for pathos and complications.

There is the existential dilemma of older teens playing younger. Ex:18 to play 15-16 etc. SAG and ACTRA rulings make this a necessity. The gift and curse of your height, weight, bone structure will dictate how long and how far you can be cast backward in time. While time marches on in “real time,” older teen actors are trying to remember and recreate a past of the middle teen years in “pretend time.” This often mirrors or reflects the struggles of older teens trying to mature and individuate at home, while being called upon to play younger on television. The mind bender experience of “grow up and pick a college” while playing 15 on set, may be impeding their actual mental growth. If the adage that “we are what we do” has merit, then 18-year-old teens trapped in 15-or-16 year old bodies (who are on a series that lasts a couple of seasons or more) may have identity issues without proper guidance.

The end of the teen years is full of hope and promises made to BFF’S. These contracts are signed and notarized in final year yearbooks. We contemplate moving to a strange city, moving in with friends. We seek new family’s through friends with similar likes and visions for the future. We are parent-peer-pressured to choose the club we will join and rise through the ranks of that club for the rest of our lives.

It is interesting that we don’t think teens are mature or trustworthy enough to drink until 19 (in most provinces) or vote until 18, but do think they are mature and trustworthy enough at 17- 18 years old to make decisions that could last a lifetime.

To go to university or not? Take a gap year or not? These are the years where parents and teens battle over the importance of a University education. The unfortunate compromise is often a university or college with a drama program. I highly recommend the book The Shift Age by David Houle. It is a very short, but exquisitely eloquent book… he holds a flashlight to the future. It will help you as a family make informed decisions.

As high school comes to an end, a question lingers in the air. The intensity and claustrophobic nature of it is stifling. Parents, relatives and even friends (es tu Brute) are saying, “What are you going to do? What are you going to be?” I had no idea at 17. I wasn’t a member of a drama club, chess club, science club, etc. I didn’t do any of these things. I was average at sports, I wrote poetry, liked to read, think and talk philosophy. I think that was the extent of my creative self. I had no desire to be a director or even an acting coach. I didn’t even know that was a job option.

I envied those who knew from the age of 8 or 10 what they wanted to be when they grew up. If you are or were one of these teens, then take a pass on this blog and I will meet up with you in the early 20’s blog. If you are a parent with such a teen. Congrats! You won the lottery. Stand behind them all the way and don’t ever use the phrase “have a backup plan.” I know you mean well but it will be translated as “you don’t have faith they can succeed.” I know, I have worked with teens for almost 50 years.

I have seen the paths of older teens taken by choice, some by circumstance, and some by a bit of luck good and bad. I have seen positive and life loving teens get rocked by a parent’s death, an unplanned pregnancy, a divorce, and/or a night or two in jail as a result of a stupid drunken night. Hint: don’t make it about you. You’re the adult guide, don’t nag! Double down on your faith in them not your disappointment.

If I could go back and give myself advice with regards to teens it would be: “Enjoy this time it won’t come again and remember it’s their life not yours. It’s not about you. It is about them.”
These decisions are often made too hastily. It is rare that a panicked or pressured decision is going to be a good one. We are told to find a path and stick to it. We all want our children to be happy. However, if we drill down deeper, that happiness has a caveat: that happiness has to correspond to our ideal of what that happiness would look like. However, the new impediments to life planning is no longer parental pressure.
What is unfortunate in this microwaved fast food, prepackaged A.I. conceived culture, is that older teens who had to deal with the pressures from friends and relatives, now have to deal with the world’s pressures through social media. If not careful, their identities can be shaped by the avarice of marketeers, influencers etc. I know I am totally showing my age and may be offending (and definitely alienating some of my own students and former students,) but the influencer phenomena can be a virus. These electronic and digital locusts are soul eating, brain devouring creatures that are consuming a generation of young artists. However, I will step off my soapbox and focus on how to deepen our understanding of what is before us. This will enable us as parents and teens to mitigate these phenomena.

AT THE CROSSROADS: It is here at the crossroads that we say: “this is the beginning to the rest of your life.”

Parents: The world you grew up in is not “the world” in which they are living. Teens, be patient and help them understand “this world” in which you now live. You are “digital natives”; they are “digital immigrants.” This techno world is not their culture or first language. You can speak both languages, many of your parents cannot. This generation of teens, like its millennial predecessor, will live many “lives” and play many games. The roles and many of the job career options they may have in the next ten years have not even been invented yet. We live in an age of accelerated change. As Dylan would say “the future is already a thing of the past.” As mentioned above, I highly recommend the book “The Shift Age” by David Houle.

Parents: If I could go back and give myself advice with regards to teens it would be “Enjoy this time it won’t come again, and remember it’s their life not yours. It’s not about you. It is about them.”

MY STORY – continued
I got accepted to U of T, Carleton, and York: I applied to Carleton because I fancied myself a world-famous journalist who would expose corruption at the highest level of government and multinationals. York because I needed to buy time (York was a good place to go when you had no idea what you wanted to do), and U of T because everybody wants to go to U of T, or at least be able to say they got accepted to U of T.

Anyway, the pressure was on. What are you going to do? My mother was always so wonderful and supportive. However, she would gently poke with “Honey, you’ve got to make a decision soon.” This next piece will sound like it’s right out of the movies…but it’s true. It was my 18th birthday, and it was raining. There was a park near where I lived, and I went for a walk in the rain. I sat on the hill and I thought, “I don’t know where to go, I don’t even know what to do.” It hit me. It was just one simple thought, but it had a profound impact on me. It was the only professional decision I have ever made in my entire life, which was:

I did not want there to be a separation between who I was and what I did. I didn’t want to have to work five days to get two days and work 11 months to get two weeks. That’s all I knew.

Every step of the way, this mantra seemed to be my compass. A little embarrassing and not much of a plan, but my life just became about following that one thing and I never really made another professional decision ever again. I am not sure if I would have been further along or happier on any one of the streams. This was the path I followed, and I am here. It’s not such a bad life. Obviously, I’ve made 100’s of personal decisions along the way, some I want back and others I am quite impressed by. Everything just unfolded from there. More on that when we visit the 20’s and 30’s and beyond.
Some of what is listed below is a repeat of the middle teen years. I believe worth repeating and worth the read for those who missed the earlier blog.
1. Don’t burden your teen with YOUR dreams for them. Help them shape their own future. Don’t funnel them into your idea of what their future should be.
2. Honesty matters. They are smart. They can spot lies, hypocrisy and other adult nonsense a mile away. It is in these years where your honesty and willingness to be vulnerable with them will serve you both. It will make them better actors, and more importantly, better human beings.
3. The irony is that young actors from 16 to 19 are often going up for roles where the character engages in activity that parents have been working very hard to prevent. These auditions are teachable moments. It is a way to bridge the two worlds so they can work together.
4. At a certain point your teen will not want to run lines with you or do their self-tapes with you. Please don’t give them a hard time or be offended by this. Would you want to do these kinds of scenes with your mom or dad? Discuss the issues that these scenes present. This is also a time for those open heart-to-heart talks to happen. It is not the time to harass them about being word perfect.
5. Start watching more adult content together. Start to picture your child doing some of those scenes. Discuss this with them and potentially with their agent. A discussion surrounding boundaries must be had. These scripts and storylines have to be mutually agreed upon.
6. We let ourselves be imprisoned by our bone structure, body type, culture, race, economic conditions, etc. We let others hold the key to the thoughts that can set us free. There are many curses and impediments in life, but one of the worst curses is believing those who tell you “this is who you are and always will be.”
7. Teens, try to find yourself in the character rather than try and become the character. It is the healthier way to grow and stand out. No one can be a better you than you. It’s hard to find your character when you are not trying to find yourself.
8. Strive for perfection, but remember perfection is like the horizon pursue it but you will never arrive.
9. We all need to be reminded that every joyous or troubled phase of our lives we are in, it will not last forever. Would we even listen if they did? Life is an open highway until it isn’t.
10. A teen career is no guarantee of an adult career. I recall one young actor who struggled to get work in his early 20’s. He told me “casting never forgave me for growing up” That thought still stabs me in the heart. Life is and can be cruel. You just have to open up a tabloid to see the truth of this.
11. As your child turns 16 and then 18 the material can change radically. Read first. It may make you blush. I remember a cross over experience where I was working with a young actress who had her share of Nickelodeon success and we started to work on the scenes. I hadn’t been sent the script in advance, so the young actress and I read it together. I quickly realized that this was a very sexually provocative script involving the kidnapping and attempted rape of a young teen girl. I quickly stopped and went out to the lobby to talk to the mother. I asked her had she read the script. As it turned out she hadn’t read it. She just assumed it would be as innocuous as all the other scripts that had passed her way. We had a brief discussion, and it was decided that we would work on it: beware.
The point of the last story is twofold. It speaks of the need for communication. It’s a reminder that our teens grow up. Childhood does not last forever.
I try in classes to prepare young actors for the roles that are coming. At best, these scripts give them a peek into the future as seen through a camera lens. It’s a dress rehearsal. 

I have been privileged and I am grateful to the 5 generations of children who became teens who became mid-teens and then became older teens and moved on into their 20’s. In fact, as I mentioned somewhere else within this series, my first students are now in their early 50’s. 

Some of these children and teens are now the core of my coaching staff. They have graced me with their presence, honored me with their trust and filled me with pride that I was able to contribute in some small measure to their growth and success. I have even attended their weddings and held their babies. 

Next up are the 20’s. I will be taking a break from this series for a few weeks while I work on Ideal Reels. Daniel and I have 21 scripts to complete (although Dan is doing the bulk of them).

Please send your comments or share your own stories with me.

See ya in a few weeks.