What a year it’s been for teens at THS. With protest-fuelled school disruptions peppering the start of the school year, to switching full-time to VC@T for almost four months because of the Covid-19 outbreak, our high schoolers have had to roll with the punches, and then some. In my dual capacity as social-emotional counsellor and High School English literacy teacher at The Garden, I’ve had the privilege to connect with our students during this unprecedented and unpredictable time -- to talk through what’s happening around us and why, to reflect on the past and ruminate on the future, all the while navigating the tumultuous waters of adolescence.
I often get asked what sort of counselling I do. When I say that I provide guidance on any issues pertaining to social, emotional and mental health, the response is often one of awe or disbelief, “that sounds scary”, “I could never do that”, or “it must be like pulling teeth, talking to teenagers” being some of the typical remarks. It struck me that teens are often poorly perceived by adults. Adolescence is popularly synonymous with week-long mood swings, slamming of doors, screams of “You don’t understand me!” and angry music blasting at ungodly decibels. Perhaps friends of mine recall the growing pains of their own youth, and commiserate with how difficult it can be to understand a plethora of new experiences, let alone express your thoughts and feelings to others.
What I will share next often comes as a surprise. Drawing on my experience working at THS, as well as from my own reflections on what it was like growing up in a similar context -- in a politically-changing Hong Kong at an international school -- I find myself constantly thinking about adolescence through the lenses of then versus now. What new challenges do young people today face? What’s the same, and what has changed? I tell friends that what I find most striking about working with teens at THS is how open they are, particularly with seeking support, as well as providing it to peers.
The truth is that most of the students I check in with on a regular basis reach out to me, and continue to do so, on their own accord. Talking to the school counsellor no longer bears the stigma of being weak, dysfunctional, or in trouble. There seems to be a culture here that encourages vulnerability and dialogue, and acceptance of the fact that change can be stressful -- not just for teens, but for anyone on the human spectrum.
Perhaps this is to do with the small population of the high school, and THS’s inclusive education model - both necessitate deeper empathy, tolerance of differences and closer collaboration. I often marvel at how supportive THS teens are of each other and their unique personalities and pursuits, and how actively they work towards destigmatising mental health. In my short time at THS, I have seen students comforting a grieving classmate, speaking out confidently on LGBTQ+ issues, and talking through first heartbreaks with friends.
I reckon teenagers are amongst the most resilient people around. Growing up with constant and instant access to information, the role of the parent as a child’s definitive point of contact with the wider world is shifting. Teens of today have a greater burden to think critically and creatively than ever before as they navigate paths of purpose and independence. As I write this, I recall Jadis’s speech to the graduating class of 2019; given the central role technology plays in our lives, young people are likely to change careers multiple times in a lifetime, hence the new status quo is flux rather than stability. With this need to be flexible also comes the need to be more deeply connected with one another, and with what it means to be human. I believe that with regular dialogue and a culture that encourages, rather than suppresses, vulnerability, I think our teens have what it takes to be successful in a rapidly-changing world.