Teen Turmoil

4th April 1997 at 01:00
A new survey allows Glasgow teenagers the chance to give vent to their contradictory emotions and feelings, says Victoria Neumark.

You look out at the faces, some fresh, some spotty, some stubbly. Just what is going on behind those teenage eyes? Are they thinking what you used to think at their age? And, most important, how do they feel?

Jacki Gordon and Gillian Grant, mental health promotion officers with the Glasgow Board of Health, decided to find out what it was like to be a normal teenager. One day in October 1995, as part of Scottish Mental Health Week, they surveyed the city's Year 9 pupils. The responses of the 1,634 13 and 14-year-olds who filled in the questionnaire have just been published under the title How We Feel.

A vivid snapshot of adolescence emerges. As Jacki Gordon and Gillian Grant point out, such a mass of data on "normal" teenage lives refreshes the context in which abnormality can be examined. Even more important, it reminds adults of the need to take account of young people's feelings, to listen to what they have to say rather than rely on adult preconceptions and prejudices.

There's lust, rage, ambition and envy. It's a time of wistful idealism and passionate affection; a time when friends are all-important and family a disappointment, but also a time when friends let you down and only your family is any good. When nothing is better than your team winning at football - though even your team winning can't always chase away boredom. When the happiest times are on the phone, with your dog, eating chocolate, lying in bed, having a laugh; when the worst of times are hanging around, no one loving you, being called names and kicked in the playground . . .

Here are their voices: Girl: "I wish I could just get away. I feel so depressed. I just can't cope with the work at school. Suicide would be the easiest thing. I hate my life!" Boy: "I feel good about myself, about what I have achieved in class because I have good marks for my tests and I am in good-rated classes."

Girl: "I feel loved because I know my family and friends love me and care for me."

Girl: "I don't feel I can talk to anyone. No one seems to take me seriously a lot. I tend to bottle things up."

Girl: "It feels good to be me today. There is not some reason why I feel really happy. . . Laughing makes me feel good. Mum is sick and tired of hearing me laugh. She says I have to be more serious and it really annoys her. I feel as though laughing is what I need more than anything else, so I'm going to keep on laughing."

Boy: "I feel bored and on top of the world."

Girl: "I feel quite depressed but happy today, I can't explain it."

Boy: "Life's crap. Nothing to do that hasn't been done already. Not allowed legally to do anything until 16 or 18 . . . You can just have stay-overs, but there's nothing exciting to do apart from get drunk and play with fireworks and shoot airguns at things, which we just get into trouble for, and then we're stopped from having stay-overs so we do something else, somewhere else. What can we do? Life's CRAP!" With its evidence of contradictory emotions battling away, How We Feel makes compelling reading. Its authors, Jacki Gordon and Gillian Grant, hope that other surveys will follow - and that adults will learn to listen more carefully to teenagers, however mixed-up their feelings. After all, we've all been there.

In this kaleidoscope of emotions, some people and ideas crop up time and time again: Pamela Anderson and her apparently perfect "upper body", the dead grandmother, unjust punishments at school, misery over ginger hair, delight over shaving, worry over money, sorrow over divorce, wondering if God exists and knowing that fashion does. Sex rears its head, but mostly in the shape of body changes and the thrill of attracting partners for "nipping" (kissing).

School is oppressively boring, with flashes of interest provided by teachers, the subject (occasionally) and, most often, having a laugh. Most importantly, school is where you meet your mates.

Peer pressure pervades everything, urging you to be "trendy" and try drugs, alcohol and tobacco, or tempting you with visions of having "hundreds of pals". Fear of being excluded from the group and being "talked about", fear of being bullied, fear of failing at school are balanced by joy at "staying at my friend's tonight", of "being all right although I've lost a friend", and of "doing fine in my class".

Significant others range from beloved (and hated) parents through to teachers, teddies and goldfish, but friends are most important to many children (49 per cent). They are who you talk to (64 per cent).

Not that you can always count on friends. Betrayal - someone reading your diary, someone stealing your friend, someone not returning your CD - is rife, and hard to bear.

A strong sense of injustice runs through youthful vulnerability. "I feel that punishment exercises should be destroyed and that teachers should have to listen to the pupils, just like we have to listen to them."

Teachers should listen to young people, without projecting their own experiences onto them. "She says she was 14 herself but I don't see how she could have been," says one girl.

Another cannily remarks, "My mum has been frustrating me; she thinks she knows how to talk to me because she is a counsellor. She is so patronising, and she only wants to know what I'm doing that I shouldn't. She thinks that stuff I do is a cry for help, but she doesn't know what it is like and she doesn't ask. I wish I could talk to my mother without her criticising me."

Although there are striking similarities between boys and girls, there are also differences. While both have wavering self-esteem, with girls the focus is on appearance. "Feeling fat and ugly" was the most common negative self-image - "pretty" or "attractive" is the best thing to be.

Boys, of course, identify with sport, complaining if they can't join in. As one says, "If I didn't have football I wouldn't have a life." More subtly, boys talk about their friends in terms of "having a laugh", "having lots of mates", "my friends stick up for me". Physical violence, punching and kicking, as much as "slagging" (ridiculing) is meted out to the "nae pals" (friendless children).

Girls often seem to be talking about intimacy on a deeper level. One girl will talk to "one of my friends and no one else. No one else understands." Or, "When she's cheerful, it makes me cheerful too." But there's a downside to these interactions which can cause misery: "I wonder how it's gonna go today between me and my best friend and this other girl who's kind of her best friend, but she says she's my best friend too. I feel like there's always some stupid competition between me and this other girl which is just so annoying. She always copies her and agrees with anything she says just to get her attention. "

Life is a roller-coaster. For every naughty teenage boy who wrote their elaborate sexual fantasies about what they would like to do to the readers of the questionnaire, many more poured out their hearts about such worries as their mother's drinking and going out on her own, their father's shouting, their parents' quarrelling.

For naked emotional honesty and the shrieking discomfort of having childish and adult feelings in the same personality, you could hardly beat the following: "I feel as if I want to get extremely drunk and then beat up the person that killed my brother. Then I would feel better. I want to go out to lunch and eat fast foods. I feel fed up, confused, angry, brave, frustrated, and annoyed with God. I want to go out and enjoy myself with my mates, spend lots of money, be generous and go out with some girls. I want to beat up another few people and I want to be very cheeky to someone in authority. "

What such responses show is how many pupils are locked in lonely emotional struggles - and how they have leapt at the chance of expressing themselves in the questionnaire. As one boy put it: "Are you, the reader, getting paid for this, because why didn't you do this ages ago?" * How We Feel: An Insight into the Emotional World of Teenagers, edited by Jacki Gordon and Gillian Grant, is published by Jessica Kingsley.


The Glasgow questionnaire asked pupils to write about the following

* Three things which make me feel happy are ...

* Three things which make me feel unhappy are ...

* Three things which make me feel good about myself are ...

* Three things which make me feel bad about myself are ...

* I can talk about my feelings to (you can give more than one answer). ..

* If I felt bad I would ...

* When I feel bad I would like it if (think about who you would want to help you, and how) ...

* How I feel today (We want you to think very carefully about how it feels to be you today. We have left a lot of space for you to do this. Imagine you are writing your own diary and say exactly how you feel.) Dear Diary ...

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