I sent a letter to my fifteen-year-old niece, Sarah, this week. What do you write to a teenager? It was hard for me to know. We live over six thousand miles apart, and we aren’t that close, yet she’s on my mind a lot. Coincidentally, on the day after I sent it, I came across Emily Freeman’s blog, her new book to young women, and her invitation for readers to write letters to themselves as teenagers. I loved the idea, so I wrote another letter, first to put myself back in the mindset of a young adult in order to better relate to Sarah, but also to see what would surface when I revisited such a pivotal point in time. Here’s a bit of what I found. I have a feeling that the next time I write to Sarah, I’ll find it easier to be more natural. Especially if I revisit this photo before I start:
Since I’m using your given name, I know I’ve got your full attention. I know this because I am you at (nearly) twice your age. Surprise! Also, I’m not quite sure which spelling of your short name to use. You see, in an unfledged attempt to assert your independence as a college freshman, you announced that you would henceforth be known as ‘Jacqui‘ instead of ‘Jackie.‘ Our dad is the only person who still spells it the old way. I know! I thought you might find that interesting. And yes, of course I still love you.
I am writing this letter because I think we both could have used it at your age. You resent when people think they know how you feel, but bear with me. I remember. I was there. I’ll tell you just enough to offer you encouragement and comfort without giving too much away.
Certain days as a teenager can feel like the textbook definition of hell. People blame it on hormones and confusion, mainly. The fact is, you’ve dealt with some real life stuff without the emotional intelligence to sort it all out. And that can feel pretty heavy. Believe me when I say that everything will become more manageable, which is just a more realistic way of saying it’ll get better. Not easier. But better, because with time, you will come to understand the value of life and the very relationships that you are struggling to sort out at such a fragile age.
“Will I ever feel comfortable in my own skin?” you wonder. Nobody feels comfortable in her own skin at your age, and if she says otherwise, she’s lying. Awkward appearances (and peculiar upbringings) can be painful, but they can also build character. Two things on appearance before we move on: 1) You’ll get that unibrow in ship-shape before you graduate, without the need to over-tweeze (see the photo above as proof – you were seventeen there). 2) In a decade, you’ll miss the days when you didn’t need a bra, so put away the padding and embrace what you’ve got, girl!
On our dad: One day soon, you will appreciate his austere, erratic method of parenting and his mysterious sense of style (yes, even the hair pick he keeps in his back pocket to periodically tease his perm). In fact, you might even come to view him as eccentric, which is a hell of a lot more exciting than average. When it feels like you two will never see eye to eye, have faith. You will grow up, he will grow older, and eventually you’ll be able to have a beer together.
On our mom: The memories are going to fade, but hold tight to what you can recall. I know that the loss feels huge right now. Especially during a time when you probably need her the most. In a few years, you’ll start to meet other people who have also lost a parent, and this commonality will create bonds quicker than you can imagine. The true healing process begins when you decide that you’re ready. And you will.
On John, our younger brother: Be kind to him. Chill out on the criticism. You both wonder how you could possibly be related when you seem so fundamentally different, but you have a lot more in common than you think. Though you probably won’t ever miss sharing a bathroom with him, you’re going to miss other things. Trust me. He’s using your overpriced shampoo even when you hide it because he’s your younger brother, and that’s part of his job. (Why are you spending so much money on shampoo, anyway? Buy a book!) As adults, you’ll live in different states, then in different countries, but even across the miles, you’ll be relieved that John shares your memories, good and bad, and you’ll have a hilarious time recalling many of these memories with him.
On family: There is no such thing as perfection. Yours is pretty great, in all of their dysfunction, and they do love you. You love them, too. Tell them.
On friends: Your friends are also your family, and the good ones you have now will stick by you through thick and thin, even when you pick fights for trivial reasons. Hold tight to the time you have. These days are like gold, and so are these friends.
On quitting: You will regret the decision to quit music, but you’ll never regret the decision to give up smoking. About this, our dad was right.
On college and careers: Your path will look like a checkerboard. The rest is a surprise. My only advice is to carve out more time for creativity. You will feel much more like yourself.
On the opposite sex: At fifteen, you’re spending a lot of time wishing boys would notice you. When one finally does, it will terrify you, and you’ll spend the next several years guarding your heart with your life. Part of me wants to tell you to let go, to take a chance, but another big part of me is glad that you were defensive. Don’t worry too much. You’ll put down the defenses when the time is right.
On you: You are gifted, sensitive, and smart. Resist the temptation to compare. It’s a killjoy! The world has room for all of us, and you have a divine responsibility to be exactly the way you are.
Wear sunscreen. Study abroad. Ask for help sooner. And stay curious.