Blue Suit Mom

Happily Ever After Syndrome

By Vanessa Van Petten

When I ask audiences to describe the next generation, many throw out words like dreamy, idealistic, optimistic, and fame-hungry. Recently I was hosting a teen focus group on the idea of “ideal futures,” and one 14 year-old participant said:

“Honestly, I think my future is going to be me waiting for my happily ever after.”

I asked her why she used the word “waiting” instead of the word “working.” After all, I pushed her, happily ever after doesn’t just happen. This started a flurry of conversation around the idea of a happily ever after syndrome, where many teens and their peers idealistically hope (not work) for everything to work out in their favor. We outlined how this plays out for our youth:

  • Wait Not Work
    Is there a path to a happily ever after ending? Teens say that there must be and it looks like their lives—going to specially picked out schools, taking AP and honors classes, playing three sports and building their resume in grade 5. This is a lot of work, but many of the teens in the room felt like if they do what they are ‘supposed’ to do and wait—this magical happily ever after will come.
  • But, What Does It Look Like?
    I asked this girl, “OK, you are waiting for your happily ever after. What does that look like exactly?” She looked at me blankly and then burst out laughing. “Well, I guess I never thought about it. I guess,” she paused, waving her hands wildly, “it’s some kind of perfect place where everything works out for you.” I think that many of our teens and twenty-somethings (me included) believe in this notion of “a perfect time” where one day everything will work out, every drawer will be cleaned, chores won’t have to be done, and money problems aren’t there. The more I talk about this with my peers, the more I realize we do have this notion in our head—but like happily ever after, I don’t think that exists.
  • Born with the Expectation
    One of the most important parts of this happily ever after expectation is that many young people feel they deserve this perfect ending. Whether that is from the praise they were given from day one or the grueling high school schedule many teens go through, the expectation of an ideal life is tremendous. I have learned working with teens that they have the dangerously false belief that they have already worked hard enough in their short life and somehow it is going to get easier from here. Many older generations would argue that teens and twenty-something’s today have a whole lot of work coming!

What can we do? How do we help teens understand that the best part of life is doing work we love and that there is no perfect landing place where nothing ever goes wrong? I don’t know—I am just realizing it myself. The most important part of the happily ever after syndrome is talking about it. After the focus group, I have spent many hours talking to other teens, twenty-somethings, and adults about the phenomenon and gained great understanding for my own life. I hope we can talk to the teens in our lives about what they do expect from their futures and, without killing dreams, help them be grounded in their hopes and desires for their purpose.

Vanessa Van Petten is one of the nation’s youngest experts, or “youthologists,” on parenting and adolescents. She now runs her popular parenting website, which she writes with 120 other teenage writers to answer questions from parents and adults. Her latest book, Do I Get My Allowance Before or After I’m Grounded? has just won the Mom’s Choice Award 2012.

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