The long-standing popular image of teenagers is that they are rebellious, self-centered, risk-taking, and don’t want anything to do with their parents. It is a time to search out one’s identity, travel with the pack, and reject family values. But this doesn’t fit the data from contemporary research on adolescence. No group of teens has ever been as community-oriented, worldly, knowledgeable, anxious about adult life and success, and able to debate, among themselves or with their elders, the risks of sex and drugs.
It was a pleasure to read some recent newspaper articles describing the large number of teens involved in charity work, especially the many “Walk for….” events. With the growth of gender equality in athletic funding, more teens than ever are involved in sports. Drug use in most areas has been down although alcohol use is up. Unfortunately, cigarette smoking, primarily among adolescent girls, is also up.
The vast majority of teens go to school every day, do a reasonable amount of their work, socialize with friends a lot (especially on the phone), and actually talk to their parents. There are always the music fads and clothing fads, frequently greeted with disapproval by parents. But parents of today’s teenagers are a special lot themselves, for most are products of the 1960s and have vivid memories of their own abuse of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. For some parents, this enables them to be more understanding of their kids, especially a generation that is less rebellious than their own. Other parents, however, are ashamed of what they did, don’t want to talk about it, and crack down on their own teens out of fear.
The biggest problems for the current generation of adolescents is the breakdown of family structure. The dominance of absent parents, through divorce and dual incomes, makes communication more difficult. Teens don’t have conversation on demand. To gain insight into your 15-year-old’s thinking, you need to be around each other enough that you catch them at a moment when they want to talk. That’s become extremely difficult when parents are hardly around. Thus, one of the parenting challenges is to find opportunities for one-on-one time, even if it’s just doing some errands together or driving a child to an activity. While carpools are sometimes essential to survival and bringing another child along may be necessary, try as often as possible to make it just one parent/one teen. It’s those moments when something personal may actually come up.
A major concern is the amount of unsupervised time teens have due to not having a parent at home in the afternoons. It is important to have some agreement for touching base during the afternoons. Usually this is a telephone conversation. While some teens will resist what they interpret as distrust — “Why do you have to check up on me?” — most will appreciate the underlying care and protection of parental limits regardless of their complaints. It is also helpful if there are friends or neighbors around who can be a checkpoint for your teen. Ideally, many teens are involved in some structured activity at least a few afternoons a week or may work part-time.
Probably the biggest challenge for parents is trying to create a new mix in their relationships with teenage children. You need to be less authoritarian, creating a blend of parent, guide, and friend. Rules need to be open to more negotiation, yet parents must still set the outer limits firmly. I often use the analogy of moving back the fences of the corral so the young horses have enough room to run without feeling the need to jump the fence. It means both parties need to understand each other better. Don’t expect your teenager to open up to you if it’s not reciprocated. Not stories about how hard you worked at their age, but stories of your own struggles to navigate adolescence and some of the mistakes you made and still turned out okay. It also includes sharing some of your struggles in today’s world. Too often we try to protect our children from the challenges of daily life. The result is not only a distorted view of what they should expect as adults, but also a one-sided demand for openness. Share just enough that you are a real person to them as much as you want them to be a real person to you.
Of course, for some, adolescence is a painful, even dangerous, time. Depression, drug addiction, teenage pregnancies, school failure, and acting out against others occurs in many families. In these situations special help should be sought to assist in trying to solve the problems. But, for today, I just thought teens deserved some positive press. The vast majority have adapted well, despite parental fears, and credit goes to parents, schools, community organizations, and the kids themselves.