January 22, 2012

It’s Not Easy Being A Teen

There is a vast generational difference today between teenagers and their parents.  With modern technology the pace of change is always accelerating and the world which teenagers inhabit today is so different from the one in which their parents developed that communication can be challenging.  Centuries ago little changed from one generation to the next but with the onset of the industrial revolution change is increasingly rapid and difficult to absorb.  Look at the questions modern parents bring to my office: “Is my daughter old enough to use Facebook?  When should I let my son have his own cell phone?  My daughter spends all day on the computer, what do I do?  My son plays videogames day and night.  How can I handle it?”  These are issues that modern parents never dealt with when they were growing up.

I also find that middle class and affluent parents often feel angry and resentful toward their teenagers.  They see their teenagers having material luxuries that they never had and feel their children are unappreciative.  American families are growing smaller and teenagers often do not have responsibility for younger siblings that their parents might have had.  Parents who grew up in families with less money and who are successful want their children to have the material benefits they can now afford but feel hurt when teenagers don’t respect their efforts.  It may be hard to imagine what’s difficult about being a teenager today.

A fundamental problem that is growing as modern life becomes more sophisticated is that it is extremely hard for a teenager to feel a sense of productivity or accomplishment.  Academics and sports are the primary avenues for achievement for young people but these do not have an immediate bearing on the world beyond childhood.  Academics may lead to success in later life but it is no guarantee.  Sports have much to offer but for most young people they will strictly be a source of recreation in adulthood.  There are a few child prodigies who do succeed in the adult world but these are very exceptional occurrences.  For most teenagers it will be many, many years before they feel they can make any significant impact in society.  One of the primary forces which contributes to teen pregnancy is that need to feel important.  Teen pregnancy is on the decline but recent United Nations studies show that teen pregnancy in the United States is nine times higher than in other industrialized countries.  Teenagers can work but jobs are scarce, particularly in a recession.  Unemployment among 16 to 17 year olds was close to 27% in December of 2011.  The type of jobs available to teenagers, who rarely have advanced skills, may not greatly enhance self esteem.

Music has been extremely important to American teenagers for several generations.  It is a primary cultural milieu.  What are the dominant themes in modern music?  Sex and love have always been a part of adolescent music although there are significant differences today.  Money, success and “bling” are also predominant themes.  I suspect it serves the same longing as the World War II movies that featured the rich and leisurely served; that is. presenting an image of unattainable wealth, luxury and power that teenagers yearn for but feel far from achieving.  Sex has largely superseded romance as a theme in teen music.  If I listen to pop music today I hear songs about “three ways” and explicit sexuality bordering on the X-rated that rarely appeared in music in earlier generations.  Now it is unavoidable.  Teenagers feel a great deal of pressure to exhibit sexual prowess and to some degree detachment in an area where most feel uncertain and insecure. Lack of experience can be ridiculed.  Caring too much about someone is uncool.

Teenagers also feel pressure related to drug and alcohol use.  Substance use is a regular part of the social life of many older teens and younger teenagers as well may frequently be exposed to situations where experimentation is expected.  Social pressure can be strong and the conflict between respecting the teachings of parents and wanting fit in can be very stressful.  Keeping a focus on what seems like very distant goals of college, financial security in the face of the immediate pleasure of getting high and having fun is genuinely challenging.  Young people are naturally adventurous and adventure is hard to find in everyday life.  Drug use and experimentation is an easily accessible way to feel daring and adult and can be very hard to resist.

I always advise parents that their most important role with the teenagers in their lives is as a trusted and caring source of guidance.  It is important to set expectations and limits but realize that your ability to enforce those limits diminishes with every passing year.  Parents who are embattled with their teenagers lose their most significant power-the power to influence and persuade.  Understanding the challenges and difficulties your teenager faces will help you to empathize and remain a caring and important factor in their lives.


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