by Dawn M. Decker and Martha Rock
The line of seventeen teenagers stretched across the front of the auditorium at the Jewish Community High School on March 24, 2014. The room was filled with parents eager to hear the teens’ thoughts in a safe setting. While a major theme of the teens’ advice is to listen to and get to know your own kid, the parents enjoy getting perspectives from other teens, asking questions they might not ask their own teen and perhaps listening with less judgment. The teens introduced themselves giving their first names and grade in school; other than that they were “Every Teen” ready to offer their thoughts and wisdom. They had met periodically for the last five months working with their moderators Martha Rock and Hilary Davis to prepare for this evening.
The planning sessions included hands-on activities designed to encourage discussion about sensitive topics affecting teens and their relationships with their parents. Two examples were Talk Bubbles, an activity which explored differences between how teens view themselves (mostly in positive terms), and how teens think parents perceive them (mostly in negative terms); and What’s on Your Plate? which explored obligations, commitments, and priorities both in and outside of school.
Understanding Teens —What do you think is important for parents/adults to know about teens? The first topic introduced was “What do you think is important for parents/adults to know about teens?” And the discussion started quickly. Following are the consolidated thoughts of several teens. The teens observed that parents tend to get angry when they see a teen not doing well. If the parent uses negative reinforcement to try to influence the teen, it doesn’t work—but the teen remembers it. Teens want you to remember that failure is necessary to learn life’s lessons and they need your support. Some teens want you to reach out and keep trying even if they push you away. They want their independence but still need their parent’s support (and money). Cultivate a relationship where they can come to you without fear of being scorned or being told that you’re too busy. They need a net and “the best net is your parents”. One parent resolved to boost the number of positive comments to their teen in case only the negative statements were making a lasting impression.
Time Management/Stress/Sleep—How can we as parents motivate you without stressing you out? In discussing the competing demands on their time, teens agreed that they really want support saying no to some opportunities. They feel like they have too much on their plates and can’t excel at everything. Practicing prioritizing and saying no to less important activities will help relieve some of the pressure. Teens feel that positive advice is more helpful in motivating them without pushing. They want you to help them discover what they like to do, not what you want them to do. “At the core, no one can be motivated by what other people want them to do”. One teen claimed “Sleep is rare. I average 4-5 hours per night”. They also made clear that they don’t like to be asked how much homework they had left or to be told constantly to go to bed. “Bring a snack, not a lecture”. They want to learn to manage their own time.
Relationships–How to have a good, open, trusting relationship? The teens indicated that they were more apt to talk to the parent that they felt was less judgmental. A particularly ineffective way to get your message across was to preach about a negative behavior and then ask the teen if they were doing it. If your teen comes to you, these teens want you to know that it is a privilege and it means that you’ve done a good job. Some of the teens found it most useful when parents discussed their values (not just rules) when drawing lines for behavior. These teens felt like they could make better decisions understanding and applying the values. The teens also observed that the kids with really strict parents are the ones that “go the most crazy” when they leave home!
Sex and Drugs—How to have an effective Sex/Drug Talk. The teens had a lot to say on this topic and may benefit from having those awkward conversations with a trusted adult who is not their parent. It was encouraging to know that teens have access to many sources of helpful information. Here is what these teens want you to know:
“Make sure that your kids know they never owe anyone sex”
There is common ground: “My mom told me ‘I don’t want you to get a girl pregnant. I don’t want you to get HIV’. Well that is what I want too!”
Another emphasized the concise definition of consent—it is not the ABSENCE of a no, it is the PRESENCE of a yes and it is also being in a state of sobriety where you are able to say yes.
A conversation with your teen should be non-accusatory—it shouldn’t be an interrogation—it should be an open dialogue. And if they come to you to talk about their friends, they don’t want your judgment. They are trying to process it themselves. A sex talk doesn’t necessarily have to be with your parents. It can be with a coach or what is taught at school. The perception that if teens are provided with contraception it will cause them to have more sex is not true.
Intimate relationships in the age of hooking up–There was no agreed upon definition of “hook-up” so make sure you know what it means to the speaker and in the context. To one teen, it meant anything from making out to sexual intercourse, while another felt it was anything short of actual sex. Hooking up is more casual than dating. It didn’t have to be with someone who was important to you. Safe sex practices seem to be the norm. One teen offered that they never heard anyone saying that they had had sex without a condom.
Social media —Pros and Cons. Some teens felt that they spent too much time on it—the “cons outweigh the pros but that doesn’t stop us”. The teens suggest that you reiterate the risks of social media. They had heard stories of colleges rescinding acceptances after seeing pictures posted of students taking drugs or drinking. They felt it was an infringement if parents went through their electronic “stuff” and unfair if they are punished for matters discovered on their phones or computers. The concluding remark on social media was “When used correctly, social media can be a powerful tool to connect socially.”
Lying — When are you likely to lie? A question from the audience quoted Po Bronson saying “Teens do not tell the truth the majority of the time”, and then asked if the teens agreed with that statement and what did they lie about. More than one teen said that they lied about having homework done or how much homework they had because they didn’t want to be nagged about it. They felt they were capable of managing their time and didn’t need to be asked about it constantly. Or they lie about how they did on a test because they didn’t want to be yelled at if they did poorly or be told it still wasn’t good enough when they did well. Their bottom line: if you want to be told the truth as a parent, then react in a way that makes them want to tell you the truth.
And there you have it. It seems safe to say that everyone involved is looking forward to next year’s Teen Panel. The Parents Coalition of Bay Area High Schools is deeply grateful to the teen panelists and their families for supporting this discussion that we hope improves family relationships in our community.
- Every teen is different; every teen is different every day.
- Everything seems impossible until it is done.
- Appreciate the time you have with your child.
- Be yourself. Be honest and be yourself.
- Accept your teen as they are.
- Teenagers are largely irrational creatures. Our ears are always open and we hear what you say whether we choose to act on it.
- Say “Wow you must have really worked hard on that” instead of “Wow you are really good at that.”
- Don’t live vicariously through your teen. We all find our niches. Make sure you are the kind of person that they want to invite to what they are doing.
- Don’t try to force things. Let the conversation be organic.
- Parents should get to know their teen as another person. For every negative thing you say you should say three positive things.
- Empathy is a powerful tool. Give them the chance to know you too.
- If you are confused, they probably are too.
- Be open, don’t be judgmental. Find out what your teen needs from you for support. Keep cool when arguing.
- We all need help and to be loved. Look for those moments.
- Teenagers are moody. It isn’t your fault.
- They are struggling to figure out whom they are and how to do things. Model behavior. Allow them to solve problems by trial and error.