Bridging the Teen divide

What’s the biggest generalization I hear from teens: “my parents just don’t understand me”. So how do we keep up with our teens? Bridge the gap between them and us? That is the billion-dollar question!

I am privileged (well, that’s what I call it – others may disagree) to work with, hang out with, question, prod and challenge groups of hundreds of teens a year in life skills and self-development workshops. These teens come from a variety of backgrounds from privileged to struggling, gifted to those with learning challenges, some from within the youth justice system to those that have never put a foot out of line. The resounding similarity amongst them is they all agree that the relationship with their parents is full of confusion and often lack of understanding or appreciation of each other’s point of view.

If I could give every parent out there just one bit of advice I’d say this: Stop! And listen! I know, I know, some teenagers don’t do a whole

bunch more than grunt and humpf, but I don’t really mean listen to the words they (do or don’t) use, I mean listen to them, for who they are. The old adage of “I was once a teenager, I know what you mean” is so far from the truth. We may know what it was like for us, but there is no possible way to know what it is like for them and their experience of their world. As parents, our major role in parenting a teen (yes, I used an verb there. ‘Parenting’ – it’s a doing thing) is to become a teen-ologist, witness their culture and strive to understand it. We don’t need to become part of a culture to understand it, we can watch and listen and learn. The key is to stop thinking that we know. What if your life depended on gaining an understanding of teenagers? How would you listen then? The reality is, your teen will really only be with you for a few more years, once they are a fully fledged adult, your job is pretty much done, so put in the time now while you can.

If you, like many parents I speak with wonder how you could possibly learn about teen culture, my number one hint to you is to build a community of parents around your teens. Do you know the parents of your teenager’s friends? Knowing whom they hang out with is one thing, but if you don’t know the adults behind those teens, then you

may be missing out on some understanding and support. Many teens will talk openly about their lives when they aren’t in front of their own parents. When we have other kids around to our house, I often hear them chatting about which boy is cute or which girl got in to trouble for what at school. As a member of the parent community, I then chat with other parents and we compare notes. I’m ok with the fact that my kids may not always want to tell me what is happening in their lives because at the end of the day, I’ll hear about it through my friends and I can in turn support my kids. The best way to think about it is to imagine a building built out of teenagers, supported by strong foundations of parents. A bunch of teens will be much better supported by a bigger bunch of parents.

Lastly, as my mum often says to me “don’t worry; they won’t still be doing that at 25”. Relax and laugh a little, they’ll have kids of their own one day – then they’ll understand.