By Michelle Ruschman
Teenagers in this era are being called “snowflakes,” but to resort to name calling is dismissive of their very real modern-day challenges and overlooks the depth of their compassion. Policymakers, the entertainment industry, and social media influencers have also worked to downgrade parental authority, and this has created further divide. Not knowing where to turn for leadership, it’s no wonder our kids feel misunderstood, confused, scared, stressed and depressed. More than ever, it’s imperative we don’t give away the authority entrusted to us as parents and guardians.
While we understand that there are universal teen struggles that cross all generations, Gen Z is growing up in a period of such rapid technological innovation that information is more accessible than any other time in history. And this information is being accessed faster than the wisdom to manage it can be attained. With this in mind, parents are not just raising kids to become adults. Communities are raising future neighbors, teachers, corporate leaders, spiritual shepherds, and consumers.
So how can we help them launch well? We start by finding out what they want us to know.
Teens from 13 to 18 are invited to fill out a survey that has been published through Google Docs. The survey asks participants a variety of questions about relationships, communication, and how they view their place in the world, with all answers being submitted anonymously. Over a series of articles, these responses will be quoted and summarized as each question is shared in upcoming publications. My hope is these answers will provide an opening to critical conversations that help build stronger bridges between all generations. If you have a teen who would like to participate, there will be information at the end of the article for them to do so.
Question 1: What do you wish adults were aware of about your experience as a teen?
Not everyone is the same. To make sense of our world, there is a tendency to lump together groups of people, not only by generation but based on single-word identities. Like all of us, our teens want to be seen as individuals and understood for who they are in their totality. A common frustration was being treated in ways that were based on comparison. One participant shared, I am not my parents or siblings and another elaborated, I wish that they (parents) understood that our experiences are not universal, and we are all trying to navigate them in our way. I know others may make bad decisions, but that doesn’t mean we all will.
People need help sometimes. Our kids are dealing with so many hard issues. On top of the pandemic, drugs are more insidious, sex and sexuality are relentlessly built into media and marketing, our culture exalts high achievers and there is access to news and people 24-7. As one teen put it, Mental health issues are more common than you think, especially with social media and pressure from school and college and just everyday life. Another shared, Yes, I have grown up early but at the expense of my mental health. Something really good that has come from the last couple of decades, however, is the awareness of mental health needs, the growing support to seek out help, and the growing number of resources. Many teens are more comfortable about accepting help when it’s offered. Parents are also realizing they don’t have to have all the answers and can build a community of people these kids can turn to, in whatever combinations are best for the family. These can include more one-on-one time with a parent, interaction with a variety of family members, traditional counseling, youth groups at church, coaches and teammates, co-workers or sponsors and club members. What the kids are asking for the most is an outlet to process out loud, ask questions and get some guidance.
I don’t feel like I can ask about serious things. It is especially hard when they know these conversations could be content for their parents’ posts and social media reels. One participant wants us to know how to approach teens about topics like suicide, rape, drugs, sex and adulthood but goes on to mention that how we respond is just as important as being available. I wish they would react to my questions and concerns in a non-demeaning way and help. Don’t broadcast it or make me feel lesser than you because I don’t know. I don’t want to be treated differently or put down for asking.
We don’t always know how to respond well at the moment, especially if our initial reactions include fear and anger. If it’s a particularly hard conversation, it’s okay to say you need a moment to think about their question, as long as you go back to the conversation. An additional note would be to remember that these hard conversations aren’t necessarily coming from exposure or participation. Just as many will come from what they’ve observed or heard, curiosity, or a need for clarity. Questions will serve you much more than statements.
Teens must be teens. This one was interesting because the common theme for these answers centered around freedom and their willingness to go through the consequences of mistakes. Teen years encompass this paradoxical place of being under the dependence and authority of guardians, but with the expectation of being more capable and independent. The teen spirit wants to explore and expand while still being able to land in the safety net of an adult’s ultimate responsibility. As the authority in the home, you get to decide what you’re able to take responsibility for, what freedoms your teen has earned through previous decisions, and what experiences you want them to have to go into the next chapter.
I wish they would keep in mind what their life was like when they were my age, and treat me the way they wanted to be treated. When I was a teen, I spent a lot of days just wanting to scream into a pillow. I had so much stuff in me and nowhere to put it. One teen had this advice and I relate, even as an adult. Some days we aren’t ourselves. Just take a deep breath and please give us second chances to become better.
There are also several of us yelling in the home, including yours truly. It’s never a proud mom moment for me but when my daughter calls me out for raising my voice, I reply, “Then respond when I’m not!” Does anyone else relate? Many teens agree with my daughter though as one said, Yelling is never the right way to discipline your children and another shared, I would rather be talked to calmly when I’m in trouble, so I won’t feel the need to ignore what my parents are saying. Oof. If yelling makes our kids shut down or retreat, we’re not going to be bridge builders by getting louder.
School is stressful and hard. For the kids who are going to public and private schools, these answers encompass both the academic and social stress that our kids are having to navigate. One answer reminded us how many worlds they have to live in. Balancing school life, social life, online life and just pure mental health life IS HARD! You have to try to stay balanced in all aspects to feel like you belong. As we raise these kids there is always the temptation to keep pushing for more but what if they’re already at capacity? School is hard. Just because I’m not doing fantastic, it doesn’t mean I’m lazy and it doesn’t mean I’m not trying. Maybe a B is the best I can do. Amid all the noise, our teens long for grace, guidance and encouragement. There is a lot of pressure, and one (positive) word can make a difference.
In future articles, you’ll hear more about the heart of our teens as they discuss music, communication, feelings, relationships, and look to the future. For the teens who have already participated, thank you. You’re amazing. For those who would like to participate, you can go to the questionnaire by using the link below.