Teens Don’t Think Like their Parents, and Parents Don’t Think Like their Teens

Teens_and_ParentsAs parents, we are often frustrated that our teenagers do not get it. The it in this case is usually some version of adult responsibility or point of view. I am often struck by just how disparate the teenager and adult worlds are, yet, we grown-ups forget what it feels like to be a teen, and at the same time, expect teens to know what it feels like to be an adult, even though they haven’t experienced adulthood yet. Additionally, what drives, motivates, and worries adults is different than what drives, motivates and worries teenagers.

To highlight this, I have come up with four adult and four adolescent concerns, and I have employed a bit of alliteration to illustrate. First off, the four M issues that most adults spend a majority of their time thinking about:

  1. Money. As adults, we have to worry about money. Yes, there are a few among us that may not have financial concerns, but even they still have bills to pay, receipts to keep track of, and costs to consider. We often want our teenagers to just plain understand the value of a dollar, but they are rarely truthfully worrying about how to pay for food and medical expenses. Therefore, most teens are not going to understand budgets and finances until they have real money worries.
  2. Marriage and Mates (or No Marriage and No Mates). Parents who are trying to maintain a healthy partnership with someone need to work at it. There is quite a bit of mental energy spent co-parenting, compromising and coordinating, not to mention just plain getting along and liking one another. On the flip side, there are many parents out there trying to figure out how to do it all without a partner, or with a new partner, who may have their own children. The complexities are endless, and not something our teens are going to fully comprehend.
  3. Minutiae. So much of what occupies a parent’s day is the small business of living: emptying the dishwasher, making appointments, keeping a schedule, handling the fall-out when schedules collide, getting the oil changed, the gutters cleaned out, the laundry done, the dog vaccinated, navigating a boss, managing employees…it is endless, and it is adult. Most teenagers do not fully grasp what goes into a day’s work, and that’s why you can come home after a long day, find your teen on the couch watching TV, and be greeted with, “What’s for dinner?”
  4. Momming and Dadding. We put far more thought into being a parent than our teens do into being a child, but that’s why we are the grown-ups. We are supposed to be thinking about our offspring, trying to do our best at parenting, modeling, and launching. It’s not only time consuming, but parenting is full of second guessing and so this particular M can leave us with residual self-doubt that sneaks its way into our decision making and can make parenting even more stressful.

Teenagers are driven by a different set of concerns. Here are the four S issues that demand the most brain space for adolescents:

  1. School. Whether or not your teenager is in public, private, religious or home school, the bulk of a teenager’s day is devoted to academic endeavors. These efforts may include performing well, or hardly performing, but school is the job of children and teenagers and takes both time and energy. There is usually some assignment hanging over the head of most students, and avoidance and shame around not handing in work can actually be just as stressful as studying.
  2. Sex. Teenagers spend a lot of time thinking about sex. If they are sexually active or not, their hormones are telling their brains and bodies to take advantage of youth and vigor. They are thinking about having it, or not having it, where to have it, when to have it, who to have it with, who not to have it with, how far they should go or not go, and figuring out what love has to do with sex, what intimacy really means, and a whole host of other big questions that in their case are overshadowed by strong instincts, desires, and conflicting messages from media, parents, and peers.
  3. Social Standing. Most teenagers worry about how they stand with their peer group and school mates. Popularity and belonging are key components of adolescent culture and although some teens are gifted with charisma, good looks, intelligence, arts and athletic ability, most do not possess all of these qualities. Even if they do, teenagers compare themselves to others and tend to focus on the qualities they lack rather than the qualities they have. Furthermore, social clusters and cliques are fluid, changeable, and potentially competitive so although friendships provide peer support, they don’t always provide security.
  4. Substances. Undeniably, most parents of teens worry about their teenagers using substances. Teenagers are also worrying. Some are worrying about friends who use. Some are worrying about if they should or should not use themselves. Others are worrying about their use being discovered, or how to get their hands on something they want to try, or want more of. They are worrying about how much, how little, how to stay away, how to find them, how to explain either use or no use to friends and family. Some teenagers may also have the added burden of worrying about their parents’ use.

It is important to understand that teenagers, whether their grades and activities reflect this or not, have a lot on their minds. Their concerns may not seems as important as adult worries, but at the same time, the grocery list or the dental bill sound a bit mundane to the teen who is worrying about college, what others think of them, and how to navigate alcohol, drugs, and sexual activity. Try to neither minimize their pressures, nor exacerbate them through reminders and your own intensity about their future. Instead, focus on being understanding while at the same time giving them the space to reflect on all that you have taught them as they steer their way through teenage territory.


Author Westtown School