Teen Travails

How many of us would like to revisit age 16? We were brighter and more capable than we'd ever been before, but we also were less mature than we might ever be again. Yet we were expected to rise and shine, to be smart and productive and sunny and kind, to multitask like adults but answer to them as well. We had plenty of information but not enough perspective, plenty of potential but not enough direction, and plenty of time in the years ahead but not nearly enough time in our day.

Has anything changed for teens today?

Computers. Cell phones. Digital cameras. Video games. DVD players. MP3 players. MySpace®. Text messaging. Today's teens don't just live in the culture of now; they live in the culture of right now, fostered by immediate access to everything. That, in turn, creates a lifestyle of impatience and expectation, of inattention and anxiety, of speed and stimulation, of going and doing instead of just being.

The result is a kind of socially induced attention deficit disorder, a paradox that may keep teens from concentrating, yet enable them to keep up with the frenetic dynamics of their day.

"Back in the days of Father Knows Best, life moved more slowly; people did one thing at a time," says Suzi Brauner-Tatum, a licensed clinical social worker and assistant manager of Outpatient Behavioral Health Services at Community Hospital. "Kids went out for one sport. Or piano. The family sat down to dinner. And a phone call was an event in itself. The thing was attached to the wall, and you sat there and focused on the conversation, not the baseball game or the shopping mall or the road."

People have immediate access to one another and are communicating like never before. But little of it is up close and in person. People may be in touch, but they're not spending much time together. For teens, this comes at a time they most need guidance and attention and validation and direction.

"What's different about this generation of teens," says Gregor Putzka, family therapist at Community Hospital's Clint Eastwood Youth Program, "is that they are being bombarded much more constantly with data. A national poll said the average teen is spending more than 2.5 hours a day in front of some kind of screen, be it a TV, computer, or Game Boy®. I can't imagine raising a teen without a DVD or video game or cell phone or iPod®."

Given the high cost of living on the Central Coast, this often plays out while both parents work long hours to make ends meet. That leaves some teens with an abundance of free time, and others with over-programmed afternoons meant to provide structure in lieu of parental supervision.

"The average adult and teen talk for less than two hours a week," says Putzka. "I had more communication with my college roommates than with my parents. Kids get out of school and have anywhere from two to four hours to kill before their parents get home. For many, there's not a lot of accountability required, which leaves their afternoons wide open to trouble."

While one kid is languishing at the mall, the other extreme, says Putzka, is the teen who goes from soccer to ballet to piano to scouts to gymnastics to science camp to homework, which lasts well into the night.

"On school days, it's mainly wake up and have an hour to get ready for school," says Elizabeth Marshall, 16, of Carmel. "I'm in school for most of the day. Then I come home and do my homework, which takes me a long time because I want to make sure I understand everything. I used to have swim team, but this year I'm focusing on grades. After dinner, I talk to my friends online.

"I'm basically always on the computer. I do the whole MySpace/Facebook® thing. I used to be seriously on my phone, even at school; but I'm kind of in debt from all the text-messaging. I use my iPod a lot, and I watch movies on a portable DVD player because mine's broken in my room. And we're always taking digital pictures of each other. Basically, if it's electronic, I'm on it."

Perhaps an antidote to the age of virtual interaction is a return to some of the rituals of the Father Knows Best era whenever possible. Although electronics are destined to become ever more prevalent, perhaps we can shut them down long enough to have dinner together.

"Frankly, I don't know how adults lived without electronic communication tools," says Ben Weinstock, 15, of Pacific Grove. "I am totally tied to my electronics. My computer governs my life. But my family might be a bit of an anomaly; we sit down to dinner every night. We do candles, the whole shebang. I saw a recent poll that asked if the TV is on during dinner, and 70 percent of the country said yes. I was shocked. I like being able to talk to my parents and my brother. Our conversations tend to steer toward the philosophical, and I appreciate that.

"It doesn't make us the super-happy marshmallow family, but any issues we have are brought out into the open, and everything is put down on the dinner table and sorted out. It makes life much easier to manage. And the food's good, too."

Once you have figured out how and when to get everyone in the dining room at the same time, and how and when to plan, purchase, and prepare a meal everyone will attempt to eat, perhaps the biggest challenge lies in figuring out how and when to get the conversation started.

Especially since your child seems to have come full circle, moving from a toddler who could offer only grunts, babbles, cries, or one-word sentences to an articulate 8-year-old to, seemingly overnight, a 16-year-old who has regressed to abbreviated responses.

"Teens don't learn how to socialize by texting one another," says Mary Chamberlain, a licensed clinical social worker and member of the Behavioral Health Services team at Community Hospital. "So the easy answer would be to tell them to stop texting. Since that is unlikely, the alternative is to learn their language, and to use it to find out who they are and where they're coming from."

Most people want to be heard and understood, whether or not they are willing or able to say so. Even if we don't always understand what our teens are talking about, it's important to let them know we hear their emotions.
Chamberlain and her colleagues offer a list of behavioral tools, a little "teen communication 101," to help enhance adult/teen interaction:

  • Listen, listen, listen.
  • Keep responses minimal; speak just enough to demonstrate your interest in what your teen has to say. Try "Oh," "Really," "How funny," and "Hmmm," instead of interjecting opinion or taking over the conversation.
  • Don't scold, preach, judge, criticize, or minimize the feelings expressed.
  • Ask questions that encourage greater sharing. Practice open-ended inquiries such as "Tell me about your first day of school" instead of "How was the first day of school?" or "I'm interested in hearing about your teachers. Who was the most interesting?" instead of "Do you like your teacher?"

If all attempts to open the communication channel fail, perhaps a larger issue, such as grief, anxiety, or depression, is eating at your teenager. Help from a professional source such as a counselor might be the appropriate next step to take to help navigate these tumultuous times.

"Part of being a teen," says Chamberlain, "is to learn how to separate from parents as a step toward maturity and independence. This means they need space and boundaries. And it's where confusion and anxiety and acting out come in. Setting boundaries at the same time parents want to encourage independence can send a conflicting message. Most teens get through this just fine, but they need a healthy outlet, a way to express their individuality."

Being a teen is frustrating and fun at different times, says Ben Weinstock.

"I like the part, outside of school, where I don't have a lot of responsibilities beyond chores and can hang out with my friends," he says. "I'm not so big on the not-so-fun parts, like all the bodily changes and stuff they teach you in sex ed.

"It's a turbulent time, learning how to be an adult, which happens at different rates for everyone. If you've got your niche, your place among friends, it can be mellow and enjoyable; but if you don't know where you're situated, it can be a really hard time to get to know yourself."