Perhaps it’s human nature for each generation to inevitably find fault with the next. But take a look at a group of teenagers milling about outside school, and chances are that aside from clothing baggy enough to accommodate a family of four and the ubiquitous beepers and cellular phones, the scene looks oddly familiar. Who’d ever have thought that chunky-heeled shoes and bellbottom pants would come back in style?
You belong to a unique generation in that unlike your parents or your grandparents you probably had an adolescence very similar to your teenager’s, because the teen years of today bear a strong resemblance to what they have been since the 1960s. Now, as then, the times are relatively affluent, our current recession notwithstanding.
Culturally and socially, teens are still consumed by many of the same interests you probably had:
Unfortunately, they still face many of the same social problems, including:
Compared to parents of a generation ago, you probably have a greater understanding of the obstacles confronting your child. And while today’s moms and dads aren’t going to agree with everything that teens do in the name of expressing their individuality (if we did, our kids would never forgive us), perhaps we’re more inclined to be accepting of their need to do it.
The common ground you share is a great place to begin establishing and nurturing communication, closeness and trust. In a stereotype-shattering 1998 survey of thirteen-to-seventeen-year-olds, two-thirds felt that their parents were “in touch with what life is like” for today’s teens. So you may be more in tune with your teen than you realize. For all the similarities, though, this is a different world. Strains of marijuana are far more potent, unprotected sexual intercourse can infect a youngster with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and the proliferation of violence throughout our society has fomented a climate of fear and anxiety in many communities. Not only are the stakes higher for teenagers today, but the age of innocence has become shorter and shorter. Kids face having to make critical decisions at increasingly younger ages—often before they are mature enough to fully assess the risks involved.
Probably the most significant difference between being a teenager today versus when you came of age is the diminished presence of the family in many adolescents’ lives. Approximately half of all marriages end in divorce, almost twice the rate of the early 1960s. While nearly nine in ten children lived with both their mother and father in 1970, today at least half can expect to live in a household headed by a single parent at some point before they turn 18. And because three in four mothers of school-age children now work outside the home, many adolescents spend the afternoon hours unsupervised, with no adult at home to greet them and ask, “Hi, how was school today?”
What statistics show:
The cumulative effect of these changes is familiar to all of us: a more stressful, less stable environment. And yet recent statistics paint a healthier portrait of our young people than you might expect—especially if compared to the beginning of the 1980s, when the final procession of baby boomers was entering adulthood.
- From 1981 to 1996 illicit drug use among high-school seniors dropped by 15 percent. Over the same period, alcohol use fell 14 percent and tobacco use, 7 percent.
- Teenagers are demonstrating more reproductive responsibility. From 1991 to 1996, the adolescent birth rate declined steadily, from 62 births for every 1,000 girls ages 15 to 19, to 55 per 1,000. Experts attribute the lower figures to a combination of more teens abstaining from sexual intercourse, and more sexually active teens using birth control (including more who are using condoms correctly).
- Contrary to figures purporting to show a disturbingly sharp rise in teen suicides, the numbers have actually gone down since the 1970s. In reality, the seemingly higher rates reflect improved identification of adolescents who died by their own hand. Years ago, suicides by drug and alcohol overdose, self-inflicted bullet wounds and so forth were virtually always ruled as accidents. Still, homicide and suicide remain the second and third causes of death respectively in Americans ages fifteen through twenty-four. Homicide is usually the second cause of death in African American teens, while suicide is usually the second cause of death in Caucasian teens.
The heartening message behind these statistics is that if we communicate to kids the adverse consequences of drugs, alcohol, tobacco, premature sex and so on in a way that reaches them, the message can have an effect. Nonetheless, a youngster’s adolescence presents a frightening paradox for mothers and fathers, in that the time when you must learn to let your teenager go is the very time their need for guidance is the greatest because the consequences they potentially face are the most dire.
Advice from someone who has been there:
Though adolescence is a trying time for parents, take heart from one who has been there. Dr. Marianne Neifert offers a view of the road ahead that is both inspiring and realistic because it is based on her own experience of shepherding five children through the teen years. “How was it? It was great. Looking back, though, I would say that whatever struggles we did have were due to my lack of parenting skills. And here I was, a pediatrician! Had I been a little better prepared, I could have done a much better job. But even so,” she says, “we had a ball! And, of course, the gift that you get at the end is adult children who are also your friends.”