In my ten years in education-from managing group homes for teens in state’s custody to teaching in STEM academies and classrooms for second chance students who were previously expelled or incarcerated, I’ve seen more than my fair share of shocking experiences from the eyes of today’s youth. The conversations I overhear on a daily basis could make a prostitute blush and send a drug addicted atheist to a Catholic rehab.
I laugh so I don’t cry. Mamas, hear me when I say that you need to read these words because our children are hurting.
In everything I have seen, heard, and tried to avoid the last ten years, three things stand out as blindingly obvious, but they seem to be missed by so many of today’s tech-savvy teen parents. So here are the top three tips for parenting today’s teens.
Today’s Teens Are Desperate To Be Loved
With staggering data supporting sex trafficking and sexual assault, today’s teens need to see what real love looks like; we need to model that for them in whatever form we see fit. I fully accept that I may not be making any friends with this post, but that is not my goal. I am aiming to help my students and others like mine to be raised in healthy environments so that they too can model positive behavior for their children.
Moms and dads, we need to rally around our teens to show them that love may come in different forms but none of them are driven by sex–provoked or unprovoked. We need to create a safe space for our kids to vocalize their truth and for us to be their voice in the gaps. Sorry if you are uncomfortable. This is part of what we signed up for.
Hear me when I say, we have to hear them. Teens are not naturally comfortable discussing difficult topics with their parents so they need to know that we will believe them. You know your kid. Their story might require further investigation, but when they are pouring out their hearts to you–be they broken or traumatized–and we hold them and listen. That is all. Shhhhhh. No talkie. Only listen and hug.
We need to stop, as a society, sending the message that body image, sex appeal, and instant gratification are associated with feelings of love. Love is a decision–a choice. It doesn’t happen instantaneously and it isn’t always simple. Learning how to cope with heartache and adversity is essential to survival as both a teen and an adult. Those lessons should start at home.
Teens are Starved For Consistency
Our world is complete chaos. Our children are exposed to infinitely more information–both positive and negative–than we were at their exact same age. While one new report says this happened, they can always find one stating the exact opposite. Teens need consistency. They thrive on a schedule with predictability.
Of course, there is always a place for spontaneity, but for the day-to-day kids should be able to say whether they have practice after school, their parents work late one night, or they go to study group. My students legitimately don’t know what man their mom will have brought home that night, whether there will be food in the house or the electricity will have been turned off, or whether or not their brother will have stolen their city bus pass–their only transportation to and from school.
Don’t brush this off as a third world or inner city problem because it isn’t an isolated incident. Friends, your neighborhood might not be riddled with gunfire and cocaine busts, but I promise you that kids are trading pills they stole from parents’ medicine cabinets and planning how to sneak abortions so their grandma doesn’t find out. This is their world and we only have one opportunity to model consistency for them.
They Need Boundaries and Structure, I Promise
I know it sounds sooooo 1980’s, but teenagers want parents, not best friends. Navigating the hallways and gender neutral bathrooms of today’s high schools is tough enough while balancing the friends their own age. While teenagers can learn much from our mistakes, our transparency, and our appropriate levels of vulnerability, they actually don’t need us to buy them beer, host raves in our basements, or share the number for our weed dealer. (To be clear, I don’t have a dealer of any kind.)
It is shocking the number of stories that are shared with me from students who are beyond frustrated that their parents are grounding them for staying out too late or brining home a D on their report card, citing, “how are they yelling at me one minute for not acting mature, but the next minute, they are letting me borrow their lighter?” Friends, it is hard to argue with that logic.
Please keep in mind that, unlike our fanny-pack wearing, cassette mix-tape making, Saved By the Bell generation, our kids have everything they want (and much they never asked for) at the tips of their fingers. The knowledge that was once only available to us after the dings and growls of dial up internet are now pop up ads on palm sized computers that take video and pictures and spread viral content faster than we could sign onto AOL.
We had these children and, though it is muddy waters and uncharted territory for many of us, it is our responsibility to love them unconditionally, educate them unabashedly, and protect them fiercely. They may buck up and they may act embarrassed or even angry, but I promise you–from the heart of one who is berated with it day in and day out by those who are undoubtedly not receiving proper care at home–they need you!