If you’re a parent of a teen and feel like you have it way harder than your parents had it when you were a teen, you might be right. Some of the technological advancements and societal changes that have been seen in the last decade or so have transformed what it’s like to be and raise a teen. Many technological developments completely blew the lid off of what little sense of control parents once felt they had over teenagers. And an intense desire for risky behavior plus unprecedented access to just about anything has created a very difficult situation for parents.
Some of the challenges parents face today have nothing to do with technology, though. They’re the result of pressure that’s been building up over decades of cultural and societal oppression, in many directions. It’s a good thing, in general, that we’re seeing such major social changes. But it’s also okay to admit that, if you grew up a couple of decades ago, you’re struggling to adapt to these changes quickly enough. And your delay in adaptation can cause a lot of tension between you and your teen. We spoke with Demetrius Cofield, a licensed clinical mental health counselor who works with Black Clinician Network, about the particular challenges facing parents of teens today.
What’s the deal with friends and followers?
In listing one of the biggest generational differences parents of teens tackle today, Cofield says, “Social media immediately comes to mind. This generation is more driven by technology and this is not always easy for parents to understand. They won’t get why their teens are so obsessed with their cellphones and how important their followers and number of likes on posts are.”
Social media is a huge part of their life
One survey found that as many as 97 percent of teens between the ages of 13 and 17 are regularly active on at least one social media platform. Social media can provide an outlet for teens to do one thing teens really need to do: express themselves. But note that research has found spending more than a few hours a day on these platforms can be detrimental to adolescent mental health.
They’re having sex much younger
“Sex is also very different with the current generation of teens,” says Cofield. “Teenagers are becoming sexually active a lot younger than their parents might have been. Parents might not agree with it, but the reality is that teenagers are typically going to have sex. Parents should be willing to talk to them about sex, and not just abstinence, but about practicing safe sex and not making irresponsible decisions.”
Don’t avoid the subject
There’s no age at which any parent is comfortable with the idea of their children (even when they’re adults) having sex. And parents should take precautions to make sure their teens don’t start particularly young since this has been shown to correlate with other risky behaviors. That being said, there will come a point when parents need to embrace it will happen and talk about it, says Cofield. “This doesn’t mean they should encourage them to have sex, but just be more understanding of the fact that it might happen and make sure they understand how to be safe.”
Good news: sex may not be trending
There is some good news for parents who aren’t ready for their babies to grow up: it appears that teens are having slightly less sex than they were four or five years ago. Research has also found that the large majority of teens have their first sexual encounter with a steady boyfriend or girlfriend (rather than someone new), and are using birth control. Translation: your teen is most likely having sex with someone who cares about her, and is being safe. * That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still talk to her about it. *
Gender and sexuality norms are changing
“Sexuality and gender identity is also a lot different with this generation,” notes Cofield. “Parents may struggle with accepting their child’s sexuality if they begin to identify as anything other than straight or heterosexual. Teenagers might also start to question their gender identity and may come out to their parents as transgender, which is also something that was not common in previous generations.”
The change happened fast
If you’re a parent who feels guilty about not being instantly comfortable with the shift in gender norms, don’t be too hard on yourself. The visibility of the transgender community is relatively quite recent in human history. You’re allowed to feel what you feel. But just be careful what you say, states Cofield. “Parents should be mindful of what they say and how they treat their teens who may identify this way and understand that it doesn’t make them any less of a person and they are still their child.”
A new wave of teenage fashion tension
Teenagers wanting to dress in a way their parents disapprove of is nothing new. If you’re a parent today, you probably remember leaving the house wearing a big sweatshirt, only to remove it to reveal your crop top once you were around friends. But the shifts in gender and sexuality add a new layer to teenage fashion complexity, says Cofield. “Fashion is also a generational thing that parents might struggle with. This can really be especially difficult for parents to accept if their teenager’s fashion choices are influenced by their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Teens today are far more than just boys or girls
If you feel that there’s been a major uptick in adolescents who don’t conform to gender norms or who do not identify as heterosexual, you’re right. As one mom blogger wrote about, her teen’s school counselor confirmed this change is happening rapidly on campus. There is also research finding that only around 48 percent of Gen Zers describe themselves as heterosexual, whereas 65 percent of young millennials call themselves straight.
One thing is the same; there are always differences
Cofield reminds parents that although the appearance of teen-to-parent tensions has changed, one thing has remained: parents don’t fully understand their teenagers. “The most important thing for parents to remember is that times are different and even though they might not agree with or understand current trends or behaviors that have been normalized, their children/teens are still human beings with feelings and emotions just like them, and how they choose to react to these new norms will have a significant impact on their lives.”