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Teenagers Speak Out: What They Really Want Adults to Understand

Teens Talking
Want to know what high school kids are really thinking these days? Well, this English teacher's got the scoop on what her Teen Film students had to say about growing up in today's world. They spilled the beans on teenage angst, insecurity, and wanting to be more independent. So if you're a parent, coach, teacher, or mentor, check out this article for tips on how to empower and support your teens.

Here’s What My Students Want Us to Know

This spring, for the third time in my career as a high school English teacher, I am offering an elective called, “Teen Film.” In this course, we study films spanning from Rebel Without a Cause to Lady Bird in an attempt to answer questions about whether ‘teen films’ accurately portray the teen experience, how or why they exploit it, and try to sort out who these films really are written for. 

This year, I began the class by asking, in an anonymous survey, for students to reflect on things they wish their parents or other adults in their lives understood better about what it’s like to be a teenager today.  I also asked them to identify some defining differences between childhood and adolescence. Despite varying personal experiences, their answers all outlined the same larger points and sentiments.  So, here is what one small group of high school students want the parents, family, coaches, teachers, and mentors in their lives to know.

Let’s Throw Some Trust Their Way

If childhood is about dancing like nobody’s watching, then adolescence is about being way too insecure about yourself to even think about dancing.  Of course, this is nothing new.  For any of us adults reading this, we can probably access some startingly acute teenager- specific angst and self- loathing without great effort. As carefree (or careless) as teens may often seem, we all know that just underneath the surface, there is likely a whole lot of emotional strife being negotiated at a quick clip. My students in this class acknowledged that things like insecurity, pressure, and self- confidence are still pillars of teenagedom.   Many of them think of their childhood as the privileged among us can– more blissful innocence and less responsibility.  

teen worryBut another defining feature of adolescence that came up more than once, is that the teenage years are when independence actually decreases.  They talked about how responsibilities and expectations increased rapidly during the high school years, but their freedom stagnated or became more limited: choices were narrowed and refined; they felt that ultimately, they had very little say in the course their lives had taken and were going to take in the years that followed.  As we kept digging to get at the core of what they were really talking about, it essentially boiled down to a larger, existential worry:  that they are being led down the same paths as generations before them, but the world is a very different place than it used to be and it seems to be changing at an ever- increasing pace. I think there are few among us who can deny that the world our young people are living in is one quite different from the one in which we grew up.  My high school years were from 1998 to 2002; Facebook wouldn’t enter the picture for another two years. Yes, things are quite different now.  My students wonder if they’re being prepared for what the world will look like ten years from now, and I have to admit, I wonder – and worry about– that same thing.  

I suppose as parents, as adults, we need to ask if we are allowing room for the young people among us to grow in the ways that they may know are best, even if these ways are uncomfortable or confusing to us.  During my twelve years in education, I have seen a positive trend in students’ ability to act from a place of empathy, understanding, and curiosity about the world.  Even when things have been the darkest in our country– the weeks following school shootings and the Covid-19 lockdowns come to mind–  I still found this to be true.  I have to wonder then: should we be trusting them a bit more? Maybe they know how to take us in the direction we need the world to go. 

They May Know More, But They Need Us More Than Ever

These larger questions connected to their answers to the main question I asked– what do you wish we could understand just a bit better about what it’s like to be a teenager? Overwhelming, they expressed that their parents and other adults in their lives sell them short.  They shared that adults lean on their own teen experiences not as a way to empathize and connect, but as a way to assert that they “know better.” And yes, sometimes that is true, but being a teenager today is different than it was thirty years ago. Simple acknowledgment of that fact– that we are all figuring out this world together, and that the teens actually living the teen life might just know a thing or two– would make a big difference. They also said that while things such as phone usage and social media can definitely be problematic (they don’t deny it– I mean, who does?!), it’s also given them a greater understanding of the world at large. 

One student expressed it as such, “Adults often view us only as reckless or immature, but we have more insight and maturity than they’d expect us to.  I wish they would just ask.”  Again, as a teacher who spends hours a day asking students to express their thoughts, opinions, and insights, I can attest to this truth.  When I was in high school, except for what I happened to catch when walking through the living room while the evening news played, I’m not sure I knew much about what was going on in our country or the world.  I had little exposure to major happenings, trends, and social concerns.  Today’s high school students have opinions on presidential candidates, social movements, the economy, and world affairs.  Are all of their thoughts well-researched? No. Do many of them parrot what they hear at home? Of course. But I find myself, year after year, having more nuanced and educated conversations about very complicated world issues with younger and younger students.  

The Guide on the Side 

So, let’s give them some credit. But also, let’s give them some support.  Study after study, especially as the world emerged from pandemic lockdowns, supports that every age group feels more worried about the world and is experiencing more stress and anxiety than just a few years ago.  But the group that is feeling it most are young people.  In fact, according to a Stanford University study published in December 2022, the stress of the pandemic altered and actually aged adolescents’ brains.  Indeed, the brains of average 17 year olds might not be comparable to teens from just a few years ago.  While there is still much to be studied, it seems that the stress our young people have had to endure are altering them in ways that may take years to fully understand.  Truly, things are different than they used to be. 

What our teens really want us to know1In teacher-speak, a  ‘sage on stage’ is a teacher who spends most of their time in front of the class, lecturing almost exclusively, and works from the idea that she has knowledge to ‘give’ students. On the other hand, a  ‘guide on the side’ teacher acts as a facilitator who helps learners discover knowledge for themselves and lead them toward paths that can help them learn and grow. Most seasoned teachers know that a combination of both styles is best, but as parents, I think many of us operate from the ‘sage on the stage’ mentality when really, what our teens need are supportive and strong ‘guides on the side.’ Because, in the end, they need us now more than ever.  As one student succinctly put it, 

“Being a teenager is a lot– the difficulty of having to try and figure out what you like, who you are, what you want, and all the while feeling like you’ll never know.  It’s so draining to balance school, a social life, extracurriculars, and figure out how to deal with the world and all its problems.  We want to try to do it on our own, but even though we don’t show it, we need your help, too.” 

With the right support, they really are capable of taking on the challenges of the world.  Let’s give them a chance

Lauren Sullivan

For the last 12 years, Lauren has had the great honor of working as a high school English teacher at a unique alternative school on Long Island. In the background though, she was always writing and has recently begun freelancing for sites that focus on personal and community wellness, fitness, parenting, and motherhood.

She is also a runner, avid beach-goer, and mother two to wild and amazing children, Leila (5) and Will (4). She is passionate about racial justice, better care for moms and babies, women- led and owned businesses, LGBTQ+rights, and the fostering of a more just, compassionate and sustainable world.

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