9 Things Your Teens Wish You Knew
Parents, here's your annual performance review. We asked teens in Arlington, McLean and Falls Church to give it to us straight.
In my 22 years of parenting, the most important lesson I’ve learned is to listen to my children more and talk less.
With that sentiment in mind, this story was an exercise in listening. The insights that follow were gleaned from one-on-one interviews with more than 20 young people between the ages of 13 and 20 in Arlington, McLean and Falls Church. Among them: teens whose parents are together, children of divorce, kids who are adopted, kids who are first-generation Americans, kids with siblings and kids without siblings. All of their names have been changed for privacy.
Lest we leave you hanging on how to address the items in the “needs improvement” category, we ran their observations past a handful of mental health and family counseling experts for advice. Here are the big takeaways.
#1. School is harder than it was when you were a kid.
When Kaylie, a Falls Church senior, struggles with calculus, she likes to remind her father that his highest math course in high school was Algebra II—because that’s all that was available to him.
Parents who assume the academic bar hasn’t moved much in 30 years are mistaken. “My parents don’t quite comprehend how difficult the pressure is now,” says Piper, a recent high school graduate from McLean. While the average high school in 1985 offered only three or four Advanced Placement classes, most in our area now offer 25 or more (not to mention International Baccalaureate classes), according to county websites.
Today’s teens are also shouldering a new brand of peer pressure that some say is even stronger than the arm-twisting to drink or experiment with drugs. “It’s the pressure to have the 4.0, to be the perfect child,” says Jane, who lives in Arlington.
After declining to take any AP classes her junior year, Jane remembers one friend telling her, “I don’t know how you’re going to get into college without an AP class.” This, she says, is the prevailing sentiment in a culture that now classifies advanced courses as standard, and standard courses as remedial.
“Even if it’s unspoken and not intentional, there’s an air of competition to always prove yourself,” says Nate, who graduated from high school last spring. He remembers worrying that his friends would call him a slacker if he didn’t man up academically. “There’s a lot of jeering if you don’t push yourself to take the absolute hardest classes. It’s mostly jokey, but maybe isn’t all that healthy,” he says.
How can parents help to dial down the stress? Focus less on the end product—rankings, awards and college acceptances—and more on what gives your kids joy. “Parents should put their emphasis on the work and the passion rather than on their kids’ achievements and accomplishments,” advises McLean psychiatrist Catherine McCarthy.
#2. Their pain is real.
Grace still remembers the time she told her parents she had been verbally bullied in middle school. Her dad was quick to pull out the old cliché: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
His response wasn’t helpful, she says, because “that name did kind of hurt.”
Also not helpful: the parental platitude that middle school and high school will one day be a distant memory. Teens need to be allowed to feel their pain—and your empathy—in the now.
“It may not be a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but for that kid whose whole world revolves around [the issue at hand] with everyone watching them, it’s a big deal,” says Gloria Carpenter, an Arlington psychologist. “You have to acknowledge that you see them hurting and validate their feelings.”
“Being able to talk to my parents if I need some emotional support…is really important,” agrees Adam, a senior who confides that many of his current worries revolve around college.
David, a recent graduate in Arlington, is looking even further into the future and feeling anxious. “I’m most afraid of not living the life I dream of living,” he says.
How parents offer their support during these times of vulnerability matters. Think lots of listening and not so much pontificating, advises Todd Kashdan, a professor of psychology at George Mason University and author of the book, The Upside of Your Dark Side. He encourages parents to be more curious than critical, and to present themselves as a sounding board. “When you’re collecting information from your teen, it’s better to ask questions. Resist the temptation to offer unsolicited wisdom. The latter often just closes down the gates.”
#3. They hate being compared to their siblings.
If your family unit includes more than one child, be aware that teens notice how their brothers and sisters are treated. And they are sensitive to any parental words or actions that might be perceived as preferential.
“I feel like I was their practice kid, and my younger brother is their real kid,” says Cooper, a high school senior. He says he feels that most of the attention he gets is negative, while his parents dote on his younger brother.
Liza, a high school sophomore, says it stings each time she hears her parents praising her younger sibling for getting A’s in elementary school, while she’s grappling with tougher classes. She isn’t pulling in the same grades, but she’s doing her best. “They’ll say, ‘He’s so smart.’ But no one says anything about me, so it’s kind of awkward,” she says. A little encouragement would go a long way.
For Jane, following in the wake of her superstar older sister has always been tough. “Sometimes I wish my parents would realize we’re not the same person and they shouldn’t have the same expectations,” she says.
Grace shares this frustration. She has a sibling who is particularly driven and career-minded, and wishes her parents could be more comfortable with her uncertainty. “Don’t make the child who doesn’t know what she wants to do feel like that’s a problem,” she says. “It’s okay not to know where you’re going.”
How can parents keep things in balance? Be intentional about recognizing each child’s strengths, while encouraging siblings to acknowledge and appreciate the positives in each other, Carpenter advises. “This fosters healthy sibling relationships where they can share in each other’s successes rather than competing for attention.”
#4. They want you to show up—with a smile.
Teens may sometimes come across as snarky and aloof, but they say it hurts when their parents are dismissive of their passions and interests.
Take Sydney, who’s been in band since fourth grade. “My mom is always on a busy schedule, so she doesn’t like to ‘waste time,’ ” says the high school senior. Often, she says, her mom will ask exactly what time she’s performing and then come for only that part. “She just wants to check it off her list.”
Fiona, a junior, perceives her parents’ obligatory appearances at her theater performances as half-hearted. “They obviously don’t really want to be there and they make jokes about it. It’s a little too close to home to take as a joke,” she says. “I wish they came to more final productions. It’s frustrating because I’ve worked hard on this, so don’t just toss it aside.”
“What kids want most of all,” says Josh Weiner, a McLean psychiatrist, “is to know that their parents are proud of them. I don’t think anyone ever stops wanting that.”
#5. They cringe when you freak out. And please don’t nag.
Whether you’re sitting in a car with a tentative new driver or seeing a C- on an exam, keep calm and don’t jump to conclusions.
Grace recalls the time her dad saw two low grades on ParentVUE (Arlington Public Schools’ online portal for parents) and instantly went into “Apocalypse Now mode,” emailing her teachers to ask how his daughter could improve. As it turns out, one of the grades was a mistake, says Grace, who had already talked to both teachers herself. “I felt not trusted to handle it. I’m not incapable of handling my schoolwork.”
She’s not the only one to complain about parents with hair-trigger responses to setbacks large and small. “My mom’s idea of solving a problem is raising her voice,” says Kevin, a senior in Arlington. “She’s yelled so much that I immediately close off the listening portions of my brain.”
In the end, panic mode helps no one.
“We need to watch that every time we engage with our kids we don’t have an agenda with an anxiety overtone,” McCarthy says, citing studies on motivation by Stanford University researcher Carol Dweck. “Catastrophic and anxiety-driven commentary from parents isn’t motivating for teens.” The better mindset is one that embraces practice and effort and doesn’t stigmatize failure.
Oh, and nagging? Mostly counterproductive. “A mistake parents make is asking teens over and over if they’ve done their homework and thinking that will actually make them work harder,” McCarthy observes.
Adam, a Falls Church senior, offers this suggestion: “You can remind me about doing something, but don’t make me do it in a certain time frame.” Teens ultimately thrive as adults when they learn how to solve their own problems and manage their own time effectively.
#6. Trust is a two-way street.
Of all the things teens want more of from their parents, trust may be the biggest. Cooper isn’t sure how, but his father managed to unlock his phone and see all of his texts, emails and pictures while Cooper was taking the SAT. As a result, both father and son ended up furious and silent. Cooper believes his dad took some of the things he read out of context and assumed the worst. But the teen says he felt too shocked and violated to explain himself. So he clammed up.
Becca, an Arlington eighth-grader, is keenly aware that her parents maintain oversight of her digital life. “My dad monitors everything—my texts, my email, my posts,” she says. “My parents are very scared of technology and that can be upsetting. I feel crowded in my personal space.”
The dynamic also extends offline. Nate, a recent graduate, recalls how, during his high school years, his mom forbade him from having friends over whenever she wasn’t home. “My mom’s natural inclination is to think that if me and my friends congregate in any space, we’re going to start doing hard drugs or something,” he says. “I’ve never given her a reason to doubt me. It almost makes me want to try them.”
A better approach, he says, is to trust your teens to make smart choices. “The biggest mistake is trying to convince your kids that no one else does [drugs or drinks alcohol],” Nate continues. “That’s just raising them in the dark and giving them an inaccurate view of the world. And that’s dangerous.” He points to stories about kids who “go wild” and lose control in college because they were cloistered in high school.
Having honest conversations about ground rules can provide clarity and prevent teens from harboring secrets, psychiatrist Weiner says. But parents also need to be prepared for the answers they’re likely to get if their kids open up.
“If [your teen] says, ‘Hey, I had a few beers last night’ and then gets grounded, then there’s no trust,” says Adam, a high school senior in Falls Church. He remembers sitting down with his parents during his junior year and talking about “what was okay in their book” and what wasn’t. “Without that foundation of trust,” he says, “there’s no communication.”
#7. Sex isn’t an off-limits topic, but you have to start the conversation.
Sydney, an Arlington senior, has been dating the same boy for two years. She says she’s been unable to talk about sexuality with her parents in any meaningful way because the topic feels uncomfortable. “My dad definitely takes the overprotective route. He doesn’t want to think about it,” she says. And her mom preaches total abstinence, “which is also a bad route,” she continues. “If you say no, they’re teenagers, so they’re probably going to do it anyway and it’s not going to be good.”
Difficult as the sex talk may be, there’s a downside to denial and avoidance, says psychology professor Kashdan. “If you try to squash [or deny their sexuality], it means you have now officially lost access to information.”
Conversely, he says, a teen who is willing to talk to you about sex is a teen you can support if things get complicated—be it a pregnancy scare, an STD or an incident of sexual harassment. “I want to know what’s going on [with my kids], so if things don’t work out as planned and someone tries to shame them, they will feel like they can tell me,” says Kashdan, who is well aware that his own girls will be teens soon enough. “What I don’t want is for them to shut me out and then just go with a bunch of 15- and 16-year-olds to provide them guidance when none of them really know what to do.”
#8.Technology isn’t just a toy. It’s a lifeline.
Life in the Internet Age has left many parents feeling overwhelmed and struggling to keep up with the latest apps, video games, online communities and cyber safety threats. Some react with inconsistent rules that are born out of fear. And that drives teens nuts.
“Today’s world requires people to be in contact and have the ability to communicate in a moment’s notice. It’s a different world socially,” says Kevin, a senior whose parents frequently take away his phone as punishment.
This strategy, along with being overly restrictive—for example, forbidding your child from using social media with the rationale that you survived childhood without it—can backfire. In fact, such controls can lead to “anger, rebellion and hatred,” Weiner cautions. Kids whose parents place certain bans on technology “are some of the angriest kids I see,” he says. Many teens see going offline as a form of social suicide.
Henry, a Falls Church junior, often spends his free time video-chatting with his friends or playing video games together online. “My parents don’t view that as actual socialization,” he says, “but it fulfills a need in my life.” He wishes his parents could appreciate the creativity and “crazy in-depth strategy” required for some of the games he plays. In some ways, the intellect that’s required isn’t so different from chess.
On the matter of screen time, teens also know a double standard when they see it. “My mom uses her phone way more than I [use mine],” notes Fiona. “And she gets no flak for sending emails during dinner. That’s kind of hypocritical.”
This isn’t to say that technology is a good thing 24/7. Teens need their sleep, Weiner points out. But once again, open communication and consistent ground rules can ease tensions and promote mutual respect at home. He recommends writing down expectations about technology use, “so there’s no arguing over what was said later.”
#9. They want to do more things as a family. No kidding.
Many of the teens interviewed for this piece spoke nostalgically of past family outings. They said they miss having unscheduled, unscripted quality time with their parents. One teen hoped for a return trip to the zoo or a museum. Another wished his family could go to the beach to “bond again.” Yet another said she wanted to take her mom to Shenandoah National Park to “enjoy the beauty and peace.”
“It’s very frustrating. We stopped doing family day trips when I was 10,” says Fiona. “I just want to go on a hike to Great Falls or go to a museum together. Now it seems like a pain for my parents to do day trips or spend time with me.”
Others said they would love nothing more than a real family dinner.
“We stopped having family dinners when [my older sibling] went to college for whatever reason,” says Sydney. Now she often goes to friends’ houses for dinner, “searching for that family dynamic.”
Parents may be working long hours in anticipation of those looming college bills, and multitasking nonstop in an effort to do it all, but McCarthy cautions against missing out on “this very, very precious time in high school, which is the foundation for our future relationship with our kids.”
While much of this article may seem critical of parents, all of the teens who were interviewed expressed gratitude for their parents’ hard work—and the simple fact that they care. For the most part, teens long for deeper, more mutually respectful relationships. They want to talk more and to be heard.
“I think direct communication is the key to life,” says Beatrice, an Arlington junior. “It’s hard at first, but once you start doing that, it clears up misconceptions and it’s better in the long run.”
Words from the wise.
Arlington writer Amy Brecount White greatly appreciates all the local teens who took the time to share their lives honestly and thoughtfully.