What is it like growing up as a 21st century teenager

“You forget all of it anyway. . . You forget who was cool and who was not, who was pretty, smart, athletic, and not. . . You forget all of them. Even the ones you said you loved, and even the ones you actually did. They’re the last to go. And then once you’ve forgotten enough, you love someone else.” Gabrielle Zevin, Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac

As a father of two teenager daughters (sixteen and nineteen) and further surrounded by their male and female friends, my house often resembles a teenage “hangout” or “frat house”. I tend to leave them to their own amusements, but occasionally, they allow the “oldie” to sit with them and chat about what is going on in their “world”. A lot of what is going on in their world I remember as similar situations from my time growing up. Who was going out with who? Who got drunk / high at the party? Who had started smoking? Though the difference with more girls around, is the clothes, fashion and desire to look good tends to be discussed more. 

During one of these group discussions, we somehow got on to the topic of comparing what it was like when I was growing up as a teenager and the differences to today’s group. I pointed out some of the technology and social differences between my time as a teenager and now and what really shaped me as a person when I was growing up. They included:

  • Phones: No mobile phones. To make phone calls you had to have either a house phone or call from a phone box. Oh and you had to put physical money into it before you could make the call. Unless, you called the operator and asked for a reverse charge call and boy oh boy, was mum cross when I did that.
  • TV: No satellite, cable or the like. There was only three terrestrial channels.  In addition, there was only VHS or BetaMax video tapes and a lot less choice in movies.
  • Music: Music was either via the radio and the Radio One Top 40 on a Sunday or the TOP40 TV programme on BBC One, a one hour programme on a Thursday. I used to record onto tape, the Top 40 broadcast on Radio One on a Sunday evening and then use a duplex tape deck to cut my own tapes. Else, you went to the shops and bought either a vinyl disk or a tape. There was no iTunes, or online download available. In fact…..
  • Internet: There was no internet. Can anyone imagine no internet. If you had homework and needed to research something, you had to rely on either borrowing books from the school or local library. Or the memory of your parents and friends on particular subjects.
  • Social Interaction: Trips to the local disco or pub were arranged and planned. Getting dressed up on for an evening out was a big thing. There were no sleepovers, group hangouts and the like. No impromptu getting together. You normally went as a mixed boy/girl group and the evening as spent dancing, chatting, drinking and trying to get “off” with someone. Pretty similar to today. 

Teens today are exposed to and consume more technology than any earlier generation. The ability to sit and watch internet TV, whilst Whats app’ing their friends, as well as texting, plus listening to music on the internet, whilst doing their homework – yes I have seen this all happening at the same time – means they are swimming in technology and bombarded with external stimula. In addition, children are encouraged to grow up far too quickly. The Netmums website users completed a survey that showed that children are under pressure to grow up too fast. Girls were made to worry about their appearance and their weight, boys were meant to act tough and both boys and girls were under pressure to take an interest in sex at too young an age.

However, this worldly experience that they think they have developed does not always translate into maturity for them and may even stunt their emotional development. As I found out with my teenagers, they will challenge your opinions and lifestyle as a way of achieving her own adult identity. They use the expression “It is my time” generation. Something I completely buy into. After all, I did it with my parents.

I wanted to find out some of the underlying reasons and came to the following conclusions. They may ring true for you or not. Please feel free to challenge and comment.

Freedom and Goals

During adolescence many teenagers rebel because they want more independence and control in their lives. From the simple examples of wanting to go out themselves, or perhaps going out with their friends to the next town on their own; Through to wanting to decide what they want to do, or not do, when they leave school or college. This new-found sense of self also involves planning, communications and setting goals for themselves. It can be very challenging to get them to think beyond the immediate, the today, and think about the years to come. After all, everything is available right now for them. I know of very little that teenagers have to “wait” for now.

Emotional Maturity

Adolescence can be emotionally volatile for a  teen because they are experiencing a roller coaster of physical and mental changes on their way to adulthood. I have noticed that they go through at least 2 different stages of volatility. The first one around the age of 13-15 and the second around 17-18. The first one is mostly connected to the start of the adult hormone cycle and the second, with the realisations that they are now fully fledged adults, able to vote, marry, drive a car, etc. The responsibility can be daunting. Who taught you about car insurance? Or taxing a car? How to manage debt and credit cards? What to do when you get to vote, even the process? We take for granted so many things we do as adults that are not taught in schools.

Stubborn or Assertive?

While many teens are strong-willed, being assertive is not the same as being stubborn. Assertiveness is a sign of maturity because it allows for the teenager to be able to disagree without being disagreeable. A mature teenager will be able to hold their position without being disrespectful to someone who may have a different viewpoint. However, too often they appear to be stubborn and unwilling to think about other people’s perception. I have explained that even though they live in a world of their friends and others of similar ages at school, when they get out into the adult world it is different. They will have to interact , engage with and deal with people of varying ages, backgrounds, education and culture. The more flexible in their approach, the better it is for them . I gave the example of trying to persuade their grandfather (grandpops as we call him) – who is in his 70’s – to do something. It was interesting to help coach them on different approaches they could take.

Wanting all the rights but none of the responsibilities

It is not uncommon to hear teenagers declare that, since they are now an adult, they can do what they want. Strident claims are made regarding their rights but little is said of their responsibilities.  Accepting responsibility for their actions is often cast aside by excuses that shift the blame to others. We have made an art of making excuses and shifting the blame. An adult attitude respects the need to take responsibility for their lives and actions within it. That they ask for help when they need it, but does not ask other people to do for them what they can do for themselves. An adult attitude also takes responsibility for the consequences of their actions and the decisions that are made and does not shift blame for things that have been done.

Sexual Maturity

Teenagers experience powerful sexual awakening and their bodies flood with hormones as they step into teenagehood. At the start, boys tend to become moody,quiet and have the “Kevin” approach of communication – grunting responses. Girls, tend to become giggling and shy. Then the boys realise that to attract the girls, they need to start to shower more often and take care of their grooming. Girls begin to dress provocatively and “strut their stuff.” There is the incessant chatter and exhibition of sex in movies, music, books and the general media. In many ways our culture seems like a sex obsessed teenager. Luckily, for the girls and their friends, they seem to be more mature in their approach. Only time will tell. I make no comment on the sexualisation of children and leave that to others.

The “It’s not Fair!” view

One of the most common complaints I hear from the girls is that something isn’t fair. It is normally related to to something that happened where they reflect that  “I didn’t get what I want but it seems like others did.” Basically this is all about me. I keep telling them that truth be told, life’s not fair. This is the hardest element to understand, accept and move on. It is even harder for adults. Many of us still do not accept this. Many are stuck. And many do  not seek to change. This is where I have used Mindfulness to help. Life is how you live it after all, rather than ruminating on the past…..

There is a lot to take in about the 21st century and the changes that teenagers face as they grow up today. I have only scratched the surface, but hope some of this rings true.

I leave you with the following quote:

“People worry about kids playing with guns, and teenagers watching violent videos; we are scared that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands – literally thousands – of songs about broken hearts and rejection and pain and misery and loss.”  ― Nick Hornby, High Fidelity

Depression in Teenagers and Perceptual Positions

“That’s the thing about depression: A human being can survive almost anything, as long as she sees the end in sight. But depression is so insidious, and it compounds daily, that it’s impossible to ever see the end.” ― Elizabeth Wurtzel, Prozac Nation

I listened to a recent radio programme that talked about the top issues facing teenagers today. As a parent to two teenage girls (plus the 10’s that are extended members of the family and frequently stay), I get to see first hand the pressures that they face. Apart from the normal teen issues of relationships, drugs and alcohol, one of the biggest issues they face is the constant need to look and feel good. This, plus all the other issues means that depression in teenagers is on the increase. Some interesting facts:

  • 1 in 10 children and young people aged 5 – 16 suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder – that is around three children in every class
  • Between 1 in every 12 and 1 in 15 children and young people deliberately self-harm
  • More than half of all adults with mental health problems were diagnosed in childhood. Nearly 80,000 children and young people suffer from severe depression
  • Over 8,000 children aged under 10 years old suffer from severe depression
  • 72% of children in care have behavioural or emotional problems – these are some of the most vulnerable people in our society (7).
  • 95% of imprisoned young offenders have a mental health disorder. Many of them are struggling with more than one disorder
  • The number of young people aged 15-16 with depression nearly doubled between the 1980s and the 2000s

Depression needs to be taken seriously and treated properly by professionals and I certainly would not make suggestions on how to treat depression itself.

However, what I can help with is how people engage and talk to one another. Over a recent extended evening meal with the girls and their friends, the conversation turned to how to engage with people in difficult and challenging situations that can lead to depression. There is a skilled technique you can use to help people work through issues. It’s called Perceptual Positions, the skill of adopting more points of view than your own in an organized way. So why use this technique?:

# It improves your understanding of yourself and how you interact with other people.

# It enables you to think more flexibly and creatively, especially when confronted by difficult situations.

# It provides an opportunity to stand back and consider issues dispassionately without taking sides

# Helps you appreciate the influence of your verbal and nonverbal behaviour on others, and the influence of their behaviour on you.

So we discussed how to do the 3 position model and this is the summary…..

1st Perspective

This is what everyone does, you see the situation through your own eyes. The issue is you do not consider the others needs. you  are selfish, even to yourself. Run through the issue or interaction. Pay attention to your own thoughts and feelings. Consider your own needs.

2nd Perspective

Imagine what it is like to be the other person. Put yourself in their shoes – as if you are looking back at yourself, seeing, hearing, and feeling as the other person. How is ‘you over there’ coming across to “you over here”? Are you in rapport with you? Are they respecting you? Is he/she taking your views into account? Are you listening or just verbalising your own needs?

3rd Perspective

Take a detached viewpoint. This is THE most difficult position to take and takes practice to do. Imagine you are looking at yourself and the other person ‘over there’ – seeing the two of them speaking, articulating, facial expressions, etc. Pay particular attention to nonverbal behaviour such as the body language and the sound of their voices. Then consider, as a result of taking this view, what advice you wish to give ‘yourself’ about how you are handling the situation.

The 2nd Time Round

Now repeat the process using the insights and advice from the Round 1. Run through it with the new behaviours – first as yourself, then as the other person, and finally the detached 3rd view.

Finally, think of upcoming events in which these insights may be useful. Mentally run through these while imagining that you are incorporating your new learning. You will suddenly begin to realise that in most of the situations you were in before, you were acting in 1st position, maybe, sometimes in 2nd, but very rarely in 3rd.

Try it, you might be positively surprised at the results…..

Further information on depression in Teenagers:


I leave you with the following quote:

“If you know someone who’s depressed, please resolve never to ask them why. Depression isn’t a straightforward response to a bad situation; depression just is, like the weather. Try to understand the blackness, lethargy, hopelessness, and loneliness they’re going through. Be there for them when they come through the other side. It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do.”  Stephen Fry