Do Teenagers Need to Feel Understood by their Parents or Guardians?

All we want is to be treated like human beings, not to be experimented on like guinea pigs or patronized like bunny rabbits,” demands Veronica Sawyer in the dark comedy, Heathers (1988) portraying the universal appeal of teenagers – the right for teen angst to be heard. But what reactions do such statements engender in most parents? Veronica’s mother gives a calm reply- “When teenagers complain that they want to be treated like human beings, it’s usually because they are being treated like human beings.” What fundamental life issue do we have here? All of us have gone through a period in life where our ideas are clash with our parents. With hormonal fluctuations and a rising sense of identity and self-worth, teenagers feel an aching need to be understood by society, peers and perhaps most crucially by their parents or guardians; they need their full potential to be realised. And with good reason, as teenagers do have a voice worthy of being heard. It must be heard. We know that the generation gap is widening day by day, and parents fail to make their child feel understood. This recurrent battle is based on misconceptions and poor communication. Yes, everyone knows that a teenager’s world is tough, and it is the parent or guardian’s duty to understand its complex maze. The distance must be bridged.

Did you know a Sri Lankan on an average day mulls through sixty problems? A rather high rate indeed- and undoubtedly the youth stand at the top of the curve of worries. The need to fit in, fear of failure, yearning to explore the unknown, learning difficulties, peer pressure, bullying, physical imperfections, dress styles, who you hang out with, how you look, talk, walk and pull of scene to impress your fellow colleagues; the list goes on. A teenager with no proper outlet of the pent up energy or stress in him descend to depression and worse. Yet think of all the hidden talents, ideas and creations that yearn to be expressed in the adolescent mind! They say that children are the most sensitive, but teenagers can analyse and evaluate their feelings and view the world an objective yet passionate eye. But the expression of their views must be done wholesomely; as such they should be guided by their parents. Recent research done by Deborah Yurgelun-Todd and colleagues at the McLean Hospital Brain Imaging Centre in Boston, Massachusetts has finally proved that the development of the frontal lobes during adolescence increases decision making skills and the brain is 95% formed. But whilst the adult brain is rational, the juvenile brain is driven by emotion and is very sensitive to the surrounding, as I mentioned above. How does a teenager convey his fears and ideas, then? It is actually a ‘who’. Parents. But the modern society and lifestyles are unequipped to meet the challenge with both parents and teenagers unwilling to compromise. The generation gap is widening.

Especially in a developing nation like Sri Lanka, the cultural and social gap between parents and adolescents increases drastically. In one word: Internet. In what parents find a tool for business and keeping loved ones closer, the younger crowd finds a vista of endless entertainment and the luring perks of social networking. But it is a fact commonly admitted that the online world has dug an impassable chasm between the young and the older. One no longer has to depend on elders for information or advice; it is just one click away. Family time diminishes. Besides, school and social life is now vastly different from the memories cherished by parents. Only a person with his head stuck in the past could still believe that we are a civilized cultured lot. Sri Lankans boast at every opportunity of our close knit hospitable culture whereas the truth stares at our face – we in fact do not. This is a thing of the past, and parents should see it and adapt to their off springs world. With the dawn of the technological age, we are certainly drawing away from what our ways of living used to be. The stubborn refusal or the complete embracement of the western culture has left us with neither identity nor culture. We are stuck in the rut of a backward feudalistic society. The teenagers are irrecoverably trapped in this dilemma. On one hand we have the modern family blessed with wealth and opportunities. They provide a platform for the parents and children to meet and interact as both parties are aware of the world they live in. But what about the sincere, simple and humble bonds that would have existed, if modernization hadn’t increased the isolation of man? They are lost. On the other hand we have children introduced to a fast moving world ill equipped to handle it, because their parents have not provided them with the necessary skills. We know that the majority of families in Sri Lanka fall into this category. There is a lot friction against old views, as currently there are way more new avenues to pursue than the beaten track. There may be genuine situations when the parents know so little of their off-spring’s world that their conversations are limited to comments on meals and transactions of money. This increasingly unhealthy situation is contributory to the isolated feeling of the teenager where they strongly believe that their parents do not in any way understand them.

This brings us to my initial point that a parent or guardian stands at a perfect place to offer the outlet for teenage angst. They have known you for your whole life, and perhaps know you more than you could ever know. But wait- we are passing over an important detail. The older generation too has been through the ups and downs of growing up in difficult and often oppressive environments. Perhaps experience may triumph over information, and they will be better aids than the internet or peers. Although the mind-set and tolerance of the youngsters have changed with time as has the nature and aspects of the issue, the basic driving forces surrounding the cause for worry remain universal. It is very identifiable. Both sides must shed their pride and co-exist.

Veronica’s mother would be able to relate to her if she took the time to understand, and Veronica would feel so much easier if she just told her problems without pulling away. She feels dejected and confined, but her mother thinks she is treated like a human being as she is unaware of the problems her daughter is going through. Humans are by nature imperfect beings, and they do not always pull together, but creating safe environments where discussion can happen as equals is not an impossible task. It all lies in good communication and an open minded approach to the subject. Moreover, growing up, the family may have adjusted to strictures and practices which clearly no longer perform any productive function. The parents would subconsciously feel a self-earned superiority over the child. A weak willed child will barricade behind excuses and be non-confronting. A boisterous yet insecure child will deny and use arguments and violence as weapons. All these defences must be lowered using care and tact. This does not require essential medical intervention; however family counselling and psychotherapy would definitely be a welcome boon to most families. Everyone knows the importance of friends, and that is truly what the members of family should become. A dinner table is an ideal place to bond. But remember everyone’s taste is not the same when it comes to humour. Change too is a way to mend broken ties with a whole new beginning leaving your problems behind and starting a fresh. Though a change of location is refreshing, fleeing never helps, so making changes within the environment you are already at would be helpful. Most importantly, always keep in touch. With technology eager to take us miles away with a tap or a click, it is easy to drown in social networking in the search of an outlet without realizing those who are at the best position to understand the teen angst the best is right with you, nearby.

A typical teenager would bottle up their worries and feeling. They cannot open up to their parents. Most suppressed teenagers feel distant to their parents. Yet the parents remain your closest friends. If both parties realize the social massacre Sri Lankan society is collapsing into, and does as Hazel Lancaster does, we will survive.

“I just kind of crawled across the couch into her lap and my dad came over and held my legs really tight and I wrapped my arms all the way around my mom’s middle and they held on to me for hours while the tide rolled in.”

She is the protagonist of John Green’s acclaimed book The Fault in Our Stars, a witty and deeply insightful look into the psyche of a young girl battling cancer. All troubled teenagers can identify with her.

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Sam Samararatne

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