Sunday, September 25, 2005

10 Things Your Teen Won't Tell You...but She Did Tell Me

10 Things Your Teen Won't Tell You...but She Did Tell Me

The editor of a teen magazine tells what's on the adolescent mind.

1. I think about sex -- a lot.
There's no question that sex is a topic of intense fascination for teens. But just because they're fascinated, doesn't mean they're doing it.

One of the stereotypes that still seems to be true, even in the 21st century, is that girls and women are more emotional than boys and men. So when teen girls think about sex, they often think about it in the context of their feelings. Sometimes this is problematic, because a girl can be persuaded to think that if she really loves a guy, it's okay to have sex with him, and even, on some level, required.

At the same time, girls' emphasis on feelings can make them cautious, because they aren't typically looking to go out and "get laid." In fact, in a survey one teen magazine did last year of 15,000 girls, a whopping 73 percent reported that they were virgins, and 49 percent of those said they were proud of it.

Given how powerful hormones are, and how much sexual imagery there is in the media, it's natural that your daughter is going to talk and read about sex. But think of it this way: She's being driven by a need to find out information -- about her body, his body, the repercussions of her decisions -- and studies have found that the more educated girls are about their sexual options, the less likely they are to get pregnant.

So let your daughter talk. It's a good way for her to explore her values and feelings about sex. And if she senses that you won't judge her harshly, preach ceaselessly or make light of her concerns, there's a good chance that she'll let you in on the conversation.

2. I want to be a star -- or at least be with a star!
Whether it was Sinatra, Elvis, the Beatles or Michael Jackson, every generation has swooned over some idol. But the current generation of girls seems to have taken celebrity worship to new heights, or lows, depending on your point of view. Much of the mail I received was devoted to pleadings for a meeting, date or tour with the star of their dreams. There seemed to be little understanding -- even among this relatively savvy and streetwise generation -- that these working celebrities really can't arrange to hang out with fans. Second, despite what the stars say in interviews about the backbreaking work necessary to attain their status, more and more kids seem to think that becoming a celebrity is a genuine career option.

To parents I say: Make fun of this fantasy at your own risk. You'll only be further alienated from your daughter. Instead, I recommend exposing your teen to other career tracks -- starting with your own or your husband's. Show your teen the challenges, responsibilities and rewards of your work, and don't be afraid to expose the frustrations or stresses. Your daughter will appreciate being taken seriously.

3. I take your cash flow for granted.
The downside of the last decade's thriving economy is that most teens don't understand the concept of waiting to get what they want. Even if you're personally trying to hold the line, there will easily be two or three other parents in your daughter's school who already bought their teen the cutting-edge nonskip CD player, or the latest designer boots, or booked the entire dance club, complete with live band, for her sweet-16 party.

Your child will not be placated with tales of "When I was your age, I was thrilled to get a new pair of high-tops." She will likely feel entitled to whatever goodies are dangled in front of her by increasingly aggressive marketing tactics that have spilled out of the confines of commercials into regular TV programming (consider all the brand-waving on TV sitcoms and reality shows).

Your only recourse is to decide what's appropriate to spend on her extracurricular life, then make her earn her own money to buy goodies beyond that amount. Over the course of your daughter's lifetime, easy money will not be guaranteed, and this is a lesson that's less painful learned early than late.

4. I'm not religious, but I am spiritual.
This generation of teens may not be setting any records for church attendance, but they do, when asked, characterize themselves as believers in God and are interested in issues of faith. Even teens who didn't necessarily relate to born-again Christianity admired Cassie Bernall, one of the girls who was killed in the Columbine High School massacre, for allegedly not backing down on her religious convictions, even to save her life.

Today's teens also believe in putting their money where their mouths are. They say they are more likely to buy brands that give back in some way -- by donating money to the environment or by being concerned about the animal population. And while teens certainly pick pop icons based on style and coolness, they tend to love those stars more if they stand for something, such as helping to fight cancer or building homes for the poor.

5. My bedroom is the seat of my soul.
The "Keep Out" sign on a teen's room is a cliché? by now, but one that's still useful to heed. More than ever, girls use their bedroom decor as a way to express their creativity and individuality. A staple of a teen girl's room these days is at least one wall plastered with hundreds of cutout photos of favorite celebrities, as well as photos of her and her friends. But it doesn't stop there. Themed rooms (her favorite sport, her favorite season, her favorite place) or colors that match her mood at that moment are in force. Maybe it isn't your particular aesthetic to have a mural of mythical sea creatures painted all over the ceiling, but consider this: If your daughter is proud of her bedroom, she is far more likely to invite her friends over to hang out. And if you like the idea of knowing where she is, you'd better get used to photo collages and multicolored murals.

6. I worry about my looks all the time.
One of my most heartbreaking discoveries was how much time girls spend assessing their physical attractiveness -- and deciding they came up short. This was the only obsession that really came close to rivaling their fascination with guys.

One of the ways I tried to help girls was to divide their concerns into attributes they could do nothing about (height, for example) and those they could (weight). The problem was, the list of things girls believed they could -- and should -- do something about grew every day. (I ran a story about the troubling rise of plastic surgery among girls, that showed that liposuction for teens was up 132 percent.)

Of course, not every girl who wrote, worried that she was too fat, was wrong. While teens liked reading about exercise and nutrition, too many of them were couch potatoes with dismal diets. So I tried to showcase girls who were naturally and joyously athletic, and let them do the preaching to other teens in the magazine. These girls were normally proportioned and usually had self-confidence to spare.

So, do be vigilant about this problem. When you're looking for fun family outings, break out the bicycles instead of take-out pizza and a video. And do keep telling your daughter she's beautiful to you, and will be beautiful to those who truly see her soul. These verbal embraces are necessary inoculations against the demons of self-doubt that eat at your daughter daily.

7. My friends are everything.
It would be hard to exaggerate, especially for girls, just how critical their girlfriends are in their lives. As a parent, you'll sometimes feel -- if you haven't already -- that you're less important to your daughter than her 12 best friends. In a certain way -- take a deep breath -- this is true.

What her crew offers her that you can't (and shouldn't!) is a place in the world where she is an equal, an operator, where she has a shot at controlling her destiny and identity. That's a heady feeling. With you, she will always be the kid.

A dinner out with you...well, later for that. Try your best not to be destroyed or enraged by this attitude, because it will pass. Your daughter may be 22 by then, but, hey, that still leaves you a good 40 years of dinners together.

8. Love hurts.
From where you sit -- working, doing chores, keeping your marriage happy, helping your aging parents -- teen life, with its endless pursuit of love and happiness, seems enviable indeed. But the bulk of the mail I got from girls was full of tortured questions about guys and love: what to do about being ignored, scorned or betrayed; whether there was life after crushing heartbreak; whether they really were losers in love.

So try to keep your daughter's perspective in mind when you see her on the phone or e-mailing friends for hours. Remember that obsession with love and sex is hardwired into her brain; in a very real sense, she can't help but fixate on this. If she's talking about one boy 24/7, don't tell her it's just puppy love and that she'll forget about it soon enough. (Don't you still remember your high-school romances?) Take her seriously, and be sensitive to the fact that she feels mystified, mortified or manhandled by the god of love.

9. The world is a scary place.
Sure, my readers enjoyed learning about the workings of the boy brain, and loved to laugh over tales of other girls' embarrassing moments. But the stories that touched them most profoundly, and inspired them to write the most thoughtful letters, were those that addressed the serious -- and often scary -- things that happened in their world. School shootings. Violent boyfriends. Drugs slipped into drinks at parties.

Unfortunately, I didn't have to dig hard to find these stories. Many came directly from readers. The reason it was so healing, cathartic and ultimately empowering for troubled girls to read these pieces is that they helped them to know they weren't alone, and that it is possible to survive tragedy. What's more, testimonials coming from other teens have a much deeper impact on a girl's psyche than a lecture delivered by Mom. For example, one reader wrote: "I had been considering having sex, but then I read your story [about teen moms] and it made me realize I'm not ready. Thank you for stopping me from making a bad decision." The magazine gave the girls the nuts-and-bolts information they needed to stay safe. Look closely at the serious stories your daughter is reading, and use them as a jumping-off point for a broader conversation about the issues addressed.

10. I love you, and I need you.
If you're like most parents, you're going to have to wait till about your daughter's thirtieth birthday before she can say, "I love you, Mom," out loud, without stammering and blushing. Until then, you'll endure a lot of abuse and even pain. But the fact is, girls told me over and over that they loved their parents, even while they were complaining about overly-strict curfews and demands for better grades. That's important to note: You don't have to abandon discipline or your rightful place as the authority figure to earn your daughter's love.

So unless you're faced with some seriously dysfunctional family dynamic, be assured that despite all the eye-rolling and even occasional venom, your teen daughter does love you, and she wants you to love her. Just don't tell her how you know.


Anonymous said...

This is a beautiful post. I just turned 13 about 3 weeks ago, and I've been noticing all of the things you listed more and more. I thank you for writing this, also, because this may help some parents. I'm also sending the link to my Mom & Dad. Thanks again!!! :)

Reboots DaMachina said...

Glad to be of help! I have a kid too and I reposted it for her.