Today’s parents and teens: the generation chasm

There has always been a generation gap between parents and teens. Things change from one generation to the next and this is perfectly normal.

It seems, however, that in our global, fast-paced digital world the generation gap has become more like a chasm — and one which seems to keep widening almost day-by-day!

Our mental health facilities are unable to cope with the increasing numbers of troubled and wounded teens, and our adolescent suicide rate is at an unacceptable level. We need to work out ways to bridge this chasm so that we can better support our teens on the biologically driven journey of change and transformation.

How different is it for teens today?

  1. The developmental hunger to be accepted used to take place within the family and community – it now needs to take place in the public eye (even better, to receive exposure across the world). Sadly, parental acceptance and love has lost some of its potential to fill the hearts of our teens. Now they need the adulation of those in the ether – the more likes, shares, comments and positive emojis they get, the better they feel! The reverse is they can feel crushed when few people give them public acknowledgement. Fame at any cost has become a powerful irrational drive. Many parents never experienced this as teens and can feel an invisible wall has been built that keeps them away.
  2. Privacy is no longer respected or valued as it was when parents were teens. The days when it was accepted to value modesty or to be a little discrete (especially around our private parts, both in our homes or in public), has almost disappeared. Many argue that this shift in social norms has to do with the influence of pornography. Given half of all Australian children aged 9-16 experience regular exposure to sexual images, and 93% of boys and over 60% of girls have viewed pornography by age 18 (mostly between the ages of 14 and 17), this could be true. Porn is not always something our kids seek out either – often it comes looking for them in innocent places like Minecraft, in hashtags or embedded into YouTube videos. Even the app Snapchat thought it was OK to add a a site featuring pornography to their ‘Discover’ feature – thankfully our guardians and advocates have had that stopped. How many parents even knew it was happening? We might feel powerless, but see what happens when we step forward as grown-ups and say NO!
  3. Sexting images of breasts, penises and vaginas is seen by some – however thankfully not the majority of teens – as fun and a part of courtship. An Australian survey of 600 girls aged 15-19 found 51% believed that girls were pressured into sending sexy images. Former detective in the child exploitation area Brett Lee travels around the country speaking about the implications and dark side of sexting, with legal issues coming into play and also people having their images used against them in incidences of bullying, exploitation and in some cases blackmail. How things have changed? Sad but true. As Lee says, “communication and education are the best way forward”.
  4. Children are being marinated in sexualised images from the minute they are born, from so many different places – billboards, advertising, online, TV shows and films. I have heard of 4-year-old girls asking their mummy if they are ‘sexy’ and 8-year-old girls refusing to eat because they are fat! Body image pressures are impacting both our boys and girls in such unhealthy ways and it is so much worse than in the previous generation. Again social media comes into it… there are 10-year-old girls using filters to make themselves look thinner and more beautiful. WTH? Teens can spend hours hating themselves for not fitting the images being portrayed.
  5. For many teens, sex has become just something physical – not something to be savoured with someone you have feelings for. It is just something you can do if you want – to have fun, to fit in and to hopefully have someone notice you. Both boys and girls have been watching pornography – and by the mid-teens they have been conditioned by it in ways that would horrify most parents. Many girls are engaging in sexual behaviour that sees them physically injured and scarred – and many boys think that hitting, slapping and choking is a part of having sex. Anal sex is very common among teens – often it is the first sexual experience that a teen girl experiences, thanks to the porn-saturated world that our teens live in. Could this be any further from the adolescent tenderness depicted in old teen movie, like ‘Blue Lagoon’? I think not.
  6. Violence is now so prevalent in so many forms from our 24/7 news channels, to videos of beheadings on Youtube, violence in online games, the sharing of fight videos from school grounds, and the endless senseless violence of films that (despite adult ratings) are viewed so easily by teens in illegal downloads or on mum and dad’s Netflix or Plex or other streaming apps. Research is supporting the reality – sadly.– and shows teens are the most violent Australians. “Easier access to alcohol, the prevalence of video games and changing family structures” are to blame, according to demographer David Chalke.
  7. The internet has become like the proverbial rabbit hole that most of our teens have disappeared into. They are defined by their relationship with their online world – it is irreparably connected to who they are. It is so much more than FOMO – the constant need to be connected in their many spaces online. It is a strong biological drive to be connected to friends and peers, and a normal part of the shift from being more connected to parents. Sadly the more they are connected to the digital world, the more disconnected they are to those closest to them, especially caring family and friends. We cannot cut them from this world because that is how they stay connected. Yet this is also where teens connect with sexual predators, bullies and trolls who cause so much suffering. Helping them to navigate this world safely is a huge responsibility for parents. Please start with a good quality parental control app – one that ensures safety from inappropriate material, excessive hours online and a healthy bedtime – on all devices and screens. We also need to teach our kids about healthy boundaries around screens and agree on some guidelines as a family.

Hopefully as a parent you can now appreciate why the generation gap has become a chasm. A chasm that our teens need help to bridge.

Given all these challenges, is it any wonder our adolescents 12-25 are struggling to cope? Mental illness has increased among this age group –Mission Australia’s latest Youth Survey (2017) reports that 22.8% of Australians aged 15 to 19 exhibited symptoms of a serious psychological issue, up from 18.7% per cent in 2011.

Self-harming figures have increased too, and these are only the cases that reach medical attention – how many are suffering in silence? This is not a mental illness – this is considered a coping mechanism.

While parents may feel stranded on the opposite side of the generational chasm – I need to let you know that you are still valued and needed.

Seriously, teens value having parents who care – through the ups and downs of the unpredictable bumpy ride to adulthood. Just the same as they did when they were feisty 4-years-olds striving for independence and autonomy in their unique, egocentric, immature ways – they still want connection despite all the stuff that confuses them and upsets them.

They love feeling valued and heard – even if you look mystified as to what they are sharing! Explore ways to improve your communication with your teens – it will need to change from when they were younger.

If you can share an interest with your teen, this is an enormous help – walking the dog, watching nature programs, love of maths, star gazing, volunteering, playing a game online (or in real life), cooking or growing veges – find something. Have some regular one-on-one dates doing stuff you both like. If you start early in life this will be something they will come back to.

Please avoid being the doomsayers that just bring the bad news and worst possible scenarios – they seriously need people to show them the good news – the hope sowers who share inspiring and uplifting messages that lift their spirits.Share these with them! (PS Thanks to Josh Shipp for sending that link with me.. he shares lots of similar stories on his FB page so check him out).

Surround them with passionate, authentic people who share their interests – even if it is at dance, football, music, the swimming pool, the beach or at the skate park or BMX track. Find the place in the real world where you can help your teens stoke their spark – and then help them find them the positive places online! There are so many fabulous sites and social media pages that are a positive influence on our teens.

Encourage your fledgling adult to find ‘lighthouses’ who can be guiding lights on the journey of massive growth and transformation – the more the better. These people make our kids feel ‘they matter’ despite the poor choices they will make. Remember making poor choices is developmentally normal during adolescence.

While their brains are doing the most significant pruning – everything can get a bit difficult from increased forgetfulness, disorganisation, moodiness, volatile emotions and often disrespectful communication – know much of this is developmentally normal and it will pass.

Practice patience and kindness, and create the safe base they need at home.

Trust me – they need more TLC than previous generations and you have the mature pre-frontal cortex – so please use it to be the reliable, safe place to rest when things get tough.

May I also encourage you to please make some time to strive to care for all the young people around you – your kid’s friends, nieces and nephews, the teens in your community, at school and beyond.

Without being touched by the light of an adult’s open heart we can sentence our teens to a dark place where some never return. Embrace and encourage their friends – give them a safe place to hang out, your garage, around a fire pit, a caravan in your yard. We all need to strive to build human connectedness – in our families and schools.

Without a strong sense of community we are all at risk, and our most vulnerable are our teens.

We grown-ups need to model unconditional positive regard to weaken the toxic influences of the digital landscape and the 24/7 media world – and collectively we can turn the awful statistics around.

Statistics show that the majority of our teens are still doing OK – despite all the unhelpful changes since their parents’ own adolescence.

In some areas, many teens are better informed and more worldly than their parents – and many have developed strong social consciences as a consequence of being a part of a global community.

This can be a good thing and we adults can sometimes empower them to be the teacher and not the student. Heck, I have been turning to my sons for help in the digital landscape for years and will continue to do so. They are way smarter than me and they’ve taught me how to check hoax and spam stuff very efficiently! If we can work together as a team in our homes – sometimes seeking answers and solutions to challenges – everyone can learn and grow.

Lastly, avoiding putting too much pressure on them about their school grades. Consistently, ‘school or study problems’ are listed as one of the most pressing personal concerns for 15-19-year-olds, according to the Mission Australia Youth Survey. In 2020, the four main areas of personal concern were:

  • Coping with stress (43%)
  • Mental health (34%)
  • Body image (33%)
  • School or study problems (32.4%).

Stress impacts all areas of a teen’s life and, when it runs untethered, it can contribute to poor physical health and even poorer mental health outcomes.

We have years to grow and seek out meaningful ways of living in the adult world.

Good school grades are just one way of doing this. I had a student who failed my English class and never graduated and he managed to sell his software company for over $2 million when he was just 22.

It can take time to make good choices about which direction to take our life – and there are so many ways to university if that is where one needs to be. Maybe we need to tell all teens that they are on our earth to make it better in some small way – using their unique strengths – sometimes strengths that are never tested in our schools. My TedX talk explores this notion.

With awareness, compassion and action we can help teens navigate the hero’s journey to adulthood. Please don’t throw your arms up and give up. Capture their hearts and souls with enthusiasm and passion.

Trust me, teens can be easily influenced in a positive way despite what the world suggests. As parents and lighthouses we can build a bridge over that chasm.

If you do have a teen in your life who needs support (or you’d like to read up more on supporting them), check out the wonderful organisations listed on our support services and helplines for teens page.

If you’d like to build more understanding between you and your adolescent, you may enjoy Maggie’ video seminar “Saving Our Adolescents”.

This 1.5 hour presentation covers: Adolescence today; Decoding teens; Practical tips and strategies for communicating, living and working with adolescents; and Guiding adolescents.

Now available to watch online or on DVD 


Image credit: ©️ Scott Griessel /Adobe Stock –