What I’m Reading: People’s Perceptions of Teenagers

I wrote yesterday about parents who let others decide if their children are too old to go trick or treating. And that riled me up and got me thinking about recent posts on my community’s Facebook page, and people’s perceptions of teenagers. Allow me to set the scene:

We’re a mere two months into the school year here in Virginia and students in 6th, 8th, 10th, and 12th grades are given the opportunity to complete the anonymous Fairfax County Youth Survey: determining the effectiveness of prevention and intervention programs. The survey asks respondents about their understanding of and participation with risky behavior, depression, bullying, drugs, etc.

Some people are quite critical, but not only am I sucker for a survey, I believe that much can be gleaned from the responses, which can ultimately impact community services and resources for young people. (Responses to surveys like this are how federal grant funds are disseminated for programs such as decreasing teen pregnancy or drug use, and creating awareness of and resources for teen depression, eating disorders, etc.)

Note: I have no affiliation with Fairfax County Public Schools or government. I have “no dog in this fight” as the saying goes. I am merely a women whose profession can and should be impacted by the responses. Not only do I help adults learn how to better understand and communicate with teenagers, I am an advocate for the demographic. Surveys such as this report back on topics and themes I can help adults understand.

It could get students in trouble – False

The survey is completely anonymous. There are no spaces for names or identifying characteristics. The likelihood of someone accurately pinning a student to their survey is impossible. If a teen replies that they have committed a crime, yet not been caught, there’s no blank field for them to describe their crime. It’s not a hand-written biography; it’s a bubble sheet that is collected alongside every other classmate’s bubble sheet.

It could get teenagers interested in trying what they read about – False

The likelihood of a high school junior reading about Oxy or Red Bull and talking to their friends about getting their hands on some is…unlikely. Call me naive, but a survey taken during homeroom isn’t going to pique a teen’s interest in using drugs or tasting the newest energy drink.

What does make teens interested in using drugs? Social/peer pressure and the need to belong. Boredom. Curiosity. Risk-taking behavior. And guess what? Teenagers already have all of those in spades.

So what can parents and guardians do?

They can pull up the PDF of the survey on their phone and discuss some of the questions with their children. There’s no need to go over all 174 questions (holy overkill!), but pick one in each category and dig in with your teen. Make it a “thing”. Butter them up with their favorite dinner, or take them out for Starbucks or ice cream. Better yet – talk to them while in the car so you don’t have to look each other in the eye! (This helps for young people who get shy easily, or who clam up when they’re the focus of the conversation.)

You can also share your own experiences with your teen. Be clear that your own history doesn’t give them the green light to also experiment, but show them you’re not perfect and that you made an immature choice. No, they won’t argue, “You turned out fine. Why can’t I try cocaine?” (Anyone who uses that argument should be embarrassed of its simplicity and should work on their wit.) Instead, you can help them come to the resolution that even though trying a drug didn’t seem risky when you were younger, you have the gift of hindsight that helps you see how scary and potentially dangerous your behavior was.

Sharing your experiences

When I had my first daughter, my husband’s teenage cousin would come over after school and spend time with us girls. I and my newborn appreciated the second set of arms. Cousin asked me, “What are you going to tell Harper about sex when she asks?”

I wasn’t at all surprised by the question. Cousin was eighteen years old, a high school graduate, and looking forward to the unknowns that would come next. I told Cousin the truth: I would tell Harper as much as was age-appropriate at the time, and I would never, ever try to scare her out of sex.

Risk-taking behavior is a hallmark of the teen experience – thanks to the underdeveloped brain – so me trying to scare her from sex would have little to no impact. Instead, I told Cousin, I would tell Harper about all that sex can be – the great, the good, and the not-so-good.

I said all of that knowing myself…knowing that I would never shy away from the real conversations. In fact, I know my kid will be the one who will cover her ears and yell “Too much! Too much!” when I really get into a topic. And while that might make us laugh in that moment, it will also build trust between us for when she has something she wants to talk to me about.

Finish the survey

We owe it to our teenagers to understand where they are and work with them from there. People’s perceptions of teenagers are so stereotypical that they forget that teenagers are individuals.

Teenagers are not dumb enough to read about a drug in a survey and say, “Oh that sounds good. I’ll try that.” The survey isn’t a Cheesecake Factory menu.

Teenagers are not dumb enough to hear about our bad decisions and think “Let me try that exact thing and see if my conclusion is different.”

That is, as long as we treat them as individuals – instead of lumping them in with every other 12-18 year old – and listen to them when they talk.

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