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Why today’s adolescent journey is different from yours

why kids today are different from their parents

My colleague and I recently had a book published titled Adolescence: Constants and Challenges. If we had written a book solely for parents, it would be titled Adolescence: Constantly Challenging. Through all stages of development, our children try our patience and require us to develop an understanding of their views. As a parent of an adolescent, if you often ask yourself “What happened to that little person I knew and understood so well?” please be assured you are not alone.

Different but similar

If you think you can understand your adolescent by drawing on your own experiences, you’re mistaken. Times have changed dramatically and with it, adolescent behavior. Adolescents often reflect back a distorted mirror image of the contemporary society in which they live and, today’s adolescents are no exception. To understand adolescence, one needs to understand the times in which they live, and not look at their adolescent through the lens of their own experience.

In many ways, contemporary youth experience the same truths we all experienced – the importance that parents, peers, school, community, and culture play in their lives. However, the world as we know it has changed significantly, much of today’s youth is decidedly different from any other generation. The speed of current societal changes has created a very different adolescent passage.

How and why it’s changed

Up until recently, adolescence was seen as a transitional moratorium that separated childhood from the demands and responsibilities of adulthood. Today, it has become one of the longest developmental periods, beginning earlier, and in many cases, lasting longer if your child is living home after college graduation. Kids seem to acquire a level of sophistication at a younger age, yet are remaining in an adolescent stage for a longer period.  Today’s adolescent doesn’t just jump into adulthood as in the past – it’s now a slow and gradual weaning process.

 The implications of this shift are significant. Young children are displaying behaviors well before they are ready to act on or understand their meaning, and older adolescents are staying perpetual children. As one writer put it, “the conveyer belt that transported adolescents into adulthood has broken down.”

Technically speaking

This generation has been called the “plugged in” generation because of their cell phones, computers, laptops, tablets, e-readers, and of course TV and radios. The variable that has produced the most significant change has been the Internet and the ever-expanding world of social networking. 

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Adolescents can now shop for anything in any part of the world in a matter of seconds, but the Internet has dramatically altered the way they communicate with each other socially. Online friendships have become the hallmark of this generation as face-to-face communication for many adolescents has been eclipsed by Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and blogs. 

American psychologist Harry Stack Sullivan believed that peer group social acceptance was literally a precursor of healthy self-esteem and identity formation for adolescents, but he didn’t foresee having hundreds of cyber “friends” without experiencing the intimacy many theorists believe necessary for the development of mature adult relationships.

The new “me” generation

Today’s youth also seemingly come fully equipped with a well-entrenched sense of entitlement that permeates all aspects of their lives. Many professionals believe this exaggerated sense of their self-importance stems from past years of child-rearing practices and pop culture messages where everyone is “special.” Couple this hallmarking “look at me” as the highest goal attainable and the combination seems to have germinated a group of adolescents who feel that everyone needs to be there for them, IMMEDIATELY, and without hesitation. If not, they tantrum. 

Adolescent relationships have also evolved. My generation may have ushered in the sexual revolution, but today’s adolescents have brought this to a new and very different level.  There are many professionals who believe that this new and different definition of sexuality leave adolescents ill-equipped for future mature, intimate, adult relationships.

There is plenty of good news regarding today’s youth as well. Cigarette smoking is down among today’s youth as well as the use of most drugs and alcohol. The incidence of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases is also lower. They might be a consummately self-absorbed group, but they are also the most well-informed generation in history.

So roll your eyes after talking with your adolescent just as our parents did. Their path is different from ours – as it should be. But just as we did, they will find their way to a healthy adulthood.

Paul Schwartz, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh.

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