Torah Musings: What Our Teens Wish We Knew


What Our Teens Wish We Knew

Sarah Pachter

As a parent with a preteen, I am on the cusp of a new and challenging stage: the teenage years. Brimming with curiosity, and attempting to prepare myself for the next phase, I have casually interviewed teens around the nation to gain their perspectives. I asked for a glimpse into their world, and thankfully they have welcomed my questions with open hearts.

Many shared what it’s like to be a teen and what they wish their parents understood about them. They also discussed what they wanted their parents to do differently, and how they viewed certain boundaries.

What’s it like to be a teen?

A boy lamented, “Some kids in my school will do anything to be popular, hurting others along the way to get what they want.” Once teens reach a certain age, popularity can become everything. It becomes difficult for some teens to cope with an environment like this.

Another teen expressed, “There is a lot of social, academic, and family pressure for teens. Sometimes we get lost in one of the pressures and forget about the others. For example, we may think, ‘Oh, it only matters what my friends think, or only school matters.’”

She continued, “Teens can get anxious about trying to balance everything, and we forget what’s important. We can lose ourselves prioritizing only one category in our lives.”

Of course, challenges change within “teenagehood.” One girl explained that early teenage years deal mostly with awkwardness, whereas older teens are facing more serious difficulties like anxiety and depression.

She said, “Anxiety and depression are big problems for kids my age. The older you get, the more noticeable it becomes because the pressure to ‘grow up’ increases. In ninth and tenth grade, kids are not paying attention to what’s going to affect our future. But as we move into the later stages of ‘teenagehood,’ we become more anxious about our future.”

Is anybody listening?

Two teens expressed that they wish their parents would listen more. One, a teenage boy, shared the following, “Teens need to feel heard. When I’m arguing with my parents, I wish they would really listen to what I’m saying instead of just waiting for me to finish so they can respond. Sometimes they get upset about what happened, but maybe I have an explanation or a reason. I want parents to let us speak and really hear what we are saying.”

But their desire to be heard has specific requirements. One teen explained that she wished her mom wouldn’t ask so many questions.

At this point in my interviews, I felt that teens had created a no-win situation for parents. It’s as if the teens were saying, “Listen to me—but not really—because I don’t want you to ask me a single question or reflect what I’m saying.”

I asked her, “Isn’t it a good thing your mom wants to listen by asking follow-up questions?”

She explained that it was the type of questions that irked her. “If I ever decide to share something with my mom, she needs to just be a sounding board. Even though it seems obvious to ask questions, her questions make me want to shut down because it feels like prying. I want her to listen and not push for more. That way, I would probably be willing to share more and more frequently.”

What this teen shared is precisely what Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish suggest in their book, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen, and Listen So Kids Will Talk. Although the logical response when listening is to ask questions, sometimes questions are perceived as intrusive. Faber and Mazlish suggest listening to our children without judgment or too strong an emotional response.

For example, if a child talks about a difficult day in school, we can acknowledge their feelings with one word such as “oh” or “hmm.” (Of course, this only helps if we are actually giving the child our full attention; children are experts at deciphering whether our “hmm” is simply masking a distracted mind.) Another way to respond is by remaining as emotionally neutral as possible and offering a term for the emotion they are expressing. For example, “You must have felt betrayed when Lori shared your secret with Melissa.”

The teen continued, “When I’m talking to my mom about something, she should be happy that I’m at least sharing something with her. She doesn’t have to know more.”

This teen’s sentiments are reflected by Kenneth Ginsburg, Co-founder of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication at CHOP, who describes such a sentiment succinctly. “The parents who know the most and who have the most influence over their child’s academics and behaviors aren’t the ones who ask lots of questions. They are often the ones who are the least reactive and who express warm, unconditional love and support.”[1]

It seems that the key to unlocking your child’s emotions is to zip the lips and open the ears. In this way, we can listen to our children for the sake of hearing them, not so we can retaliate or pry.

Where is my space?

According to teens, needing “space” does not just mean physical freedom. One girl expressed frustration about her lack of emotional space from her parents. She said, “I wish my parents understood that a bad day can just be a bad day.” She wanted her parents to know that if she comes home in a bad mood, they shouldn’t assume the worst or think she’s depressed.

She continued, “Don’t go to the worst-case scenario in your mind. Accept that I will sometimes have a bad day, and it doesn’t mean that I, or the situation, needs to be fixed.”

Another boy mentioned needing physical space to spend time with friends. “Friends are important, and I don’t always want to spend time with my family. For example, if a friend invites me to his house for lunch on Shabbat, I wish my parents would let me go.”

Many parents reading this might be thinking one of the following:

Yes, but what if the parents don’t approve of the friend?

What if I’m not okay with the “need for space”—meaning abnormal curfew requests?

Alternately, parents may wonder how to deal with other issues, such as:

What if we differ regarding cell phone or screen-time usage?

What if I don’t approve of their wardrobe when leaving the house?

One parent shared an important response: “I can’t keep saying yes to things I’m not comfortable with—suddenly, I look in the mirror and don’t even recognize myself hashkafically.”

Based on these interviews, I believe that if we give our children the space they need, listen wholeheartedly, and maintain our value system, our relationship with our teens can be nourished. We may have highs and lows, but ultimately our connection to our teens will be strengthened in the long run.

These questions are intricate, and all address the need for boundaries versus freedom. Stay tuned as I address these questions, and others, in the next edition’s article.