Teen Talk: The Collective Continued
Teen Talk - Live
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The Teen Collective
In an earlier article I introduced the idea of the Teen Collective; the invisible web that ensnares and motivates teen group behavior. Many have spoken of the influence and importance of peers and the effect known as peer pressure, but the teen collective goes further, and deeper, into the teenage psyche.
The adults on the fringes of TeenWorld; parents, coaches and teachers for the most part, discover the influence of the Teen Collective through the gradual attrition of their influence on the children. Sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic, the awareness that what you say, what you want, is being resisted.
It can be a great surprise when your formerly compliant child goes through an apparent character change. We understand the need for them to develop their independence, but we are often caught out over the choice of where they chose to make their stand.
The traditional battles embrace how late to stay up, or stay out, completion of homework or household chores, and of course, choice of friends, along with, clothing or hairstyles, or of more concern, food choices.
Some of this is internally driven, a need to assert individual choice, but it is made way more complex in that the model is coming from the Teen Collective.
There is a fear, never to be underestimated, of breaking the unwritten rules of the collective. Of making a mistake, of being found wanting in the eyes of the "others".
It is absolutely mind boggling, this juxtaposition of striving for individuality and the absolute submission to the peer group. Strong, independent, and confident kids, will defer decisions as to whether they like something or not, until approved by the group, even quite minor decisions.
Often it appears from outside that one person, or a small group, are the tastemakers in the collective, but closer examination reveals that they are as bound by the rules as anyone.
The collective decides, usually in a backhanded way, what is OK. This extends from how you wear your hair, what brand clothes are OK, and how they should be worn. I say backhanded, because, by paying attention to what is being ridiculed, in a process of elimination, you figure out what is acceptable.
This extends to every conceivable part of your teen's life, with very few exceptions, and is strictly (self) enforced. Adult rules and sanctions pale into insignificance when compared to the possibility of being on the outs.
This behavior is so natural, so normal, to the teens; they have a hard time explaining it to us. They expect us to not get it. We are not in their tribe. Being excluded from it would have no impact on us. However it is seen as life and death to the teen.
A newer phenomenon is that the power and influence of the collective has grown exponentially with the growth of social media. This is no longer a six hours while you are at school thing; it is twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week now. There is no escape.
Easy to see why teen suicides are increasing, right?
So, what can we, the adults do, to help our wards through this intense passage?
The first thing is to understand the influence of peers and not minimize it. Know that your child is between a rock and a hard place and try not to make it harder.
Second, it is crucial that the teen feels that they have an adult they can confide in. A trusted adult should be their anchor in the stormy seas. Parents are often a little too close, teachers and coaches too often in a position of judging, so the extended family is often the best choice. Aunts and uncles, especially if they are perceived as "cool", can be invaluable, grandparents too, especially if they are good listeners, but don't discount your adult friends or neighbors.
In my previous role as a principal, I would listen and respond to any student if they either came to see me, or, more commonly, emailed me. I was less directly involved in their day-to-day schooling than their teachers, and for many, they had known me since they were three or four years old, so I was a trusted, stable entity.
I listened to, and read, a great deal of stuff I personally could have happily done without, but there were several instances where I was able to get appropriate assistance in place before things got too serious - cutting, suicide, and eating disorders for example.
Three would be to provide the safe place to hang. I heard from a few readers last week that had made their home the place for the kids to hang out in. My wife and I did the same, and letting the football team camp in your living room is not exactly easy, and the three times a week trips to Costco, not exactly cheap. In hindsight, well worth it, we knew our son's friends, they felt comfortable sharing with us, and the mutual respect earned and learned, was invaluable. An unexpected side benefit is that, now, these young men and women are making their way in a host of occupations and professions, and have been able to be very helpful to us.
The fourth component would be stability. Sure you say the same thing over and over, but your predictability, no matter what the eye-roll says, is another important fixed point. It is vital that teens hear that you love them, that you care, that they matter, because the collective gives them the opposite message. If they expect you to go nuts over their grades, go nuts over their grade. They'll tell their compatriots that you don't care, but in their hearts they know you do.
These teen years are a terrible time to move homes or schools. Avoid it if you possibly can. It is a sad fact of modern life that this is a time when many men bail from their family obligations, so too many women face this battle alone. In making their girlfriends happy, many men are practically guaranteeing the unhappiness of their children. Gents, your relationship with your children will bear the stain forever. A plea to look at the bigger picture, I know, but....
Raising teens needs to be a team effort. Remember, the challenge is not only your child, but also the influence and impact of the collective.