Why is it so hard for parents to understand their teenagers?

I think it’s one of the most heard complaints amongst teenagers: my parents don’t understand me. And in all fairness: quite a few teens do have a legitimate gripe here. It is very hard for parents these days to really understand their teens. But why is that? Let’s look at a few causes and at what you can do as a youth worker.

1. Parents have little time

There used to be a time when one parent was home (usually the mom) when teens came home from school, but in most western countries that time is long gone. Two working parents has become the norm and as a consequence, there’s not much time left for parents to spend with their teens.

The exact statistics differ, but I heard Marko quote that the average American dad spends 15 minutes a week with his teens, 5 minutes of which without the tv on. Walt Mueller in his book Youth Culture 101 quotes research which indicated that 46% of high school students wished to spend more time with their family.

If parents want to understand their teens, they have to invest time in them, meaning spending time with their kids and in ‘their world’. Parents can’t understand the world their teenagers live in, unless they deliberately engage with teen culture, for instance by listening to pop music, watching popular tv shows, movies, etc.

But when parents are forced to take jobs because of economic circumstances, this may simply not feasible. And we’re not even talking about the many single parent families where time is even more scarce.

What you can do: help parents understand youth culture better by making it easy for them, for instance with a monthly parents newsletter with short chunks of relevant info. Share a song text, a movie review, statistics and relevant research. You could also give a training or a workshop on youth culture or any other relevant topic.

teen girls

2. Parents underestimate the changes

Postmodernism has completely changed western culture in every way imaginable. But parents don’t always see this and too often hold on to their own (modernist) frame work and culture, consciously or unconsciously. They can’t see how different the world is for teens nowadays. Some parents deny that it’s different at all (and I’m convinced: tougher) for teens of this generation. Others fail to see how much influence postmodernism has on their teens.

What you can do: information is key. I’ve found that parents can be convinced of the huge impact of postmodernism if you just take the time to show them and teach them. Workshops may work well here. Keep it brief and relevant and as applicable for them as possible.

3. Parents can’t emotionally understand their teens

I’ve written about this before, but emotionally parents really can’t understand their teens. The way our brain is wired makes it pretty much impossible to remember feelings, so we can’t remember what it felt like to be a teen.

What you can do: make parents and teens aware of this. Awareness is a big first step. Also, give parents the tip to look up old photos or videos of themselves as a teen and consciously think about the emotions these invoke. It will help them recapture something of those feelings.

4. Teens close off

In all fairness, teens themselves are a bit to blame as well. They’re usually a touchy bunch, closing off when they get hurt or rejected. Understandable, but also not very conductive for a good communication with their parents.

Teens should also be helped to understand their parents better. They should try to step out of their own world and world view and try to see what on their parent(s)’ plate. For younger teens this is a big challenge considering their limited abstract thinking capabilities, but it’s good to try.

Teens also close off because they feel their parents aren’t cool, or because they want to become independent and keep their parents out. Even when they communicate this clearly, it doesn’t mean that’s how they really feel inside.

What you can do: help teens understand their parents better, especially in one on one conversations. And keep stressing to parents to keep trying to reach their teens, even when they close off.

What are you doing in your youth ministry to help parents understand their teens better? Do you see any other causes?

[Image:Photog aka eddie penland via Compfight cc]


  1. says

    this is great stuff. I also think that parents so underestimate the calling they have to raise their parents…parenting doesn’t just happen by osmosis. It takes long hours, hard work, hours of seemingly non productive conversation and love. great blog my friend.

    • Rachel says

      Thanks Chris! I’m always a bit careful in doling out advice, because with just one four-year old son, I can’t say I have much experience in parenting. The hardest stuff is yet to come! But I do believe you have to be very intentional about it, like you said so well it doesn’t just happen. You have to think about it, pray about it, read about it, invest in knowledge and strategies and everything. I’m called to youth ministry but I’m very aware of the fact that raising my own son right is the most important calling and ‘job’ I’ll ever have!


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