Is Your Teen Happy?
When asked what they want for their children's futures, parents often say, "I just want my child to be happy." Noble words, but beyond wanting our children to be happy, what do we do to help them find their way to happiness? Happiness is a difficult concept to define.
A study called Future of Youth Happiness: What Makes 12- to 24-Year-Olds Happy? may help both teens and parents define and set goals. The study was commissioned by MTV and the Associated Press and conducted by the research firm Social Technologies. Surveying a total of 1,200 12- to 24-year-olds from a variety of socioeconomic and racial backgrounds, the goal was to determine if teens are happy, what makes them happy and what they are doing to ensure future happiness.
Andy Hines, director of custom projects for Social Technologies, says they discovered that teens pursue happiness with three goals in mind: the pleasure of the moment, relationships with family and friends and the long-term search for meaning and purpose – in other words, friends, family and faith. Below is a closer look at a few significant categories in the study's conclusion and tips for what parents can do to help nurture teens in their journey toward long-term fulfillment.
It is probably no surprise to anyone that friends are and will continue to be important to young adults. Eighty percent of those polled said that having close friends is very or somewhat important; 23 percent said when they go out with friends they stop feeling unhappy. Dr. Jennifer Jo Brout, a psychologist and mother of 13-year-old triplets, says that parents need to have a realistic view of the importance of the peer group and to help their child nurture those relationships, not discount them.
"Confidence building starts early and much of that has to do with social success," Brout says. "We tell kids not to care what people think and not to worry about their peers, but that's unrealistic. To get to that point is a journey, and we have to foster our children's abilities to thrive in a variety of social situations, not just tell them to avoid them."
One of the study's most interesting conclusions was in this particular category. It found that virtual friendships can be as meaningful and nurturing to today's teens as real friendships. Hines says that one of the most telling quotes from the face-to-face interviews was, "I've never met my best friend face to face."
The conclusion of the researchers was that this is the first generation to be fully steeped in information technology that widens their world in a way that couldn't even have been imagined 20 years ago.
"That's what we saw as one of the most positive stories out of this, these abilities to have routine friendships with people in a variety of cultures," Hines says. "It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the long term, but our suspicion is that it's got to be a good thing for the world."
Tip for parents: Pay attention to your child's social situation. There is much evidence that a person's social ability predicts long-term success more than their academic triumphs. Parents should understand this and help, where necessary, with conflict resolution issues. Don't be afraid to seek outside help for a child who seems socially awkward or on the fringes of his or her peer groups. In general, don't be fearful of online friendships, but do teach your child common sense.
Hines says he was a bit surprised by these results because researchers were expecting to hear that parents drive kids crazy. In fact, what they found is that kids perceive their parents as looking out for their best interests. "In comparison to previous generations there is less antagonism between generations," he says. "Kids today see their parents as partners."
This doesn't surprise Brout. "Resilience studies show that kids who are resilient had at least one adult who had mentored them and was always there for them," she says.
Tip for parents: You know all those dumb commercials that say, "Keep talking, your kids are listening?" Looks like the commercials aren't so dumb after all. Seriously, keep talking, your kids are listening.
This category might best be titled "spirituality" as the report found that kids today are questioning traditional religion more than previous generations. Hines says they found that, while faith is important to young adults, there is no longer a wholesale acceptance of traditional religion; it's more a potpourri.
"We don't think [teens] sat down and said, 'I'm going to customize my religion,' but they are taking the parts that work for them and rejecting those that don't," Hines says. That does mirror the longer term values and trends we're seeing in the society as a whole.
Tip for parents: Teens do tend to mirror their parents in spiritual matters. Understanding and living out your own values will shape your child's more than any other factor.
While the study puts a positive spin on this category, there were some rumbles of foreboding. Financial issues were one of the top reasons cited for unhappiness, while 55 percent of respondents said there are things they can't afford. This becomes even more telling when you look at another category in the study: concern for the future. Only 20 percent of 13- to 17-year-olds polled are concerned about their future. However, in the 18- to 24-year-old category, that number rose to 40 percent.
Sally Sacks, psychotherapist and author of How to Raise the Next President: A Parent's Guide to Giving Your Kid the Secrets of Success (Powder Horn Press, 2004), says kids don't have a realistic view of how difficult it is to be successful, and when they hit the late college and early post-college years, they suffer a big shock.
"I'm finding the majority of kids want to do well and be successful, and they don't think it will be difficult to achieve because they've been so indulged," Sacks says. "The reality is that they have a distorted idea of what things cost, because they've always been taken care of financially by their parents in a way no generation before them has been."
Sacks says there is a lot of pressure in our society to have money and own a lot of expensive things, but at the same time, higher level education is becoming almost prohibitively expensive and good jobs are harder to come by.
"Kids are coming out of school loaded with debt and finding that the best job they can get barely covers their education expenses, not to mention a car and other living expenses," Sacks says. "Even many formerly secure adults are now living beyond their means because of changes in job security and rising expenses. It's even tougher for kids just starting out."
Furthermore, both Sacks and Brout voice serious concerns about the seeming disconnect between the rigors of school and the lack of rewards in the working world. While we seem to be putting increasing pressure on kids academically, it seems to be paying off less and less in areas such as increased scholarship opportunities and financially lucrative employment. Only the top few kids in any school have a realistic chance of a decent scholarship. The rest have to find ways to pay for it themselves.
Tip for parents: Play to your child's strengths, rather than focusing solely on academics. It's impossible to guarantee financial success in one's career, so focus on fulfillment. Along with that, as hard as it may be, don't give kids everything. Have them work for at least some of their possessions so they understand that things have costs associated. Start planning for educational expenses as early as possible.
It's almost impossible to address the results of this study without addressing the impact of technology. What the researchers discovered is that technology is a big source of stress for teens – but only when it's unavailable to them. Technology has become such an integral part of our children's lives that they feel anxious and isolated when it's not available. Social networking sites are their village in the same way that neighborhoods were back in the 1950s.
For those of the older generation who can't understand this, Hines likens it to the difference between a first and second language in previous generations. "[Technology] is a first language for most of these kids, but it seems foreign to their parents who see it as overload," he says. "But integrated technology in every facet of our life is here to stay, and this generation has fully embraced it."
Tip for parents: Hines says one area where they saw significant conflict in the study is in parents trying to be over controlling in their child's technological life. He said parents who try to be too strict in monitoring their child's communication technology may find themselves in an arms race with kids trying to get around the monitoring. This is probably an area where parents need to choose their battles.
There were many sub-categories in the study that were interesting, troubling and/or illuminating. Parents who would like to read more can download the study. Nothing guarantees happiness, but these insights may help light the path.