“Like all parents, my husband and I just do the best we can, hold our breath, and hope we’ve set aside enough money for our kid’s therapy.” ~ Michelle Pfeiffer
By Dr. Billy Jones, child psychologist for Mercy Health of Northwest Arkansas
Welcome to the May edition of Tweens & Teens. I took a month off…BIG YAWN…but it is sooo good to be back.
This month I want to talk about what tweens and teenagers fear most. After scouring the internet universe, textbooks galore, and listening to my family, friends, and children, I have come to what I think is the right answer…BUT, you’ll have to wait just a few minutes before I reveal the answer.
A poll conducted from a major university shows that 81% of teens feel that marijuana is their worst temptation while 32% think that illegal drugs (marijuana, cocaine, etc.) are the biggest problem they face growing up.
Poll or no poll…university or no university…I think they’re wrong.
In searching the GREAT AND MIGHTY GOOGLE, I found some comments made by teenagers about their fears. I’m listing some of them below for your enjoyment (and mine, of course). The second is my favorite:
- I think the biggest fear of teenagers today has to do with the loss of their peers and social status.
- Honestly, I can’t speak for all teenagers. But I think most of them don’t really have a big fear of anything.
- My personal biggest fear is never finding love, but I think most kids are scared of not fitting in nowadays.
- I think that the biggest fear in teens is their sexuality and finding their identity. They don’t know who they are and become afraid that others may make fun of them.
- I think the biggest fear is not meeting expectations, whether their own or somebody else’s.
- I think that kids and teenagers today are most fearful of school shootings, terrorists, and bomb threats because of news reporting in these scary subjects.
- I think that the biggest fear of kids and teenagers today is the death of a loved one. If you die yourself, you’re not around to mourn.
Notice that none of the responses above had anything to do with drugs, as the study from the above mentioned university suggested. I certainly would have included one if I had found it. Hmmm…maybe fancy, schmancy mathematical equations are not the way to answer this question. Perhaps some common sense would suffice.
So, let’s give common sense a try, shall we? When you take the core of many of these responses, couple them with the research from the University of Iamsosmart, you have your answer. The number one thing a teenager fears the most is…(drum roll, please)…embarrassment. Notice I didn’t say the ONLY thing a teenager fears is embarrassment, but the number one thing. For example, school shootings, the #6 statement above, are scary for all of us. And very real in this day in age. This has nothing to do with embarrassment, so I certainly don’t assume that there aren’t other possibilities.
But before we go further, let’s reword their number one fear to their number one goal: The number one goal of a teenager is to NOT be embarrassed. The reason I changed it to a negative (i.e., using the word “not”) is because I think teenagers would rather avoid embarrassment over being cool. Not that they don’t want to be cool…any parent knows this to be true; however, if given a choice, avoiding embarrassment might be just a wee bit more important.
For example, my 11-year-old son was just in a production at his school and the theme was on 50’s music. So all 5th graders had to dress up like they were in the 50’s. He slicked his hair back, wore an old white tee shirt, and put on some old jeans. BUT…he refused to wear a leather jacket, or even a letter jacket (you know, the one you get from playing sports), because he didn’t think that was cool. Give me a break! Of course it would have been cool. But I let it slide because in his mind, it was potentially embarrassing. Please notice…instead of taking a chance and wearing the leather jacket to look cool, he chose to avoid wearing it because he was more afraid of being embarrassed. So I let him make his own decision about what to wear and what not to wear. After all, I was trying to promote independence.
With that said, we can see, almost on a daily basis in my family, how embarrassment can come into play with our own teens. I’m sure that you have MANY examples of “Dad, don’t do that. It’s just not cool” or “Mom, don’t kiss me in front of my friends.” (We’d love to hear some examples, so click the comment button below and share!)
As we wrap up, please take a look back at the responses above for a moment. Loss of peers and social status (embarrassing), uncertain about your sexuality (potentially embarrassing), and not meeting another person’s expectations (embarrassing). Each of these has their own degree of embarrassment, and certainly there are other factors involved (e.g., uncertainty about what is to come). But the majority of them seem to focus on some level of embarrassment. And especially avoidance of embarrassment.
Remember, it doesn’t matter that a certain behavior or action may or may not cause embarrassment. It only matters that the teen thinks it will. Teens (and everybody else for that matter) behave and respond in a manner that is consistent with what they believe to be true, whether it is or not. This is why their decisions are so annoying to us. We know that what they are doing is not really going to be embarrassing, but they don’t. So they act in a manner that is more conforming to their peers. Why do you think they follow fads so easily? For the record, I have seen them do some pretty outlandish things in an effort to be really cool, so this avoidance of embarrassment issue does have some exceptions.
Now that we finally have our answer, we need to think about what we can do to help. Perhaps the best way to deal with your teen’s embarrassment is to give them the space they need to grow. Once they begin to gain their own sense of independence, it’s time for parents to back off and accept that their teenagers are starting to mature. This doesn’t mean we can’t keep an eye on them (even both eyes). But, it does mean we need to let them learn, grow, fall, and learn some more. As parents, we will always be there to pick them up and encourage them onward to adulthood. Sigh…our babies are growing up and we have to let them.
See you next month!