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Most parents are used to adolescents having their own music, their own tastes in movies and TV programs and their own style of clothing and hair. If their parents don't like it, well, that's really the point. Teen culture as a world clearly distinct from that of adults is a relatively new phenomenon. Sociologists say that what we describe as teen culture began in the 1950s. And the early years of the baby boom produced record number of kids who moved into their teenage years in the 1960s.
In previous decades, many teens quit school in their middle teens to begin working life. But with the prosperity that North America enjoyed in the 1950s and 1960s, families were able to extend the level of education provided to their teens. The extended stay in high school gave baby boomers more opportunities to share their thoughts and interests with others their age. Advertising agencies and marketers picked up on their interests and fads and reflected them back to the teens in the mass media, particularly in movies and television.
Common themes emerged: teens crave thrills, whether its the Blob trying to devour a young Steve McQueen or a death-defying ride on a wooden roller coaster; teens find the outlaw fascinating, whether it's James Dean, the urban rebel, or MarIon Brando, the hiker in The Wild One; teens set themselves apart from their parents' generation by their behaviour, their clothes and their slang.
Tastes have changed, but most of the themes are the same. Marketers research what kids like, and they cash in. Teens still love thrills -- think of the millions of dollars raked in on the first weekend of the release of the latest comic book adaptation. The outlaw still appeals, too, although it may be a real-life convicted rap artist (50 Cent is a perfect example) rather than a celluloid biker.
Adolescents are driven to take risks. They have to break out of the relative security and safety of childhood if they're to become independent and enjoy the tantalizing rewards of the adult world. Without taking some risks, they can't grow. Horror movies, defiant song lyrics and sexually explicit dance styles satisfy some of that need for risk without exposing them to the world's real dangers. They are both an outlet and a form of practice for the real challenges ahead, whether those challenges are working up the courage to go on a date or to deal with the major step of leaving home. As for their clothes, if someone's feeling vulnerable in their changing world, as many teens do, it helps to make themselves look tougher than they may feel. And identifying themselves with outlaws by dressing like a skinhead or a gang member brings some small degree of confidence.
The other reason for teen dress and speech is one that adults recognize -- fashion. Once a particular style seeps into the teen consciousness, those who don't follow it just don't belong. If they're going to have a style, it has to be different from the one that parents prefer. How else can they make themselves distinct and complete the separation process, the teen's primary work?
Teen culture is not homogeneous today. Subgroups with particular interests, whether it's classic rock or gangster rap, develop and spin off. Each group has its own way of dressing and its own favourite style of music. The groups will interact with each other, but they also don't seem to confront one another unless given reason to.
Page 1 of 3 -- Learn how to make decisions with your teen in mind on page 2
Making decisions with your teen in mind
Of course, teen culture isn't always easy to take. Parents who can grit their teeth through a particular hip-hop music track may react against the misogynist lyrics. They want to reduce or eliminate the violence not only in music for teens but also in TV programs, movies and computer games. Should they worry? It's an ongoing debate. Some psychologists fear that exposure to violence desensitizes young people so that they more readily accept violence as part of the normal world. Many sociologists counter that there's little solid evidence linking exposure to violence in entertainment to violence among teens themselves.
Your decisions about the type of entertainment you allow your teens to watch will depend on their ages and their temperaments. Many adolescents in their early to mid teens are highly impressionable and very susceptible to the potential negative effects of some materials available in the different media. Even if they aren't likely to copy the acts of a movie character, they may be disturbed by the violence in so-called entertainment. By the mid to late teens, an adolescent is likely no more susceptible to potential negative effects than an adult. Your personal and family values influence your decisions. If you're uncomfortable about a certain kind of entertainment and don't want your teen exposed to it, tell him your decision and why you made it.
As they move away from their families to establish their own separate identities, teens create new support systems for themselves. Few interests in the life of many teens are as important to them as friends. Teens believe that only someone going through the same thing at the same time can completely understand how they feel. They want close friends with whom they can share their fears, their hopes and dreams and their secrets. They need friends who won't betray their confidences, who will provide encouragement and reassure them when they fail, and who will stand by them against any personal attacks or vicious gossip. Loyalty is an essential element of teen friendship. As with every other age group, teens are initially drawn together in friendship by shared interests, but the concept of loyalty dominates their interactions in ways that it didn't in childhood and won't in adult life.
While teens value a close circle of friends, they're also a gregarious lot. Large, loosely structured groups of adolescents enjoy hanging out together at school, in shopping malls or in parks. Sociologists began studying large groups of teens in the 1920s, so it's not a new phenomenon. Although the settings may have changed, the dynamics are the same.
Gathering in large groups creates a comfortable teen-only atmosphere that lets kids feel free of the watchful adult world, so they can loosen up and be themselves. It's not unusual for these large groups to include members of both sexes. The large group provides a safer environment for boys and girls to test out their charms on each other without having to face the pressure of a one-on-one encounter. The atmosphere is such that any teen can express interest in someone else. Sometimes it's a real expression of real interest. Sometimes its just a test.
Page 2 of 3 -- Learn about relationship dynamics among teens on page 3
Whether teens are more likely to belong to mixed-gender groups than they were in the past isn't clear. Some professionals who work with teens say that it is more common, perhaps due to changing attitudes. However, teenage boys still spend most of their time with other boys, and teenage girls spend most of their time with other girls, except in dating situations. Changing times don't seem to have altered friendships between members of the same sex. Many girls are more likely to talk about their feelings to other girls. Boys are less likely to talk about how they feel, preferring to show their friendship during activities together.
The negative side of teen friendships hasn't changed much, either. Teenage girls tend to be what sociologists call "relationally aggressive." If they're angry with others, they're more likely to hurt them by spreading rumours, verbally assaulting them, or persuading others to ignore them. Teenage boys are more likely to cut off or withdraw from a relationship or be physically aggressive.
Concerns with your teen's friends
Parents often have worries about the friends their teens admire or acquire. They may worry that a particular companion exerts a bad influence on their teen, especially if the friend is involved in drugs or criminal activities. If you're worried about such a situation, first ask yourself how your concern developed. Are you concerned for your own child's safety? Or is the friend someone you simply don't like? If it is a case of not liking the other teen, try not to interfere. Allow your teen to choose her own friends, even if they aren't people you want to spend time with. However, if you have concerns that the friend may he influencing your child to try illegal or dangerous behaviour, then you must act. Talk to a school counsellor or other parents to get their opinion of the same teen -- is she or he a serious problem to others? Does he or she encourage other teens to try harmful behaviour? Have other parents noticed or sensed trouble?
When you talk with your daughter, avoid attacking the friend directly; she may feel obliged to defend her. She may also express her independence from you by spending even more time with a friend you disapprove of. Instead, say why you're worried about the friendship and where you fear it may lead. If your child has already internalized your family's values, she's unlikely to maintain a friendship with someone who opposes those values. Kids tend to seek out others with similar backgrounds and values as friends. While curiosity may draw her into spending time with antisocial kids, she won't have enough in common with them to sustain the friendship for long.
You can most effectively head off problems with friends by keeping an eye on what your teen is doing and knowing who her friends are. It sounds simple, but parental monitoring is the most effective way to keep teens out of trouble. Make it a house rule that your teen calls you if he's going to be home late or if he's heading off somewhere else with his friends. Make sure his friends feel welcome in your home, so you'll have a chance to know them.
For some teens, the problem with friends is that they have none. When your kids were younger, you may have helped by creating opportunities for them to meet other children. But that tactic doesn't work with teens. They're more likely to resent having their parents involved -- it might further damage their image in the eyes of other teens. Everyone needs to build friendships, but some teens enjoy spending time on their own, especially if they want to pursue personal interests and passions. Talk with your teen about her feelings; if she's genuinely happy with her solitude and doesn't think she has a problem, don't worry.
But it's important to know your child. Would she tell you there's no problem and hide her hurt feelings about a lack of friends or about the disloyalty of someone she considered a friend? If you can talk openly, be supportive and reassure her. Tell her that you understand how hurtful it is to be dropped by someone she considered her friend, but that there are other people she can get to know. Suggest activities in which she might meet other teens with similar interests, but let her decide if she wants to join. Don't be discouraged if your teen seems to reject your reassurances; it's more likely that your comments will bubble away in her mind and become a solace to her. Your influence is much stronger than it may appear from your teen's reactions to your suggestions.
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