What is wrong with teenagers these days?
Is that they are now bolder, more daring and with access to so much information that they think they know it all?
These are questions you hear a lot today.
The long holidays are here and teens have trooped back to their homes where they will stay for two months during the December holidays.
Besides the obvious financial toll of doubling the household supplies, parents of teenagers now have to contemplate a very crucial question: How do I deal with my teen son/daughter?
This lot has made a couple of headlines recently. If it is not an arson in school, it is a fatal fight with colleagues, disappearing from home or involvement in risky group activities.
But despite all the alarming news, there is nothing wrong with teenagers. The father of adolescent psychology, Stanley Hall, in his seminal work, Adolescence: Its psychology and its Relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion, and Education, described adolescence as a time of “storm and stress”.
Writing in 1904, Hall, in two famous volumes, acknowledged the fact that teenagers go through tremendous levels of emotional, biological and behavioural upheaval.
Hall’s depiction of adolescence as a period characterised with high sensation seeking, a time when crime rates are high, susceptibility to media influences and biological development rings true for the teenagers living in 2017.
“Most teenagers outgrow their ‘troubles’ by the time they are about 15 or 16 years and do not graduate to criminals in the future,” says Mr Mbutu Kariuki, a child psychologist.
Mr Kariuki, an ardent crusader of “positive psychology” – which prefers to look at the brighter side of life – believes that not all teenagers live up to the “storm and stress” depiction.
In fact, he says that research does not support the traditional definition of teenagers as majority of are “happy, relaxed, enjoy life, feel able to exercise self-control, enjoy relationships, school, work, look forward to the future, and confident of their ability to cope with the problems life might bring”.
Yes, a few of them might exhibit characteristics such as rebellion, emotional turmoil, conflict with authority and reckless behaviour, but Mr Kariuki says those who fall in this category are the exception, not the norm.
Neurologists and psychologists say that one of the reasons teenagers behave the way they do – problematic – is the fact that their brains are still developing.
The pre-frontal cortex, which is known to assist in judgment and suppressing impulsive behaviour, is still immature.
The pre-frontal cortex is the front part of the brain that is responsible for self-regulation, sound decision making, judgment and self-control, among many other qualities.
It is the pre-frontal cortex that prevents you from saying something silly or engaging in inappropriate behaviour.
Until 20 years ago, scientists thought that brain development ended in childhood but when scientists were able to use MRI scanners to take pictures and videos of the brain, they found that the brain of a teenager was still developing and continues to develop even in the 20s and 30s.
Prof Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a leading British neuroscientist who has been conducting research on the human brain for more than 10 years found that “there is a significant decline” in grey matter volume in the prefrontal cortex in adolescents.
Psychology and neurology aside, some believe that teenagers are largely a product of parenting and are a reflection of the community around them.
Rev Edward Buri, a theologian and a youth advocate-cum-mentor, believes that teenagers are not originals, but a sharp (and true) reflection of what is going on around their lives.
“Teenagers are at a high point of imitation. What you see in a teen, is what they have seen elsewhere,” says Rev Buri, a former youth director at St Andrew’s PCEA church.
Even psychologists agree on this, that problematic teen behaviour can be traced to inappropriate parenting. Mr Kariuki says that every child is a product of some form of parenting.
“Research indicates that, for example, children raised in a coercive or rejecting environment, or, in an overly permissive and chaotic home, are more prone to ‘problem behaviour’,” says Mr Kariuki.
Thus, according to Rev Buri, we should not ask, “What has become of our teenagers?” rather, the question we should be all clamouring to answer is: “What have we made our teenagers to become?”
It is why psychologists, theologians and parenting experts agree that in spite of the storms that could be going on in a teenager’s mind, modelling is important for a teen’s life.
“A teenager is the sum total of all the Yes’s and No’s they have received in their lives. They are not an alien tribe,” says Rev Buri.
Obviously, your teenager, growing up in 2017, is very different from the teenager of the early 1980s.
With the internet in their pockets and a litany of virtual friends on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and all, it is safe to say that the teenager of 2017 is having a lot more fun and exposure than the teenager of the 1980s.
The 1980s teenager – whether raised in the rural or urban – would spend their day doing chores and the only form of entertainment was the occasional television and interacting face to face with their friends especially in field games.
This is why it is so difficult for the modern parent to break through the wide range of distractions to get to their teenager.
Parents have to fight for the attention of their teenagers alongside friends, internet and media.
So how do you raise a teenager in 2017 and beyond?
Ms Roselyn Kigen, a parenting expert and the author of Voice of Purpose, a workbook for parents with teenagers agrees that today’s teens are more outgoing, want to be listened to, have access to a wider berth of information and – parents may not like this – often know more than their parents.
“Most parents today are comparing their teenagers to themselves when they were growing up, when it was the parent’s way or the highway,” Ms Kigen observes.
Ms Kigen says that parents are not focused on building relationships with their children and it is no wonder they get shocked when their teenagers get involved in unimaginable things. She further observes that parents today want an all-size-fits-all kind of parenting strategy; one that follows the mass.
They all want the same things of their children, they all want their children to get over 400 marks in KCPE, go to national schools where they all get As and pursue the “top jobs”, even if their children are not cut out for such things.
Granted, dealing with a teenager today is quite hard. “Even if you put a password for the computer, they will figure it out. If you choose not to pay for the internet, they will access it from their friends,” Ms Kigen says.
Pastor Carol Wanjau, a pastor at Mavuno Church and a mother of three teenagers aged between 13 and 16, admits the struggles of raising teenagers.
Pastor Wanjau believes in the old adage, an empty mind is the devil’s workshop, and tries to keep her teenagers as busy and as engaged as possible.
During the long holidays, Pastor Wanjau and her husband Pastor Muriithi Wanjau, also of Mavuno Church, send their children on short internships to give them work experience.
“We try to give them experience around their areas of interests. Hospitals, children’s homes and friend’s offices are prime areas for internship. They also come to our office to help out sometimes,” says Mrs Wanjau.
According to the Wanjaus, the long holidays are a crucial time to develop their children’s passion.
The teenagers divide their time between internships, sports activities as well as music and photography/videography classes.
That is over and above attending church camps and teen fellowships at Mavuno Church.
“If you can use the internship experience as a reward for all the hard work they have put in throughout the school term, then it will motivate them,” says Mrs Wanjau.
Another interesting way Mrs Wanjau occupies her teenagers is through household chores.
Long holidays is also a time when the family househelp takes an annual leave and the children take over the household duties.
“I don’t do it in a punitive way,” Mrs Wanjau explains. “It is all about how you phrase it to your teenagers. Don’t make it look like a punishment, change the narrative and make it like this is our family time, this is our home and we need to take care of it.”
Talking to your teenager is the best way to deal with them, according to Ms Kigen.
At this stage, what matters most is cultivating a relationship with your teenagers and find out what they know.
Yes, even having that sex talk, a conversation that many parents would rather delegate to teachers, youth pastors and school counsellors.
As a parent raising a teenager, Ms Kigen has adapted a “boundaries and consequences” approach towards parenting.
“My teenager knows that there are standards,” she says. “And my husband and I have date nights with our children individually so that we can get to talk. Talking lays that foundation so that you are able to pick something wrong the moment your teenager walks in.”
Rev Buri concurs and advises parents that they should be ready for “intense parenting”. Parents, according to Rev Buri, should know that raising a teenager is certainly not easy and when they do not succeed at first, they must keep at it.
Intense parenting, Rev Buri advises, should also include knowing your children and who they are hanging out with.
The other aspect of intense parenting, is that the shock factor must go. Parents should stop acting shocked that their “little angels” are now mischievous teenagers.
“Don’t be shocked that the kids are drinking. Accept that as one of the possibilities. Times have changed.
Smoking used to be really bad back in the day. Today, that is normal,” says Rev Buri.