When I began working with youth I was amazed at the amount of people that scoffed or looked at me as if I were some kind of hero for putting up with the troubled population. I realized how effective media had become in projecting fear onto the public about what “youth culture” looked like. Drug ingesting, sexually promiscuous, disrespectful, no regard for rules or order, spoiled, ungrateful degenerates that have no regard for anything but their own self-absorption. “Let me take a selfie.”
Yes, there are many of you out there that have had a rough go of it and have chosen a not so healthy path for yourselves, but like I have said before, on a quite a few occasions, “Youth are not responsible for the world in which they are born into.” We are the ones who have created the chaos in which you young people are forced to maneuver through and often times we expect you to do it with grace and ease.
The youth I have encountered in my life have been my greatest teachers. Like adults, each have their own story and most of the time they just need a place to share it. When they are given a voice and a platform to empower their authentic selves, in the end
(Left) David Shepherd and Travis Price wore pink shirts to stand up against the bullyin of a classmate who work a pink shirt the first day of school. This act started a global movement called Pink Shirt Day (Right) Ritwika Mitra, 15, and Radhika Mitra, 19 created Renaissance Now which aids artists and craftspeople in India and other countries by providing free tools, training and marketing assistance.
It is not only the youth that become empowered but all those who bear witness to it.
Many adults do not have a sweet clue how to talk to a teenager or young adult? They are intimidated by how they perceive youth. So, how do we learn to speak with youth? How do we become bilingual in the language of teenager? How do we educate ourselves to help these younger generations not only survive this rapidly changing world, but instead thrive?
I have been extremely lucky and grateful to have met so many amazing people, one of those inspiring individuals is Dr. Barbara Greenberg, author of Teenage As a Second Language, A Parent’s Guide to Becoming Bilingual. The moment I watched Barbara for the first time discussing youth issues as an expert on the CBS news I knew she I felt her compassion for the youth and all those who wanted to understand how to make their lives better.
Teens gravitate towards Barbara because she is fun, knowledgeable and knows how to engage pretty much everyone.
Not only is she an accomplished psychologist, she is often the go to person for consulting on teen issues and has been featured on many news networks including, CNN, NBC and Fox, her writing has been featured in The New York Times, Forbes, and Time Magazine and she is a regular contributor to Huffington Post and Psychology Today.
I wanted to get to the nitty gritty with Dr. Greenberg about some of the issues facing youth today.The advice she gives to both teens and adults in dealing with the many situations that plague youth on their journey to adulthood and why so many people tend to stereotype youth as “troubled teens.”
Here is our interview:
Me: Barbara I am so excited to have you on my show today. When I started researching your work online and all of the different networks you lend your expertise, I really saw the wide range of knowledge you have when it comes to working with youth and families. What was it about working with youth that really triggered your passion?
Dr. Greenberg: I have worked with youth, adolescent and little kids for 29 years now. I started out working as a director at an inpatient adolescent unit, then I wrote a book and now I do private practice and give talks. I love the energy of our youth. I love the teenage energy. I love the anger. I love the confusion. I love how spiritually and emotionally available they are at this age. Their brains are still developing and they are dying to be listened to, validated and honoured. I find them all very exciting.
Me: It’s true isn’t it? It’s very interesting working with youth. I always feel as if I am selfishly learning more from them then they are learning from me! (Haha)
Dr. Greenberg: You know I can’t underscore that enough. Every time a youth comes to my office, I feel like I learn from them. They are all about being given the opportunity to speak, because I think way too often they are shut down and just considered “Troubled Teenagers.” I really have a problem with that.
Me: I really do too, and that is actually one of the first questions I want to talk to you about. When I started my position working with youth I was really fascinated by the reaction I had from the public. It was not so much a positive reaction, it was often a negative reaction. People would often say, “Oh God, you are going to work with youth?” They would look at me with a sort of respect in their eyes as if I had just taken on the most troubled group of people in the world. What do you think it is that makes society view youth as so troubled and how do you think we can change it?
Dr. Greenberg: This is a very good question. I think adolescents by nature tend to be more emotional. Their frontal lobe is not fully developed yet. They are struggling with hormone upsurges, and because they are moody and grasping for identity, I think everyone wants people to be calm and to assume their place, and I think because of what they are going through, people have lumped them into this group of a “troubled age.” It’s really a shame. I feel they need to be re-educated about what teens are going through, how hard it is for them instead of how hard it is for the caretaker.
Me: I often like to say that youth are not responsible for the world in which they are born into. The world has become extremely chaotic. The younger generations, for example, are exposed to a great deal of adult content especially since the 90s when the internet came into the family home. The increase of the hypersexualization of girls is a big example.
I see that you often talk about “the selfie syndrome.” How can we as parents, and mentors of teens and tweens, help them maneuver through this world that has become a world of digital voyeurism.
Dr. Greenberg: I think, of course, a lot of the magazines use thirteen and fourteen year old girls as models. If you look at many of the clothing stores they often market their clothes to very young girls and if you go into the teen section or even the girls sections of stories, the clothing is hypersexualized. This is what is available to be purchased. I think that parents can take a really hard stand on this, that their children, girls especially, can look lovely and beautiful and still comfortable wearing clothes that aren’t hypersexualized.
Me: You and I had discussed earlier about how we often leave boys out of the conversation. It does, unfortunately, become a lot of victim blaming around sexual assault and even the hypersexualization of girls and how they dress. How do we included men and boys into the conversation and I’m going to give you an example.
I like to speak to youth and parents around media literacy. I think that often times we assume that youth are knowledgeable about what they are viewing online. I think we assume they understand what it means and the reality is that they don’t. An example is Grande Theft Auto V. This has been a heated discussion and debate in our house with my ten year old son. He desperately wanted to play Grande Theft Auto V and I was completely against it and of course it became the forbidden fruit. What happened in the end was, I realized that my son was probably going to find a way to access this game in any way that he could, whether it was through YouTube videos when I wasn’t looking or at a friend’s house. I realized if I don’t have that open conversation with him he could go off, play the game, and not understand what he was seeing. So I decided to play that game with him and talk to him about it and create a space for him to ask questions. How do we keep an open dialogue with our kids that includes young men and boys in the conversation around ending violence against women, ending victim blaming and hypersexualization? What is your opinion around this?
Dr. Greenberg: You know, I love that idea, and I am always talking about this. I think that parents need to sit down and watch the news with their kids and use it as a teaching opportunity. Talk about the situations, ask them what their feelings are about it and then you have a wonderful teaching opportunity around empathy. Empathy isn’t fully developed until kids are in their 20s. I think it’s teaching that not only is this criminal behaviour but you have to teach your teen sons and daughters empathy. I think the boys are very afraid of their sexuality as well.
I hear situations where a boy goes to camp for the summer and has sex with their seventeen year old councillor and they come to see me because they feel they performed inadequately. The whole topic of boys and their sexuality has not been discussed enough and I think they need to be educated on their sexuality, how to approach it. If you see sexual assaults in the newspaper or on TV, sit down and talk to them about it and get their opinion. I don’t think enough people are asking their opinions. It’s really all about education and listening.
Me: It really is, I have to agree. I often have these conversations with my fiancé and he actually sat my son down and explained to him that the reason he did not want him to play Grande Theft Auto was because he didn’t want this to be the tool for how he learned to be a man. He explained that this was not a true representation of what a man truly is. I feel that leaving the conversation open is the beginning of creating change. How do you think that families can welcome these conversations into their experience because truthfully so many parents are afraid to have them, they are embarrassed.
Dr. Greenberg: Do you know what? They are afraid to have them! I think that parents often have the view that if they don’t talk about sex that their kids won’t be engaging in it. I understand that but they have to understand that it is going to be happening anyway. Kids are going to be sexually involved whether you talk to them about it or not. I think that parents and guardians need to start talking to their kids about sexuality when they are young and then as they get older it will be more comfortable and parents will have more practice. I think that many of them are doing their children a disservice by not talking about it.
I get it. A lot of parents didn’t have a lot of role models to talk to them about it, but because of everything going on, such as girls killing themselves and boys killing themselves because they are being taped while they are assaulted, parents have no choice now. They have to start the dialogue as young as possible and as frequently as possible.
Me: It’s very interesting that you bring up individuals being taped. I am very passionate about ending violence against women but lately I have been having conversations with teens around how normalized sexual violence is becoming with rape culture.
A couple years ago when I was in Toronto I felt compelled to pick up a People Magazine, a magazine that I never read. I opened the pages to read the story of Rehtaeh Parsons from my province of Nova Scotia, who had been sexually assaulted and photographed in the process. These images then were distributed around her school and community and unfortunately Rehtaeh took her own life as a result. It was absolutely devastating. Her parents have become huge advocates in educating youth and adults on the bystander effect. What can we do to support youth in educating them on stepping in to stop these acts of violence. I know they are absolutely afraid to do so, and I don’t blame them because it’s not as easy as everyone lets on. “Oh just step in and end it!” because then they become the victim and they don’t want it to happen to them.
Dr. Greenberg: That’s right, and I’ve seen a lot of kids do this. The Bystander effect is really about if they don’t do something they think that someone else will do something. Another things is, when we are in a group of people, teenagers included, we want to socially conform. I had a teenager who came to me recently and told me about how his friends wanted to take advantage of a drunk girl and he called it to their attention and nothing happened to her. He was very proud of himself and it should be a source of pride because even though kids are very susceptible to peer pressure their number one role models are their parents. So if their parents talk to them about it, hopefully they will internalize what their parents are telling them. Also, for example, when my teenage daughter was in situations where she knew I wouldn’t approve of, she had a vision of me in her mind and thought, “Oh God my mom would be so disappointed,” and I think that’s important, that kids walk around with their parents on their shoulder thinking, “What would my mother or father think? What would my guardian think?” Teens, more than anything else, don’t want to disappoint their parents or guardian. They can deal with their anger but most times they can’t deal with their disappointment!
Me: It’s so true. My son, for example, is just devastated if he thinks he has disappointed me.
Dr. Greenberg: Empowering the boys. Empowering them to disengage with whatever situation is going on and to teach their peers that it is not the right behavior. Maybe they will get teased, but more likely they will feel wonderful about themselves that they did something. Being social proactive.
Me: I found that this year there was a lot going on in the media with women coming forward about their experiences being sexually assaulted. In Canada there was a hashtag called #Beenrapedneverreported. So women were using this hashtag to talk about their experiences and it really opened up a conversation and a dialogue, especially with my male friends. I realized that many of them were unaware of the amount of females in their lives have experienced sexual assault because we never talk about it. I do feel that media is portraying a lot of the fear that is happening in teenage culture, and adult culture as well, around social media and sexual assault. I do see a change happening. I do see it coming from youth. I see them using social media as a platform to discuss these issues and I see the conversations happening one on one, which is where I believe change begins to take place. Have you been seeing that as well?
Emma Sulkowicz, a senior visual arts student at Columbia University, poses with a mattress, which she says she will carry every where she goes in protest of the university’s lack of action after she reported being raped during her sophomore year, on September 5, 2014 in New York City. (Andrew Burton–Getty Images)
Dr. Greenberg: The one on one conversations are the most powerful. Yes there is dialogue about it online, and I think that’s excellent, but I think having the one on one conversations, in the end, is the most powerful.
Me: I’d love to talk to you quickly about your book, Teenage as a second language, A parent’s guide to becoming bilingual. I absolutely love the title of the book, I think it’s brilliant! Can you give me three top tips for parents and mentors on how we can learn to speak with teenagers?
Dr. Greenberg: The first things is, you need to ask your kids indirect questions not direct questions. For example, “How was your day?” It’s too loaded and it’s too much. Their day is not finished yet at 3 or 4 o’clock. Secondly, “How was your day?” means to kids, “Did you get any tests back today? How did you do on your school work?” Teens are happier and much more willing to talk with you if you speak to them in an indirect fashion. Then you eventually get the material you want because they start spilling. Instead of asking, “Tell me about that boyfriend you went on a date with. Was he speeding? Was he smoking marijuana? Did he try to touch you?” Instead of that you go for something indirect like, “How was the movie? What was it about? Would you recommend it to me?” and then you’ve got them talking.
Then, once you get your kids are talking, refrain from interrupting them, just let them speak. What they complain about a lot is that their parents jump in and try to fix the situation. That is not necessarily what they want! They want to vent. They want a sounding board.
If parents are confused about that they can say to their child, when they are listening to them, “Do you just want me to listen or would you like to hear what I think?”
The third thing is to be calm when your kids talk to you. Now, I know this is very difficult and I have often sat with my teenager and my palms were sweaty and my heart was beating so fast because she was telling me about a story and I wanted to jump right in and tell her what I thought, but if you lose your cool kids will think that they can’t talk to their parents because their parents can’t handle it. So, even if a parent doesn’t feel calm when they listen to their kids they have to fake it until they get to that point. They have to know that you are strong enough to handle what they have to tell you and then you will be their go-to person. It really does work.
A fourth tip is not to insult their friends. Many parents will say, “Oh you didn’t start doing that until you began hanging out with her or him. It’s important for you to ask your child what is important to them about that friend. It may not be that friend influencing your child, it may be your child influencing the friend.
Another reason you should not insult their friends is because they see their friends as an extension of themselves and they view it as you criticizing them. If you say that you dislike the friend, your child will stop talking to you about that friend and you want them to be able to speak openly.
To order Dr. Barbara Greenbergs Book, Teenage As A Second Language, A Parent’s Guide to Becoming Bilingual please click here.