Are Teens an Alien Species?

For those have or deal with teens on a regular basis, one would think the answer to this question would be a resounding Yes.

What are teens like? In my previous life as a director of youth programs and an advocate for youth in the U.S., I worked directly with over 2,000 adolescents, and what I learned is that teens are:

– Moody
– Undergoing significant neurological changes
– Obsessed with how they appear to their peers
– Socially “horizontal” vs. “vertical”
(they engage with peers more readily than they do with other generations)
– Wildly ambivalent about authority figures
– Impossible to generalize on due to their tremendous diversity

In other words, they’re human. Or more accurately, they’re our younger selves.

It’s important to note that the very category (or construct) of “teenager” is modern, and Western. In many pre-Industrial societies, there is no such designation. When children reached child-bearing age, they quickly transitioned into adulthood through arranged marriages. Today, in the developing world, marriage of girls during adolescent years is still quite common.

But as Western society became more affluent, and the social and economic value of attending college (or “university”) became commonly accepted, the years between early adolescence and majority were spent at home, and in public schools (Public schools themselves are an invention that is scarcely more than a century old.) Thus, “teenagers” were born​.​

So let’s put this together. By age 12 or 13, most humans are self-aware, have formed clear personal preferences and opinions, start developing ideas of what they want to explore or become in adulthood, have full physical dexterity, have formed personal bonds (friendships) outside of what their parents have determined. And yet they are dependents without full civil rights. They cannot vote, generally can’t drive, can’t buy a house, get a mortgage, or even get a job in some jurisdictions.

Do we wonder then why they can be difficult or “rebel”? We’ve created some pretty uncomfortable conditions for them, wouldn’t you agree?

On the flip side, they are intellectually curious (as all young humans tend to be), and have access to infinite amounts of information and expanding social networks, some of which are global. They can connect with and create relationships, however virtual, with people on the other side of the planet. Spectacular. And generally they have not accumulated the “mental barnacles” (preconceived notions, heavily reinforced biases, and sheer exhaustion) of many so-called grownups. And within many families, they have significant power of influence.

As someone who was raised in a hybrid of traditional Eastern and modern Western culture, I am still amazed by how Western parents feel the need to ingratiate themselves with their children, especially their adolescent children. My parents felt no need to be my ‘best friend’ or seek my approval—they were comfortable as authority figures. But the Western desire to be a peer to one’s teenage children—gives this generation tremendous power, despite their legal limitations.

So, marketers who treat teenagers as a kind of alien species, be warned. This is a sure way to kill the relationship before it starts. Instead, treat them as humans who have much to contribute and do, on a regular basis. Speak to them with respect and candor. They’ll respect you in return. And above all BE REAL, because they can see right through any attempts to be “cool”.