teens these days

The Secret Wish of Every Teenager

Several months ago I experienced something I love about fall: high school football. There’s a lot of excitement under the Friday night lights. But equally intriguing to me is observing the teenage culture you find there. After working with adolescents for 15 years, I naturally become a social scientist when I return to their environment. My eyes go back and forth from the game to the student section. I notice how they are dressed and their facial expressions and I even listen to their conversations as they congregate around me in the line for the snack bar.

Over the years, I have spent thousands of hours talking to teens and stepping into their culture. Teens these days are loud, insecure, obnoxious, funny, vulgar (most of the time), and desperate for this one thing.

They want to be noticed.

You’ll notice their deepest longing, if you’re observant. This is the secret wish of every teenager—to be noticed.When you see teens in groups being loud, it’s not that they are just being obnoxious. They are desperate for attention. When you see teens in groups being loud, it’s not that they are just being obnoxious. They are desperate for attention. The more positive attention they receive, the more they feel valued as a person. So they work hard at standing out. Every event, activity, or gathering is an opportunity to say something, wear something, or do something that attracts eyes and affirmation.

They’ll settle for bad attention.

Kids will go after any attention they can get. Their brains haven’t developed fully in the area that gives them the ability to weigh consequences, so they act on their impulses without a filter. Their main impulse is to receive attention to prove their worth. When they can’t receive good attention, they try to get bad attention because there is only one thing worse than receiving bad attention.

No attention at all is the worst.

The only thing worse than bad attention is no attention. No attention leaves teens feeling invisible and like they are living in isolation. They feel as if they have no value. A long time ago, I was talking to a group of teenagers. Out of nowhere, a freshman said something awkward that he thought would be interesting. No one responded. I’ve often thought of the pain on his face and I lament that I didn’t respond to what he said in some way.

A teen may take your attention or affirmation for granted, but it is still essential.

During the teenage years, kids tend to separate from their parents. A parent may feel like the attention they give teens is rebuffed because the attention they seek most is from their peers. Attracting the attention of peers is their true litmus test for feeling significant while parental attention is a given. While your attention may be taken for granted, it is a vital baseline. It gives them a sense of security. No matter how difficult or dismissive they become, be sure they receive your attention and affirmation.

Sound off: What do you think teens want most from their parents?

Huddle up with your kids and ask, “What makes you feel good about yourself?”