Understand how a values-led approach can help you gain a better understanding and connection with your teenager
By Gail Owen
“Your core values are the deeply held beliefs that authentically describe your soul.” John C. Maxwell
Teen values during lockdown
As a parent of two teenagers (one of each), who at this point in their lives have experienced 18 months of lockdown with social media as both their source of company and life educator, I wondered how this has shaped their core values at such a critical stage of their personal development. During this unusual time, I experienced a rise in financial requests from my offspring followed by continual negotiation on why they need to have the latest online game, gadget, fashion item etc. When my resolve waned and I gave in occasionally thinking what else can they do with not much to look forward to right now (as I write this, we’re in our 6th lockdown in Melbourne, Australia), I worried what the impact may be to their emerging values during Covid.
What we’ve learned during this time
I hear from friends and connections from around the world that they’ve realised what’s important to them during the last 18 months. Some friends, who have the luxury of secure job, experienced an opportunity to slow down and appreciate what’s most important to them. Others, who have faced financial struggle or chronic loneliness, have numbed themselves to their reality and just responded to their basic survival needs to get by. However, teens are just starting to gain a sense of self at this age with limited life experience to draw on. Teens are shaped by their family, culture and society expectations and experiences from school, media and their peers. When most of that is taken away in unusual circumstances, they are just left with social media to model their behaviour and development.
Seeking instant reward
We’re wired to seek pleasure and reward and even more so when we’re experiencing negative thoughts or feelings. When you come to associate a certain activity with pleasure, mere anticipation may be enough to raise our dopamine levels. It could be a certain food, sex, shopping, or just about anything else that you enjoy. How many of us went a little crazy with online shopping just to have something to look forward to receiving?
Instant gratification to get us through the moment seems innocent enough but what is the impact long term? For teens, the constant social media images of social influencers that appear to have it all for doing so little, it kind of skews their perception and these lifestyles become normalised and seemingly attainable. Media has always been a strong influencer in all generations. Depending on your age, you’ll remember the strong pull to have the latest brands to fit in with your peer group. But with the increase in social media in the latest generation, this consumerism has escalated beyond comprehension for most parents. Johan Hari, author of Lost Connections, came up with the term to describe this phenomenon. He calls it junk values (example; money, status, showing off) and these being like “KFC for the soul”. And it’s on the rise in the younger generation.
My teens asked me what jobs they can do when they grow up with the least amount of study and work hours but make the most money, as most of us did at their age. Not much thought when you’re young goes into finding a purposeful career or even finding your life’s purpose. Without this direction to find meaningful work and purpose, teens have no awareness at such a tender age that just doing jobs for financial reward leads to chronic stress and depression. And no amount of stuff we accumulate equates to feeling good about ourselves and contribution to the world. The more junk values motivate us, the more we will become depressed and anxious trying to chase and achieve money and status. Every time my teens get something new, I ask them a few days or weeks later, how do they feel about that object. Thankfully they are slowly realising that the enjoyment only lasted an instant then started to wane. Only now after so long in lockdown are they craving life experiences over possessions.
Looking to the future
As we’re starting to open up and get back to some sort of normal existence, it’s the perfect time to help your teens find or reconnect to their values and family values. But where do you start? When you know your own core values you can better understand, for example, why you are more disappointed by your teen’s insensitive backchat than their poor grades. Values can also help you select the parenting issues that you wish to enforce and to discuss with your teen. You’ll also identify those issues where you are flexible and open to more discussion.
For your teen, identifying and understanding their own values becomes their strength. They may feel they are different to their parents but not understand why and may feel conflicted internally or externally. They are changing from relying on parents to make decisions and set their values for them to regulate their behaviour. When a teen has developed their own core set of values, they no longer have to rely on a parent’s guidance to make the right choices. They have their own foundation to make better choices for themselves.
What I’ve learned from my teen
My 15 year old son is a gamer and was demonstrating behaviour that appeared to be a completely different set of values to mine. We butted heads a lot about it! And just trying to get him to get out of bed to do online school was a constant challenge. I thought he had a gaming addiction to escape from the real world and the only value he was demonstrating was just to have fun with no alignment to my values of personal growth, achievement and friendships. When I took the time to go into his world, without judgement, I surprisingly uncovered values very aligned to mine. He had a huge sense of personal growth and achievement from mastering the game and attaining a high worldwide ranking. He was participating in competitions in teams. Within his team he developed new friendships with kids in different countries. I was a bit dubious about these new ‘friends’ but he told me all about these friends’ lives and families as much as he would know about his local friends. He said they talk about other stuff and support each other’s mental health. He gained a new appreciation for me as I’d taken the time to stop chastising him, to understand his world and what makes him happy to get through lockdown. It has bought us closer together and instead of a grumpy, uncommunicative teenager who never turned up to the dinner table on time, we plan around his game times and we talk about his achievements. He understands now to be at the top of his game, he needs to take breaks so he doesn’t burn out. In return he’s feels more connected to us, acts more interested in the rest of the family’s day and actually asks questions of us. The biggest bonus was he came up with his own plan to balance gaming and online school. Remarkably his grades improved and so has his moods despite still being in hard lockdown. Hallelujah!!!
What parents can do
My hope is for all parents to reconnect to their teens through values. As a family conversation starter and guide to help reconnect with your teen, download this simple family values exercise created by Barrett Values Centre.
Find out more about yourself
Do you want to find a wealth of fascinating insights yourself? Find out what is important to you by taking a Barrett Values Centre Personal Values Assessment. It is a simple survey that takes just a few minutes of your time and provides a wealth of information about why you do what you do. Enjoy!