Teen Scene Panelists Share Hopes, Fears – and Advice for Parents

By Maneesha Sharma

No one wants to be met with anger when struggling.”

This wise observation from one of the panelists at NYC-Parents in Action’s 34th annual Teen Scene underscores the importance of understanding your child. It was just one of many pithy takeaways from the articulate  panel of 16 NYC independent high school students, 9th thru 12th grade, who spoke candidly to a sold-out parent audience at Trinity School on February 10, 2020.

Parenting is a complicated task. Those who attended our 2020 Teen Scene got a little help from the kids, with a special opportunity to hear directly from a panel of youngsters other than their own. The moderator, Lucy Martin Gianino, Chairman of NYC-PIA, noted an impressive list of activities in which the teen panelists were involved, including a wide range of academic, social, leadership and civic duties.

The evening started off with social media and the various platforms that prominently figure in students’ lives, such as Instagram, SnapChat and most recently, TIkTok, a lip-syncing app, appealing because of its capacity to produce short comedy and singing/dancing clips. Some 9th grade students reported using various platforms and apps “over 6 hours a day” but note also that they provide “a medium for communication.”

While such extensive app use may be new to parents of older children, the appeal is a familiar, age-old adolescent drive: children trying to express themselves. They are not spending time on traditional phone conversations, but instead use Instagram or TikTok to connect with their friends. One 10th grader said she uses TikTok for an hour a day after school, as a break from doing homework. These kids use Netflix to watch TV shows for entertainment, in the same way kids in the past watched network television after school.

One interesting comment, met with laughter from all, was that “girls make more videos, and boys watch more.” Social media “influencers” have inspired some girls to try to become “TikTok famous.” One 12th grade boy noted there is “a sense of creativity on TikTok, but it’s time consuming and sometimes [uses] crude humor.” The panelists noted that while many TikTok videos may be created in a bathroom, they are not necessarily sexual in nature; rather, the bathroom is a place where kids can use their phones with some privacy, unlike classrooms and hallways. (One student remarked that the default setting on most apps is unrestricted and public, so parents should tell their kids to use privacy settings and help them understand how to limit access.)

On the topic of FOMO (fear or missing out), the panelists reported having “hurt feelings” when they see all their friends together somewhere (kids use a “Find my friends,” tracking app, which shows friends’ locations on a map with no need to text or alert them first).  One 9th grade boy explained that, “Yes, it matters to be accepted and it can be hurtful not to be included,” but the audience erupted in laughter and applause when another student confidently remarked, “They are missing out by not inviting me!” The panel reported that gatherings often happen in teens’ apartments, where, due to space limitations, the guest list may need to be limited too; still, it can be feel bad to be excluded.

College remains at the forefront of high schoolers’ minds. The panelists noted some private schools where even first-graders are told “where they need to go to college” and where well-known universities are name-dropped by the adults. Students feel anxiety, stemming from constant and significant pressure to succeed. A 10th grade boy told parents that all students “want parents to be proud …  but the external pressure is bad.” He hoped his parents “won’t worry about where I go to college” and that they’d just “take high school for what it is.”

Loud applause broke out when an 11th grade boy (whose dad was valedictorian at an Ivy League college decades ago) said, “I admire the man but it’s not me!” He added a plea: “Let your kids live their lives, not [live in] fear of the future.” Panelists hoped parents would assure their kids they don’t “only care about grades” and would agree that kids CAN have other things in life besides college. Some reported seeing classmates crying in hallways after a test or when grades are reported, for fear of their parents. Advice: let your children know that you understand that “kids are not robots.”

The motto “work hard play hard” still rings true for NYC independent high school students. High schoolers are drinking alcohol and some are also using drugs, as an “escape or a release” on the weekend. The panelists indicated some friends do use marijuana, and some have been exposed to pot brownies. One senior girl noted that she was scared when she saw “Xanax crushed up on a friend’s tongue at a party.” The students know cocaine is offered in nightclubs, but reported that high schoolers “hang with same-age students” (no adults) at clubs. Cost is a factor for clubs: a 10th grade girl said students “need credit cards to party!” with or without fake ID’s.

Asked about mental health issues, the students agreed that there is no longer a stigma attached to seeking help with feelings of anxiety, stress or being overwhelmed. Schools offer confidential resources and frequently remind students that health, both physical and mental, is a priority. One 9th grader said his student government hosts an assembly twice a year for students to share individual experiences. It was notable that neither parents nor teachers were generally seen as go-to resources for high school students seeking help. Friends remain the primary source of comfort and the trusted place to seek help because “they are in the exact same boat and will be the most understanding.” One panelist reported a friend experienced “strong feelings of despair, as she feels she can’t talk to her parents.”

When vaping came up, one student asked if parents had considered smoking cigarettes to be “an addiction” in their youth. Among panelists, there was awareness of both the dangers of vaping and the deceptive way vape delivery mechanisms had been advertised to minors. A senior boy observed that he thought “vaping is a habit, not an addiction, as it more casual and one can overcome it, though there are withdrawal symptoms.”

The age old question, “what does ‘hooking up’ mean?” led to varied responses, ranging from kissing to having intercourse. A 10th grader reported that being in a relationship is “comfortable and safe” while another student lamented that he “didn’t have time for a girlfriend.” There was discussion about different standards for girls and boys, e.g., slut shaming (a girl) vs. glorifying (a boy) for sexual pursuits. Generally, panelists reported that students are using protection in the form of condoms or other methods of birth control.

As to LGBTQ and gender identity issues, many private schools now have unisex bathrooms and students are very accepting of each other. However, in practice, those who are straight usually sit together, and LGBTQ students also tend to stick together, so these groups may not be fully integrated and may have different high school experiences. The panel noted more work needs to be done for inclusiveness on this front.

The panelists reminded parents that teenagers are often “experimenting” in their high school years. In handling interactions with kids, it’s critical not to punish but rather to use experiences as learning opportunities and above all, “be there” for kids. It is “okay to slip up.” Parents should know that example-setting is useful; confronting a teen who has come home intoxicated and then laying out consequences, will send a strong message to younger, watching siblings. (Example: your older sister comes home drunk and throwing up, and you see the consequences of facing Dad – that has a meaningful impact on a younger sibling.)

When asked, “What would you like to tell your parents?” the panelists said: “Trust your child. Make the home a safe space. Tell your kid, ‘you are worthy, smart and capable,’ even if you are not ‘climbing the academic ladder.’”  Parents who want to establish trust should take a “holistic view” of their children, remembering to praise their efforts and to use positive reinforcement, rather than punishment, to encourage desirable behaviors.

All in all, this year’s panelists showed not only a grasp of current trends, but a good sense of something more enduring: the importance of relationships, connection and trust between parents and kids.

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