Teenagers tell Family Lives the best and worst things about being a teenager

Family Lives survey also reveals teenagers’ greatest fears and their advice for parents

At Family Lives we wanted to find out what teens really think about life, school and everything else in between, so we ran a survey to find out. The results are fascinating and really show us what teens care and worry about the most.

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Family is the most important thing for teenagers

Despite the strains of being a teenager, family is by far the most important thing in a teen’s life. Out of 235 teens (aged 13-19) surveyed, 141 chose family among the three most important things in their lives. This was closely followed by friends (126) and school (41). Some teens, however, had different things on their minds when they answered the survey, with phones, food, and pets also featuring in the top ten answers.

The importance of family also played into teens’ greatest fears, with the most common fears being around the idea of losing loved ones. Many also had concerns about being abandoned or left alone, highlighting again the importance of friends and family. Other common answers showed that lots of teens felt anxiety about the reality of their eventual death, or that failure and an unsuccessful future were a real cause for concern.

We also asked teens what they felt were the best and worst things about being a teenager in today’s world. The most popular answers for the best thing about being a teenager were around the idea of enjoying the freedom of youth and the lack of responsibility it carries. Teens seemed to be very aware that this period of their lives won’t last forever and they are enjoying this golden period between childhood and adulthood, where they can have lots of fun with their friends without yet having to worry about financial pressures. 

When asked the worst thing about being a teenager, 43 teens told us they felt judged and pressurised by society. Many teens talked about the difficulties of being stereotyped and undervalued. When asked what they thought was the worst thing about being a teenager, one 15-year-old girl said:

“That I sometimes don't get taken seriously and get treated like a child. However, I think I have an understanding that is similar to most adults. I also think that I shouldn’t have to be an adult to make a change.”

Interestingly, where so many had told us they enjoyed the lack of responsibility of being a teenager, another 36 teens found that the worst aspect of being a teenager was the lack of freedom to make their own choices. Only 20 picked school and exams as the worst thing about being a teenager, with stress, hormones and puberty all falling even lower down the list. The things we might think of as the ‘traditional’ troubles of the teenage years might seem to have been superseded by a more existential angst, as teens strive to forge an identity that goes against the stereotype.   

Teenagers and bullying

We all know that online bullying is rife these days and the results of our survey also showed this with 58% of those surveyed having been bullied or involved with some form of bullying. Most of this bullying seemed to take place in the digital realm, over social networks and messaging systems like Facebook, Twitter, Formspring, and MSN Messenger. Less than 2% of those surveyed had experienced physical violence, but our survey shows up the real impact that online bullying can have, leaving teens feeling isolated, scared and, in some cases, even suicidal. Perhaps even more worryingly, 13% said they experienced bullying as a result of race, culture, sexuality and weight discrimination.

When asked how bullying could be stopped, 44 respondents found themselves unable to answer, either saying: ‘I don’t know’ or ‘It can’t be done.’ Of the teens who did make positive suggestions, the most popular ideas were around the ideas of raising awareness of the consequences of bullying, so that bullies can see the impact they are having. Lots of teens also suggested that an increase in support groups, and having people to talk to would make a real difference to those targeted by bullies. Relatively few wanted to see stricter punishments for bullies – perhaps a sign that today’s teens prefer a more thoughtful and understanding approach.

Teenagers on risky behaviour

With so much media coverage of teenage binge drinking, drug use and underage sex, we wanted to give teens the opportunity to voice their own experiences of taking part in risky behaviour. The majority of answers showed teens were mostly safe and responsible, though of course a natural curiosity for experimentation has led some teens to take risks.

28% of surveyed teenagers had had parties without their parents’ knowledge, but only 9% of those said that anything had gone wrong. In those rare cases where parties had become out of control, teenagers told us about breakages, hospitalisations and thefts - one girl told us she had been caught in bed with her boyfriend, and that she’d been able to have an open and understanding conversation with them about it.

When asked “what’s the worst thing you have done without your parents’ knowledge?”, most teens struggled to think of an answer, or told us that they had an honest relationship with their parents. Those who did answer told us about incidents involving alcohol, sex, dating, drugs, self-harm, and lying about their location.  Worryingly, seven respondents told Family Lives they had attempted suicide.

Smoking, binge drinking and other drugs

We know that the teenage years are a time for experimentation and that some teens take the opportunity to experiment with smoking, drinking and other drugs. In most cases, this experimentation is just a phase, though in some cases it can lead to prolonged use.

30 out of 235 respondents had tried smoking cigarettes, although many stated they had tried them once but didn’t like them, or had only smoked occasionally.  

Aside from cigarettes, the most popular drug was cannabis.  A minority of respondents had experimented with Class A drugs like MDMA and cocaine. This was very rare and tended to fall into the older age range. Binge drinking was also fairly uncommon among those surveyed, with 70% of teens saying they never binge drink, and only 17.6% said they do occasionally.  

Sex and pornography

With online pornography in the news, Family Lives is aware of the potential risk to impressionable teens who are exposed to sexual imagery, and the impact it may have on their own behaviour and personal values around sex.

Less than 30% of those who answered our survey said they had watched porn online, with 62% answering that they ‘never’ watch it. Almost all of those who never watch porn told us that they felt access to online porn should be restricted. While around three quarters of respondents were female, the proportion of boys and girls wanting restrictions for online porn was fairly well balanced.

Over 21% of teens said they had had unprotected sex at some point in their lives. Nearly a third of those who answered ‘yes’ were under the legal age of 16. This trend is a cause for concern, and makes a case for more readily available education on sex and relationships, and more open and honest conversations with adults. We know from previous research that many teens would like to be able to talk to their parents about sex, and that these types of conversations can help teens make safer choices and delay their first sexual experiences.

Teenage advice for parents

Who better to advise parents of teenagers than the teenagers themselves? We asked teens about their own parents and the problems that can lead teens to feel misunderstood, and then we asked them what choices they would make if they were the parent of a teenager.

Around 55% of teens felt that their parents understood them ‘sometimes’, if not always. The most common reason given was simply a generation gap, with teens feeling their parents couldn’t relate to what it’s like being a young person in today’s world..  Relatively few blamed their parents directly, with only 7 respondents out of 235 saying their parents don’t listen to them.  One teenager replied:

“They think I’m a happy child but I’m far from happy . They don’t understand why I self-harm or why I do anything to be honest.”

When asked what they would do if they themselves were parenting a teenager, the most common word in their answers was “understanding”. Teens told us they would offer love, support, freedom, good communication and listening, but above all, understanding. This is perhaps a good indication of how teens themselves want to be parented, and treated by the world in general.

One teenager replied:

“Love your teenager even when they least deserve it. Never let their self-esteem drop at home as well as outside. Having a good open relationship, I think honesty is key so it doesn't matter what the issue so long as everyone is honest and open with no judgement and complete understanding.  Second thing is trust. Parents need to have a trustworthy relationship with their teens. If you can't give them freedom they can never prove their maturity.”

Anastasia de Waal, Family Lives Chair says: 

“The results from our survey highlight that sometimes it's easy to forget that while being an adult has all sorts of stresses and strains, being a teenager isn't always that great either. Teens are at a difficult age when they're no longer seen as either children or as adults. Secondly, their hormones are racing, they're under pressure from friends and the media to keep up, and schoolwork and exams feel like the more important thing in the world. Teenagers that we are in contact with face a myriad of family, social and personal issues that can impact on their mental health and wellbeing.  It is of particular concern, that some of our teenage respondents contemplated and attempted suicide. School, stress, puberty, relationships, and how teens feel they are treated, viewed and judged by the outside world can really impact on friends and family.  Of particular interest is that when offering advice to parents of teenagers, respondents recognised the potential dangers of unsupervised online access.

“Ultimately our survey shows us that the needs of teenagers – and those who love and care for them- are increasing in the digital age and as a society we must ensure that we are all equipped to provide support and guidance during what can be a difficult time for teenagers, parents, carers and the wider family.” 

Read the full press release.

Parents concerned about teenage family matters can call Family Lives’ free 24 hour helpline, Parentline, on 0808 800 2222 or see our advice on parenting teenagers for confidential and non-judgemental support.

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