How Bridging the Generation Gap Protects Teen Mental Health: A Q&A with Kristin Wilson, MA, LPC, Vice President of Clinical Outreach

September is Suicide Awareness Month, with September 10th being World Suicide Prevention Day, a day dedicated to creating awareness and inspiring action around this all-important issue. It comes on the heels of recent research showing that teen suicide is on the rise—a tragic result of the mental health crisis among adolescents.

What triggers teen depression, and how can we prevent it from taking hold? Those are difficult questions to answer; many factors are involved, including genetics, triggering events, and exposure to trauma. But what experts do know is that parent-child relationships are critical to teen mental health. Research shows that the quality of the bond and the communication between parents and kids directly impacts mental health outcomes.

“Our findings emphasize the importance of parents constantly working on close and supportive relationships with their children, even if the teenager or pre-teen is pulling away,” said Ashley Ebbert, lead researcher on a 2018 study that found increased levels of anxiety and depression among adolescents who felt alienated from or mistrustful of their parents.

Bolstering that foundational bond isn’t always easy, particularly when kids are focusing on establishing independence and autonomy. It doesn’t help that the world in which today’s teens are growing up is vastly different, in some essential ways, from the one their parents knew when they were coming of age. Over the past decade, technology has radically influenced how kids relate to each other, how they see themselves, and how they understand societal and political issues.

We asked Kristin Wilson, MA, LPC, Vice President of Clinical Outreach at Newport Academy—and the mother of an adolescent—to share her thoughts on overcoming the generation gap and staying connected to your teen. A licensed clinician, Kristin holds a Master’s degree in psychology and Creative Arts Therapies, and is also a certified yoga teacher.

What exactly is the generation gap? What does the generation gap look like for parents and teens in the 21st century?

A parent/ child generation gap is not only a historical gap, in chronological time, between parents and their teens, but also a psychological gap in how each sees the world, in terms of cultural norms and influences, moral values, and standards of behavior. It’s a natural product of change and it’s not a new concept. This certainly isn’t the first point in time that parents haven’t understood what their kids are doing: Think about how parents in the 1950s reacted when their kids started playing Elvis and rock and roll! It happens for every generation; but the difference is that the generation gap between today’s parents and teens is directly influenced by the speed of technological advances, which is changing how we relate to other human beings and ourselves.

Parents are used to living in the offline world when it comes to relationships, building connections with other people face to face, while kids are living in both the offline and online worlds. On top of that, we’re in a complex, quickly changing environment, and kids have constant exposure to all of the news and media influences. Before the Internet and smartphones, if you didn’t want your kids to read the newspaper, watch TV or listen to the radio —you rolled up the paper and turned off the TV/ radio. Now news/ media outlets are at their fingertips all day long, and the way they receive and interpret the information may be very different from the way their parents understand it. 

Newport Academy Resource Post Generation Gap

What should parents know about teen’s use of technology, particularly regarding how it affects their relationships within and outside the family?

Technology definitely adds another layer of stress that I don’t think our generation had. If we had an issue with a peer, we had time after the school day ended to decompress and figure out how we were going to deal with the situation the next day. Now it follows kids home. Social media can trigger anxiety, depression, constant comparisons, and FOMO—fear of missing out or being left out.

For example, there’s a trend on Snapchat known as “streaks” where you try to interact with friends every day for a number of consecutive days. If you fail to do that, you “lose a streak,” and that’s like cutting someone out or giving them the cold shoulder. Another trend among adolescents is creating a “finsta”—a fake Instagram account with a different profile name, so parents can’t find it. Kids will often vent more openly/ impulsively on these accounts, knowing their parents can’t access it.

Should parents be limiting Internet access for their teens?

Yes, and the earlier you set boundaries, the easier it is. If your child gets an iPhone in sixth grade, you’ll want to immediately manage their expectations and limit their usage time. With older teens, it’s harder to control their technology use without getting into a power struggle. You can put WatchGuard apps on their phone, but it feels like they’re always four steps ahead in terms of getting around them. Instead, try a technology contract, and give your kids input into this contract. Start by validating their feelings— and letting them know that you understand how important it is for them to be plugged in, but you’re concerned about how much they’re using technology, so they can help create some parameters.

One big reason for setting boundaries around tech use is to make space for quality conversations. It’s so important to find consistent moments throughout the day to connect with each other without the distraction of technology. Put the phones away when you’re sitting around the dinner table, or stick them in the glove compartment when you’re driving. At night, plug the phones in downstairs and have some family time before bed. If you’re already in the habit of carving out time for these conversations, it will make it a lot easier to talk about challenges that come up.

Newport Academy Resource Post Generation Gap

How can parents learn more about what their teens are up to, online and off, while also giving them a sense of independence and autonomy?

It’s important to know what your kids are doing online and what information they have access to, but parents can do that without being overly authoritative. If you want to know more about their world—whether it’s technology or other aspects of teen culture—let them be the expert. Ask open-ended questions: Why do those Snapchat streaks matter so much to them? How does social media make them feel? What do they think about what this-or-that celebrity is doing? Where do they stand on the political debates they might be seeing on their newsfeed? What do they love about a particular game they are playing online?

The biggest complaint parents hear from teenagers—at least in my house—is “You’re not listening to me!” Parents need to be present, active listeners, and really tune in to what their kids are saying. If you listen closely and find ways to deepen the conversation, you’re going to get a window into their inner life, who they’re talking to online and spending time with in real life, and their mood and state of mind in general. Ultimately, that’s how we can most effectively bridge the generation gap and take a strong step in providing the foundation that can prevent teen suicide.