Parents are their children’s guides to the world of adults. They have gone through all these steps in life themselves and overcome the trials and tribulations of their own teenage years. Who then, if not them, knows what to do in a crisis? This may all seem reasonable, yet the generation gap continues to cause misunderstanding and division, just as in previous centuries. Why don’t parents understand their children? How can we help adolescents to recover from setbacks and get back on track? Why mustn’t children be pressured when choosing a future profession? How should we approach teenagers who have shut themselves off from the world? The psychologist Victoria Shimanskaya, creator of Skillfolio, the University of Universal Skill Development, tells Kommersant UK about the many complexities involved in the personal, physical and psychological development of adolescents.
This year, you co-authored a book entitled The Winding Road to Adulthood. The Teen Superpower for Overcoming all Hurdles with the psychologist Katerina Murashova. In it, you answer questions that preoccupy modern teens. While I was reading it, the thought occurred to me that in these times it is not unusual for teenage angst to also affect well-established adults. Many feel on uncertain footing, lacking a sense of responsibility for their lives or any seriousness or collectedness. A new concept has even appeared, the “kidult”. Are modern parents not always able to help teenagers sort out their problems because they haven’t really grown up themselves?
Here it’s not so much a question of infantilism, but rather of insufficiently developed emotional intellect. As a result, many parents cannot help their children as, firstly, they lack a true acceptance of the child and secondly, they lack the empathy to understand what the adolescent is going through without either dismissing or hyperbolising their feelings. Quite often, the adults either downplay the problem, saying ‘Don’t moan, you’re making a lot of fuss about nothing, we had to deal with a lot more serious problems in our day’ or, conversely, they feel overwhelmed with sympathy (an infantile position), and they begin to suffer together with the teenager. To avoid exacerbating the difficulties, in no circumstances should you give in to your fears when hearing about the child’s problems. So, on the one hand, you have to show empathy and on the other, adult reliability and reasonableness. As well as allowing you to understand your own emotions, feelings and concerns and those of others, such as, in our case, adolescents, the ability to develop your emotional intellect allows the teenager themselves to understand the cause of these emotions and find means to resolve their problems.
What are the main differences between modern teenagers and their parents? Were the problems of teens in the 90s different from the troubles of adolescents today?
Generation Theory describes the typical features of different age groups. For example, careers and remuneration are important for Baby Boomers, they typically display a certain idealism, team spirit and respect, both for the rules and each other. Gen Xers (many of whom are the parents of current teenagers) are responsible and have got used to relying only on themselves. They have reconciled themselves to limitations and the lack of comfortable conditions (they came of age during a time of change). Generation Y, the millennials, are self-confident and they pay attention to their work-life balance. While Boomers prioritise work, for millennials, the morning latte, or equivalent, is more important. Of course, the older generation regards this as self-indulgence. Generation Z, the Zoomers, are a generation of individualists who their parents find a little tricky to deal with as it seems to them that they’re charting their own course on a different wavelength.
The problems of the Generation Gap will always be with us. Undoubtedly, adults look at teenagers with a combination of the fears they experienced themselves in their teenage years, thinking ‘Heaven forbid my child has to deal with that’ and their hope that the child will mature. Internal tension often prevents parents from seeing the teenager as an individual, while the child, conversely, finds it important both to set boundaries and sometimes to break them. This is an attempt to understand their role and outlook on life and find their own ways to interact with the world. Of course, there is a difference between each generation’s attitude to life; while parents are ready to reconcile themselves to limitations, the young feel it’s important to preserve their comfortable conditions and inner balance. This is good; parents should learn this approach from their children. This leads to a search for common values, an affirmation of a shared goal and the recognition of each other as individuals, so that, beyond being parents, the adults become interesting personalities for their teenage children. This is where the key to development lies.
Your book is based on the accounts of real teenagers. For instance, one of the questions is ‘After a serious setback, how can I overcome my fear of taking on new things and not pre-programme myself for failure?’. What’s the right answer?
The main thing is to regard the failure as an experiment and distance yourself from it. The failure was in one specific endeavour, such as a chemistry exam. This doesn’t mean that you are a loser, just that you lack certain skills such as being organised or knowledge of chemistry. There are two key components of this; the first is to take life as a series of experiments and the second is to see new opportunities in your setbacks. Not in the meaning of ‘Forget about it, everything’s fine’, but with the understanding that each event is just a small piece of the jigsaw. It’s better to think ‘I’m much bigger than all these ups and downs’. This is very important. So an understanding of duality and a detachment from temporary ups and downs are the basis on which you can get on with life’s journey.
This is the problem of self-identity and the search for self. During our teenage years, this is closely linked to the choice of a future profession, yet those who have long gone through puberty also struggle with this choice. As teenagers or as adults, how can people find themselves?
To find our places in the world, we must begin by finding ourselves. All our lives are a constant process of self-discovery, learning about our personal traits, our reactions to success and failure, our skills and an honest admission of what we like and what we are ready to develop. As soon as I learn these things, I develop a superpower; supermotivation. The Japanese concept of ikigai, a philosophy that seeks to find satisfaction, joy and awareness in everyday things, is always answering three questions; ‘What does this world need?’, ‘What do I actually enjoy doing?’ and ‘What am I good at?’ Funnily enough, by studying ourselves, we can decide on a profession. These days, there is a huge range of opportunities for self-fulfilment, you just have to understand what you want. So, to pursue any profession, you need time, and you must have a clear sense of your own abilities. You have to understand how much time you can commit and what skills exactly you’re ready to sell at what price. You also must have an idea of how to continue to develop in the profession.
Modern education, especially classical education, hasn’t changed very much in the last 20 years, but the current reality is that, throughout their careers, people often not only switch their specialised area but also change their professions entirely. The value of a university education has fallen. In these conditions, how can we help a teenager choose a career path so that, after listening to their parent's advice, they don’t bring home a long-awaited degree in a profession they hate and then lie down on the sofa?
A devaluation of university education is indeed taking place. This doesn’t mean that it’s not worth going to university, it’s just that it has to be understood that any college course, university degree evening class should be undertaken after giving an honest answer to the question ‘Do I really want to do this and am I ready to invest time in developing this skill?’. What parents can do at this point is think beyond the common misconceptions which hinder so many. The first of these is that a degree in higher education guarantees a successful future. The second is that a highly paid profession must be chosen. Programmers, for instance, are in demand and the need for them will grow, but if it’s not your calling and either you don't like it or you’re not very good at it, taking this path will become a process of self-destruction. The third is to assume that dynasties always work; just because your partners are doctors with useful connections is no guarantee of success. The main thing is to understand that it’s not a disaster to go back and get another qualification later on, because, these days, the development of many qualifications is overlapping; medicine and IT in telemedicine, ecology and gastronomy in eco-foods and so on. So, in these times, the main skill is to be ready to learn.
At present, there is a lot of talk about creativity and emotional intelligence. How can parents find an imaginative approach to managing emotions and the development of creativity and emotional intellect in their children?
Emotionality and creativity are transferable, soft skills that I believe can be developed every day in ordinary life, starting with the most simple things. For example, devise a challenge; find ten ways to make breakfast from three eggs and then answer the question of which you liked best; this develops inner honesty by making us pose the question ‘What do I like?’. Funnily enough, in combination, these two mundane, everyday tasks help self-development; the first helps with creativity and the second with emotional intellect. Creativity is the readiness to find several solutions in any situation. It allows the creation of something new via the combination and fusion of different components, but in practice, this is primarily the ability to see solutions and to understand that there are always several different ways to resolve an issue. This is why, by asking ourselves two questions every day; ‘What is another solution?’ and ‘What is another way I can complete this task?’ we will develop creativity. Emotional intellect deals with emotions, feelings and worries, but primarily this is about understanding the reasons these feelings arise. By asking ourselves what emotion we, or other people are experiencing, what has provoked these feelings and what needs can explain them, we are developing emotional intellect.
What should be done if a teenager shuts themselves off, living online and not leaving the house, losing interest in old pursuits and not replacing them with new ones?
The internet is an enormous world containing a great many different universes, so when we see that a child is spending all their time on the internet, we need to check what exactly it is that they're doing there. If they’re socialising with someone or studying something, that’s normal, but if they’re glued to the computer, playing the same game again and again, not even competing with others, but, instead, they’re in a state of constant frustration, it goes without saying that you have to look for a reason. All sorts of things may lie behind this behaviour; maybe they’re mulling over an ingenious plan, maybe they’ve argued with a friend, or maybe an identity crisis is leaving them unsure about what to do next. You have to initiate an honest dialogue. For parents, the most important thing is not to lose contact with the teenager. Don’t insist on getting to the bottom of every little detail, because each teenager has their own world. Tell them what interests you and find out what interests them. Think of several things you could do together and give them a choice. By taking these small steps, we can help the teenager to overcome the crisis. Often, with time, in three weeks, or a month they come out of their shells on their own accord. An honest answer can only be given after talking to the teenager.
Is it worth trying to control access to adult sites and, if so, until what age?
It’s impossible to control teenagers. You can set boundaries for children up to the age of ten or eleven, but from experience, I can say that limiting access to adult content is very hard. What should you do? Look at their browser history. If you see that a ten-year-old child is showing a clear interest in such content, the time has come to have a good talk with them about some basic things like pornography, drugs, crime etc. During this talk, which should be a discussion, not a moral lecture, you can get a grasp of what they already know, voice your own position and explain where they may have gone astray. You may see that their own opinions and reflection has led them to be immune to this kind of content. This is very important because these things are everywhere in life.
At what age should a child start to make money? Should they do this at all?
At the age of six or seven an interest in money and how to earn it develops in almost all children, which is why financial literacy must be taught as early as possible, so they can learn what different kinds of earnings and savings etc there are. If a child shows an overt interest, support them. For instance, Take them to fairs where they can sell things or offer them work and pay them for it. It's normal for teens to be paid for tasks such as mowing the lawn. It’s great when children have the opportunity to work, the main thing is for this to begin with a comprehensive study of financial literacy, skills and concepts. The only thing I wouldn’t recommend is paying for good grades because they should study for themselves, so payment isn’t quite right.
How is the nervous system of an adolescent different to that of an adult? Today’s teens are always tired; it’s not for nothing that they call them ‘snowflakes’, while it seems to us that, at their age, we were full of energy and optimism. What exactly is happening to the body of an adolescent? What problems are clearly temporary and which are cause for concern?
There were snowflakes in our times, just as there were live wires, much depends on personal traits. Of course, the teenage nervous system is different from that of adults, because their entire bodies are undergoing reconstruction, with increasing height, a second growth spurt of the neocortex; formation of a distinct network of synapses etc. The appearance of secondary sexual attributes has a huge impact on girls’ development. Boys very often go through sudden growth spurts.
Each type of nervous system has different combinations of three properties; strength, equilibrium and mobility. Together, these qualities determine reactions to these sudden changes; some run around like a whirlwind, while others slump onto the sofa in exhaustion. The physical state of the child as they approach puberty is also important. If they have always had a sporty lifestyle, then, as a rule, they will be full of energy; boys start to go to the gym while girls dance or do fitness. Complete exhaustion may also be brought on by preparation for an exam, when activities such as sports and clubs are dropped, leaving only school, study and tutors. So lifestyle certainly plays an important role.
Apart from the fact they live in the digital world, what makes the new generation of teenagers unique?
I wouldn’t so much talk about the uniqueness of a specific generation as about the uniqueness of individuals. There are talented people in every generation. I don’t quite agree with the view that the current generation of teenagers is very different from others, apart from in the digital aspect. Intergenerational conflict always occurs, as there are always perceived differences between parents and children; it was this way 100 years ago and it will be the same 100 years from now. Predominantly, differences between the generations are due to personal and physical development, rather than the uniqueness of a specific generation.
How can we find a way to engage with perpetually silent, uncommunicative teens who may either be subject to bullying at school or committing self-harm?
The most effective way is to have an honest conversation with the teenager in the format of a discussion in which each participant shares their concerns, views, mistakes, troubles, successes and experiences. These kinds of discussions, if they can become a habit between you, are the best way to establish rapport, which is the most important thing a parent can do for a child. Even books can help you to begin the conversation; in the evening, read several chapters and discuss openly what struck a chord for you, and let the teenager give their view. This is probably the best way. If the child is silent and won't talk to their parents, then you must look for an adult who they will be more receptive to; someone who interacts with the teenager, such as a sports instructor, teacher or acquaintance who can find a way to approach them. There is a right way to approach every child. If you are unable to establish a dialogue with them, you could go to group therapy or to a psychologist who can help you to get talking.