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How to Teach Your Teen
To Cope with Teen Discrimination


By Dr. Maryann Rosenthal
Get Dr. Rosenthal's book,

Once my teenage son and I were loading luggage into the car at the airport terminal. A police officer yelled at us that we needed to "hurry up." My son told the officer that he didn't need to yell at us.

The officer then yelled even louder at my son and proceeded to write me a ticket for obstructing traffic. The reality is that the officer didn't write a ticket for obstructing traffic; he wrote a ticket to send a message to a teenager about voicing his youthful opinion.

An expert in the field of adolescent and teen behavior, I am constantly hearing stories about youthful age discrimination. Most kids believe they experience bias but don’t know "exactly how." In fact, open up a discussion with almost any teenagers about whether they have ever experienced age discrimination, and chances are you will get an earful. They will tell of being ignored by salespeople who choose to help adults first. Some teens even claim to have been purposely shortchanged by a clerk trying to send some kind of message.

Penalized for Inexperience
These experiences are discouraging and irritating to teens who feel they’re spending money like adults but being treated like kids. In their view, they’re not being taken seriously, and they’re being penalized for their mere inexperience.

Of course, they are inexperienced; that's what youth is all about. And for generations, adults have sent “beware" messages to supposedly rebellious teenagers. And that does translate to discrimination against youth.

Adolescents and teens bridle at being judged just on their youth and inexperience. They feel they suffer because of the way Generation X is stereotyped as being comprised of disrespectful "slackers" who care about little beyond video games and having fun.

Like most stereotypes, there’s a bit of truth in that. But in my opinion, it is the parents who are to blame. We have lost our equilibrium in parenting. We too often fail to respect authority ourselves. And in pursuit of building self-esteem, we neglect to discipline our children when they act similarly.

The great humanitarian Albert Schweitzer said we teach our children in three ways: the first is by example, the second is by example, the third is by example. In truth, there are a lot of really rude, obnoxious adults out there!

Teachable Moments
 All teens want respect, so at the very core of how to prevent discrimination is to teach kids about respect. Respect is a revolving door—you must give in order to get.

My advice? Use what is happening to them as an opportunity to talk about other forms of discrimination people experience. For example, when we got that ticket at the airport, my son complained about said how "unfair" that was. But what a great teachable moment this event provided. It was a great "talk" opportunity to discuss the imperfect world that we live in where fairness often is discussed but less frequently practiced. Yes, those with the most maturity should act the most responsibly—but often they don’t.

So what do you do when a teenager gives respect and still gets discriminated against? One of the most important things to do is to validate his feelings and let him know that the world is not a "fair" place for any of us. Let him know that it is okay to "feel" frustrated and even depressed. 

Feelings are always valid. It's what we do with those feelings that counts. So try to give some specific tips that might make him or her feel more empowered and in control.

Let's say your son or daughter was shopping and couldn't get a clerk to help him or was shortchanged and unable to do anything about it. After validating feelings, here are a couple of strategies that might help:

Encourage him or her to speak up, politely, when standing in line waiting longer than an adult

Suggest staying at the counter until the change has been counted so that he can't be accused of lying.

We are trying to teach our kids what the world is really like and help them to become responsible adults. A mentor/student approach can give your teen the tools to deal with discrimination and help manage the perils of being a teenager. 


About the Author

Dr. Maryann Rosenthal is a highly respected clinical psychologist on family dynamics and best selling author of . A featured authority on regional and national television and global keynote speaker, Dr. Maryann is the Director of Family Services at the AA&E Crosby Center, Addiction and Dual Diagnosis Treatment Center. She has co-authored with Denis Waitley, the new family leadership program, The Seeds of Greatness System taught worldwide. Visit


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