“I’m an individual!” says your teen, as they choose clothes, accessories, electronics, and activities that mirror those of their friends.
It can be challenging and even upsetting to watch your teen change from the child you knew so well into a person who you barely recognize, and it’s understandable that you may want to challenge them on their claims of individuality when you can clearly see that they’re trying to fit in with a different crowd.
But this is largely normal behavior in teens. Your teen is trying out a subculture. It’s a way for them to separate from their family and try out new behaviors, styles, and ideas without having to blaze an entirely new trail for themselves.
What are Youth Subcultures?
A subculture is a smaller group that differentiates itself from the larger culture around them. And a youth subculture is one that’s largely populated by teenagers and young adults.
The hippie movement in the 60s would be a famous example of a youth subculture, but there have been many others over the years.
It’s possible that you belonged to a youth subculture yourself at one time. Did you identify as a punk, a geek, a goth, or an arty type in high school? Or perhaps a skater, a gamer, or a hipster?
Those are just some examples of youth subcultures that have been popular in recent generations.
Why Do Teens Join Subcultures?
By the teenage years, it’s normal and appropriate for teens to separate themselves from their family of origin.
Experimenting with subcultures that are different from the dominant culture in their family is a way for teens to try on a new type of identity, test out new values, and find their place in the world for themselves, rather than as an extension of their parents.
Subcultures come with their own guidelines for how to dress, how to behave, and what is important. Your teen isn’t separating themselves from the entire world, just from their family of origin.
Their membership in the subculture might be short-lived or off and on. They might stick with one or join several over the course of their teen years. They help promote a sense of belonging and identity in your teen and increase their social skills and ability to commit to a group and a set of ideas and behaviors.
Can Subcultures be Harmful?
While it’s normal for teens to experiment with subcultures and social groups, and most of the time this experimentation is harmless, there can be cause for concern.
Some social groups can have negative effects on a teenager. It’s not necessarily a cause for concern when your teen dresses differently or listens to new kinds of music, even if you don’t approve of their taste.
But it can be a cause for concern if your teen begins to have trouble in school, difficulty sleeping, or a dramatic drop in their academic performance.
If your teen displays signs of depression, anxiety, aggression, or antisocial behavior, it may be a sign that the current social group that they’re associating themselves with is not what’s best for them, or that they may be having problems that are unrelated to their particular subculture.
Your best bet is to take your teen to see their doctor or a therapist or encourage them to connect with their own school counselor.
These professionals understand child and teen mental health and can connect your teen with the appropriate mental health professionals or come up with a course of treatment and strategies to help your teen feel happier and better adjusted.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that your teen will leave their chosen subculture, just that they may need help to be able to function in a healthier way within it.
Understanding Your Teen’s Subculture
It can sometimes be difficult for parents to differentiate between a subculture that is harmful to their teen and one that simply seems strange and out of place to them.
Learning more about your teen’s subculture can help you determine whether your teen is really in any kind of trouble or whether they’re simply exploring their social options and experimenting with new identities and ideas.
Ask your teen questions about their friends, music, activities, and values. Try to frame questions in a nonjudgmental way and focus on understanding and connecting with your teen, not on trying to change their mind, deride their tastes, or alienate them from their friends.
Take an interest in their new subculture and look for areas of common ground and agreement where you and your teen can connect and bond. When it comes to it, there’s probably something that you can agree with in your teen’s current tastes and preferences.
Support in Action
For example, even if you don’t enjoy the sound of your teen daughter’s music, maybe you can appreciate themes of female strength and empowerment in the lyrics. Maybe you think that your son’s friends dress strangely, but you can appreciate one’s skill with computers and another’s passion for filmmaking.
Teenagers need to feel valued and validated. A social group can give them that, but your acceptance of their choices and your willingness to keep an open mind and listen no matter what can also give them that, and they’ll remember that you gave them the time and space to experiment long after they’ve grown out of the experimental phase of life.
Keep in mind that your teen is developing into their own soon-to-be-an-adult person, and at this stage in their life, they’re supposed to try out new identities and have new experiences. If they didn’t, it would be very difficult for them to develop their own identities separate from yours.
However, this experimentation doesn’t mean that your teen won’t eventually return to the values and ideas that you raised them with. Just be patient with them. Youth subcultures are a normal part of the teen experience.
But just as most youths from the 60s didn’t end up being hippies for the rest of their lives, your teen probably won’t identify with the subculture they chose at 15 forever, either.
Common Questions About Youth Subcultures
What Is a Subculture?
A youth subculture is a group that differentiates themselves from the main crowd around them.
What Are Examples of Youth Subcultures?
The hippie movement of the 60’s, punks, goths, hipsters, skaters, gamers… all are examples of this culture.
When Are They Harmful?
It’s normal for teens to experiment with subcultures, but if your teen begins exhibiting signs of sleep deprivation, a drop in school performance, depression, anxiety, aggression or anger, then it’s important to have your teen speak with professionals.
How Can You Avoid Judging Your Teen?
Learning about the subculture your teen is involved in will help to be less judgmental about it. Ask questions about the culture, their friends, music, values, etc. to learn about the culture, even if you don’t agree with it.