What should you do when you find your teen’s music offensive?

Many teens use music as a way to relax, bond with friends, develop their own identities and even indulge in fantasies. While music may not directly influence your teen’s behavior, it may, nonetheless, be hard to hear or support. This week on Parenthetical, we are reposting a discussion on ways parents can respond to teen’s music choices when it seems inappropriate or offensive.


The music that teens listen to today has become louder, less appealing and more vulgar than when we were kids. Of course, that’s exactly what my father used to say and probably his father before him.

Popular music is one of the ways that each new generation defines itself. It serves as a way for youth to differentiate themselves from the previous generations — especially that of parents. As teens explore new identities in an effort to create an adult persona, they sometimes find the music of deviant or cultural groups that differ from their own to be particularly appealing. For example, it’s not uncommon for the music of death metal bands or urban gansta rappers to be pulsing out of the earbuds of middle class suburban youth.


So, what choices does a parent have if they find their teen’s music inappropriate or offensive?

  • Ignore it.  In many cases the simplest way to deal with a teen’s musical tastes is to have them shut the door, turn down the volume or plug in their headphones.
  • Limit it.  If your teen is young or immature or the music is especially offensive, you have the authority to forbid your child from listening to it. Be forewarned, however, that by forbidding it, you may make it more appealing (and he may simply find ways to listen out of your presence). If you do take this approach, it is important to calmly explain the reasoning behind your position.  For instance, what is it that you find offensive? Why do you think it’s potentially harmful for your teen to listen to it? The better you can explain your point of view, the more effective you will be in communicating your position, getting your teen to obey your request and helping your teen further develop their value system.
  • Use it as a teachable moment.   An open discussion about music (offensive or otherwise) can provide an opportunity to find out what’s on your teen’s mind.  If you find the music is particularly inappropriate or you think your child doesn’t really understand what the lyrics mean or how they are offensive, then this can be a great opportunity to share your values and to help your teen to clarify and develop theirs.   For example, you can ask them about why they enjoy listening to this kind of music.   Ask your teen about what the lyrics mean and if they agree with them. If they don’t really understand their meaning, this is a good time to provide some explanation. On the other hand, if they do understand, but you don’t agree, then explain how the messages in the music make you feel or how you believe they might demean others. See if you can get them to view the music through the eyes of someone else.
  • Seek help.  Some teens who are depressed, alienated, unusually aggressive or experiencing other problems may be drawn to music that is dark, deviant, violent, or overly sexual.  If this is a major change in his or her musical tastes or is reflective of other signs of distress or unusual behavior, then it may indicate that something is wrong.  Even though, in such cases, it is not the music that is causing the problem, (rather, that the problem is drawing them to the music), it may be a warning that you need to seek out professional help for your child.

The issues raised in musical lyrics, while sometimes offensive, are often a reflection of what’s on the mind of teens. The good news is that most teenagers pay little attention to the lyrics (see a previous Wise Talk response on the topic), much less use them as a guide for their behavior. And there is little evidence that music causes psychological problems or deviant behavior.  For most teens, listening to music is simply a way to relax, to form closer bonds with friends, to indulge in fantasies and to develop independent tastes (and annoy their parents!).

SHARE WITH PARENTHETICAL: What was the song (or type of music) that most annoyed your parents when you were a teen? Tell us about the song or music below. Include a YouTube link if you can find one.


SteveSteve Small is a Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Family Relations Specialist for the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension.  He and his wife have been married for 30 years. They are the parents of 3 former teenagers and a new son-in-law.