When it comes to parenting adolescents, what is a problem?
Start with what constitutes a personal problem in general. A problem is a matter of a opinion, an act of judgement. It is statement of dissatisfaction with some aspect of one’s life. Some condition, circumstance, event, behavior, or relationship becomes problematic when we make a comparison: “How things are is not the way I want them to be.” Now we have created a discrepancy between the reality we have and the reality we want. For example, maybe I decide I don't like my job, my marriage, my weight, my performance, my looks, or some other facet of my life. One function of this discontent is to find grounds for complaint. Another is to generate the motivation to resolve the problem by closing the discrepancy and relieving the dissatisfaction or distress.
Now consider how parents decide they have a problem with their adolescent, or that their adolescent has a problem. Parents have a problem with their adolescent when they decide she is not behaving how they would like. At the proud age of fourteen, for example, she is constantly challenging their opinions and arguing with their decisions. They never talked this way to their parents!
By holding this opinion and making the judgment that this manner of communication is not okay, they have created a discrepancy between what they want and the way things are. Their adolescent’s behavior is judged “wrong” or “unacceptable” and they want to put this problem “right.”
Now, as with any problem, they have three choices for closing the discrepancy they have created, easing the dissatisfaction, and reaching resolution.
1) They can change how things are to fit how they want them to be by convincing the teenager to cease challenging and arguing with them.
2) They can change what they want to fit how things are by choosing to accept more adolescent challenge and argument as normal.
3) Or they can compromise, getting some change in the objectionable behavior and accepting the remainder as tolerable.
In a sense, our choices for managing problems comes down to the Serenity Prayer: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” (Reinhold Niebuhr) Parents vary in how much they want to change and how much they want to accept and how much they are willing to compromise the difference.
Hands-on parents who believe adolescents take a lot of attending to are more prone to seeing problems than hands-off parents who’d rather turn a blind eye because making problems just makes more discontent to deal with. When these two folks are married, the matter of when to identify a problem can cause conflict between them—one wanting to hold on and bear down while the other wants to let go and back off.
“I tell you, this new moodiness is a problem because it might mean she is using drugs, and we need to check it out!” says one parent. Replies the other, “And I tell you that it’s not a problem, just the emotions of puberty, and we need to leave her alone, not add to her stress!”
It’s one of the more unrewarding responsibilities of being a parent—making the judgment call to identify what is a problem with their teenager. When parents are in conflict or are in doubt about whether they want to declare a problem or not, they may want to check their observations and concerns out with an uninvolved third party. This is where counseling can often be a help. So parents ask if “is this normal and okay in our teenager or should we treat it as a problem and try to do something about it?” They seek outside help in making this judgment call.
When parents are convinced they have a problem to deal with—the teenager getting in trouble, having trouble, causing trouble, or acting troubled, for example—there are some common pitfalls for them to avoid.
Don't identify the problem with the person. Sometimes parents can become so fixated on the problem that they equate it with the entire person. She’s nothing but “defiant” to authority. He’s nothing but a “failure” in school. Now the equation bites: problem = person, and the exception is treated as the rule. So, the teenager reiterates in counseling what she has been told: “I’m nothing but a problem.” No. This is reductionist thinking. A problem is only a small part of a large person. No matter what the difficulty, any adolescent is infinitely larger than the sum of her problems. It is the parents’ job to keep the broadest possible perspective so the teenager can do the same, able to focus not just on what is going “wrong,” but also all that is going right. When a problem has been declared, the adolescent must be able to recognize and mobilize her strengths, not just preoccupy with her current failings.
Don't catastrophize the problem. Exaggerate the problem and make it larger than it truly is and you make it seem more alarming. “If you fail this class, you may fail other classes and fail eighth grade and drop out of high school from failing there and end up out on the streets without an education, homeless and unable to get a job!” Keep the problem in the moment and of realistic size. Or as the teenager told his parents in this case, “Mom, Dad, get a grip! Failing a class doesn’t mean I’m going to fail my future!” The more parents lose perspective on the problem, the more emotionally upsetting it becomes, and the more their fearful perceptions and reactions tend to rule. And for an impressionable adolescent, parental panic can encourage a personal sense of alarm. “I’ve really ruined my life now!”
Don't let the negative take over. Because a problem is a judgment about something going “wrong,” it is very easy for parents to preoccupy with negative responses—disapproval and worry, for example—and forget that negative focus does not provide positive motivation. It only sinks the adolescent deeper into discouragement. As important as it is to correct what is amiss, even more important is expressing confidence in recovery. In addressing an adolescent problem, parents must provide an adequate amount of affirmation, encouragement, and hope. So parents say to their last stage adolescent (18 - 23) who has lost his footing now that he is out on his own, “It’s just time to sharpen up your problem solving skills. We believe you have what it takes to choose your way out of the trouble you have chosen to get into. And of course our advice is free for the asking.”
Don't entirely solve the problem yourselves. Sometimes, in their zeal to make things right, parents will take over fixing the problem and factor the adolescent out of the solving process, for example paying off the young person’s credit card debt on the promise she won’t overcharge again. Not only does this lift responsibility from the teenager, it deprives her of problem solving experience. Let other people fix your problems and you miss out on the struggle, education, and sense of competence that self-help brings. Problem solving is a life survival skill. No matter how painful the problem is, grappling with it has a lot to teach. Parents need not to be so involved that they get in the way of this instruction. By taking over the solution, they can contribute to a larger problem.
Problems are not a problem. They are reality. We can’t grow up and grow through life without them. When to declare a problem and how to solve it are life skills every parent has to practice and must help every adolescent to learn.
Next week’s entry: When Adolescents are Unduly Hard on Themselves