If you are or have been the parent of a teenager, or have ever spent more than a few hours with a teenager, especially when they are around their friends or parents, you are unfortunately familiar with the disdainful eye-roll. It is often associated with a dramatic sigh or utterances of perturbation. Often it comes after such parental comments as, “Don’t you think that skirt is too short?” or “Are your boxer shorts supposed to show above your pants?”
I believe the eye-roll the equivalent of a door slam, either when there is no door available or because they have too many clothes piled on their bedroom floors to get the adequate propulsion needed for a dramatically reverberating doorway.
When you get together with other parents of teenagers, you inevitably compare war stories. Teenagers are geniuses at doing things they know will irritate you. For example, if you like exercise, they lay around in bed. If you are hoping for a calm family dinner, they will grimace and drum their fingers while complaining about the meal. If you try to predict their mood and act accordingly, they will shift moods. If they do agree to your requests, they forget (their term) or ignore (your term) their promises.
Teenagers resent unsolicited attention and advice. They strive to appear grown-up, independent, and self-sufficient. They need to feel capable of finding their way without parental direction. Help is perceived as interference, concern as babying, and advice as bossing.
Teens challenge rules and values to establish their own identity. Teenage rebellion, be it in the form of objectionable hair styles, clothing, or music, messy rooms, or even drinking alcohol and telling lies, is their attempt to initiate separation. You loved your child all of his or her life, but most teens are so vulnerable that they repeatedly test you to prove your love.
Dr. Anna Freud said that these teen behaviors are in their developmental “program” as they seek to free themselves from childhood ties with parents, establish new identifications with peers, and find their own identities. THEY must make the successful transition from kids to young adults, but because along the way they will face life-and-death decisions,
YOU must remain their guardian angel.
Why All The Turmoil?
"It is normal for an adolescent to behave in an inconsistent and unpredictable manner. He can be more idealistic, artistic, generous, and unselfish than he will ever be again, but also the opposite: self-centered, egoistic, calculating." Anna Freud wrote this in 1958 and the words remain true today. Teenagers of each generation need to experiment with different identities before settling into their own adult personality.
Living day-in-and-day-out with teenagers in the midst of their identity search is one of the greatest challenges you will confront. Yet endure it you must because it is this process of conflict and confrontation that enables them to move to their next stage of life. It is a great help if you understand that there is a purpose for all the turmoil. Defiance, in your teenager's mind and challenges to your love is their bumpy pathway to autonomy.
Don’t Let Their Behaviors Push You Away
What you can't do is to allow these behaviors to push you away. Tolerate restlessness, respect loneliness, and accept the discontent as part of the natural, but tumultuous, progression from child to adult. Let your child feel sure of your affection and respect. Be there in the background showing your confidence. By serving as an example while spending time with them will, your teens know you love them and that they are worthwhile.
If you don't allow your children to express their anger, frustration, and depression these emotions can come out unconsciously as attempts to get back at you though failing in school, drinking, or other dangerous behavior. If you instead show that you respect them, you will prevent a rupture that can occur in your relationship at a time when maintaining connections is vital to the years immediately ahead.
During this time of natural disorganization and hormonal upheaval, your teens are individuating from the family and developing their own values. Preservation of your own values and demonstration of your faith in their ability will provide tools for their success. If you choose your battles carefully and maintain your child’s respect for your important rules of sobriety and safety and for the values you have embraced throughout their lives, you’ll keep them on track.
Listen Supportively - Don't Solve
It is around the teen years when children stop asking the questions that were so abundant when they were younger starting with, “Where does the sun go at night?” Actually, they stop asking questions and volunteering much when we ask about their day at school or their social events, because they perceive that we are not really listening.
The multitasking we did when they were younger, such as pay bills or fold laundry when they were asking questions or telling us all the details of their day, is ultimately interpreted as us not really listening…or caring about their questions or answers. By the time they are teens most of their voluntary conversation seems to be complaints.
Sometimes silence about what is going on in their lives may be your teens’ way of protecting you from anxieties they feel you cannot handle. It is up to you to assure them that you are willing to talk, not just at them, but with them in a realistic manner.
When your teen does open up to you with a problem, she will feel dismissed if you try to simplify her complex feelings and conflicts in your terms or with your experiences. Instead of giving what seems to you as understanding and relating, resist saying, "I know exactly how you feel, I felt that way too at your age."
Whether it is about her terrible best friend, the small size of her room, or the assignment of chores, rather than agree with, minimize, or attempt to solve the situation, resist that instinct. Simply listen attentively, sympathetically, and uncritically.
Active Listening Acknowledges Their Words and Feelings
First wait until they are finished speaking and then, before responding, repeat back what you believe they said…without emotion or judgment in your tone. “Okay, I think you are saying…” By repeating the gist of their statements you show you have listened well and you help them identify their feelings.
Wait a bit, so they can confirm or correct your perception of their words. You can then offer you honest commiseration and understanding. If you don’t agree with her opinion or plans, you can keep communication open (and keep doors from slamming) if you acknowledge and reflect your teen’s feelings about something even without agreeing with her point of view. Influence her, not by telling her how she should be or act, but by encouraging her to develop self-reflection, morals, and values of her own. You’ll be demonstrating your respect while encouraging her to think further and find her own solutions.
Be Direct - Don't Manipulate
Because most parental criticism creates anger and resentment, be direct and avoid sarcasm. If your son does a poor job at washing the shared family car, you might be tempted to say, "I didn't know we had such hard water. I know you washed the car and it's still dirty."
Consider that helpful criticism does not attack the person and arouse defiance; it deals with the difficult event. The direct alternative could be, "I appreciate your effort so far, but the car still needs more work, especially on the top and left side. When can you do it?” This will be more likely to elicit a less emotionally reactive, more positive response.
Choose Your Battles: Be Flexible When You Can, but Consistent the Limits You Set
As an adult your responsibility is to set standards and demonstrate values. Teenagers need to know what you respect and what you expect. Most teenagers, while demanding more independence, are at least in part, begging for structure. They rely on parents to set limits, especially to contain their more reckless impulses. Your goal is not to be your teenager's pal but rather his or her friendly guardian, concerned and strong enough to endure temporary animosity when you uphold standards and values that are in their best interests.
Don’t be frustrated when your child opposes your standards, resists your rules, and tests your limits. Part of developing one’s identity is testing limits. They should not be expected to like your prohibitions. Since you are better able to control your emotions, anticipate you teen’s resentment of rules. Limits should be set in a manner that preserves your teenager's self-respect. When your limits are neither arbitrary nor capricious, and are anchored in values aimed at character building, your child will eventually recognize that you had his best interests in mind.
It will also reduce resistance if you distinguish between your teen’s feeling and actions. As with the active listening, be permissive when dealing with your child’s feelings and wishes. Then, when you are strict in dealing with unacceptable behavior and enforcing limits, you have shown that you respect his opinions and attitudes, acknowledged his dreams and desires, but reserved the right to stop and redirect some of his actions.
As teens seek more privileges, freedom, money, or privacy parents, ever vigilant, worry about the possibility of falling grades, substance abuse, or increased sexual activity that could potentially follow if they acquiesce to these requests. Rather than let your anxieties force you to become overly restrictive, be flexible when you can. By giving teenagers choices you make them more aware of their power AND responsibility. In turn, the sense of control they feel over part of their destiny gives them more opportunities to consider alternatives and build self-confidence.
For example, if you are open to some of their unusual choices in clothes, teens will be that much less likely to get into power struggles over the big-ticket items such as drugs and alcohol. The more control you allow your teens over their choices, the more likely they are to become confident adults who, when they run into a problem will see what their options are and make a decision based on what they think is best.
Give teens responsibilities to also let them know that adult privileges are earned by taking part in the daily functioning of the family (chores). Be specific about the phone, car, and money, being a result of these contributions. Find ways to allow for them to make choices within certain parameters. For example, dishes need to be done by 8pm. They can be done earlier. However, if they are not done by that time, the privilege of phone conversation will be revoked for the remainder of that evening.
Be ready to react neutrally to cries of 'injustice' when your child suffers the inevitable consequences you have described to him. Maintain a matter-of-fact tone and your stance that it is not a punishment, but a consequence of his choice. The message you’ll be sending is that he is part of a family with certain required responsibilities. During the teenage developmental stage of self-engrossment, establishing areas of responsibility helps them learn that freedom is grounded in accountability.
Bring Out Your Teen’s Best for Now and Later
I once was told by a professor that, “A teenager learns what he lives, and becomes what she experiences.” When you are an active listener and limit your preaching and passing of judgments, you’ll elicit conversations where your teen shares her opinions and emotions and become more self-reflective. When you allow your teens to make some decisions you know aren’t great, but that won’t be dangerous or hurtful, you build their self-awareness. They will learn from their mistakes and take ownership of their successes.
When you model the values you hope for in your children, respond with more positive and direct responses, and avoid sarcasm, you’ll be promoting their positivity and commendable values of their own.
When you provide opportunities for challenge with the support they need to learn from setbacks, teens build confidence to develop self-esteem from successes. Help your teenagers build resilience and perseverance and they will leave home with the power to transform obstacles into opportunities for growth and learning.