How Parents of Teens Can Save Their Sanity
Minimizing teen drama: an essential parenting skill.
Posted Feb 02, 2019
WHEN ADOLESCENCE GOES OFF THE RAILS
The mother sitting in front of me was in tears. She looked thoroughly defeated, but more than that, she was worried. Her husband, sitting next to her, sighed deeply and shook his head in anger. “We’ve been through this a million times. It’s like hitting your head against granite… and I’m just about done.”
Across from the parents sat their 16-year-old daughter, Rachel. She was curled up in an overstuffed chair, arms folded across her chest, and a thousand mile stare directed out the window. As the conversation moved along Rachel’s expression would change, deftly mixing an air of contempt with a healthy dose of utter boredom.
Before entering high school Rachel had been an easygoing youngster who seemed to bounce through each day as though she had not a care in the world. Her parents described her as having been a “bright, happy, and outgoing” girl. “She was absolutely incandescent” the father remarked before the mother cut in saying “Rachel just seemed to bring a certain light to any situation she was in.”
Then, somewhere in the middle of her freshman year, Rachel began to change. This easygoing girl began to chronically sulk, argue, withdraw and perform more sighs and eye rolls than Thomas the Tank Engine. The parents also began to receive calls from the high school letting them know that Rachel had broken the school conduct code. Sometimes this involved skipping classes, talking back to teachers, or sneaking off campus without permission.
As the year wore on Rachel became more withdrawn. The girl who had been a ‘chatterbox’ in junior high was now about as talkative as a mime. Clearly what their daughter desired most was to be left alone—unless, of course, she needed to be driven somewhere. In this case, the agreeable and sweet side of Rachel from times gone by would suddenly reappear.
The parents were at a loss. They told Rachel how disappointed they were in her choices. Surely she still cared enough about their feelings so as to be moved by this kind of discussion. Not really.
They tried reasoning with her. Their daughter was smart, and sweet logic was bound to persuade her to change her ways. Think again.
“OK, time to get real” they said to one another, “Now we bring the hammer down.” So the parents shifted to stern reprimands and punishment. In response to the heated conflicts that followed, Rachel’s behavior briefly improved, but only for a short time. She quickly learned to agree with whatever her parents said, and then proceeded to ignore everything she had agreed to a moment before.
The ‘last straw’ occurred when the parents returned home early from a ‘date night’ and found that Rachel had invited a boy into the house for a date night of her own. Feeling desperate, the parents decided to call a therapist.
HOW TO SAVE YOUR TEEN (AND YOURSELF) FROM THE PAIN OF ADOLESCENCE
The story of Rachel is a familiar one: a rebellious adolescent whose misbehavior creates a vortex of strong emotions. As parents, the teen, and often times siblings, begin to circle around the bottom of that vortex, life seems impossibly tense and chaotic.
I’ve spent a good deal of my career helping parents and teens navigate out of adolescent “temporarily lost my mind” induced chaos. It can be done, although it is always hard work.
The better solution, by far, is to avoid, or at least minimize, these problems in the first place. This path requires just as much work, but it is spread out over many years. How many years?
From the time a child is a toddler, parents should be focused on preparing their son or daughter to meet the challenges of adolescence.
What are these challenges you ask?
Quite simply they involve laying the foundations for adulthood. Think of it this way. The youngster who happily spent hours of time playing with Legos or dolls must now learn to deal in earnest with grown up concerns.
The teen’s job during these years is to:
- Begin to make independent decisions
- Select life goals
- Grow more responsible
- Find a path in life that fits with his/her abilities and interests
- Develop mature and supportive relationships with peers
- Learn how to understand and relate to the opposite sex
- Figure out how to maintain a close relationship with parents while still becoming increasingly independent
- Deal appropriately with the rapid physical transformation of their bodies
There is no other time in an individual’s life where so many changes are required of an individual in such a short period of time. In case things are not already dicey enough, added to all of this are the following:
- A massively heightened sense of insecurity (found in most teens)
- A belief that the world revolves around oneself
- An unwavering conviction that one’s peer’s have the best answers to all of life’s questions
- A growing desire to distance oneself from parental influence
- An influx of hormones.
This begins to sound like a wizard’s brew designed to drive both teens and parents to the limits of crazy land.
The good news. It does not have to go down that road!
WHAT TEENS NEED TO SUCCESSFULLY NAVIGATE THE ADOLESCENT YEARS
For the teen to traverse these years and remain close to his or her parents, and experience minimal drama, a few basic skills must be firmly developed ahead of time. These skills include the ability to avoid falling into the following traps:
- Giving in to peer pressure in order to be “cool” or popular
- Acting on emotion rather than reason
- Lack of focus – chasing the newest ‘shining object’
- Feelings of profound inadequacy (which may lead to poor choices in friends, drug/alcohol abuse, self-harm)
- Failure to consider the advice of trusted adults
- Combative attitude toward parents
Teaching these skills at an early age makes them more likely to become deeply rooted in a child’s character. They become second nature.
HOW TO PREPARE FOR ADOLESCENCE
What can you do to help your child be ready for the challenges that lie ahead? Several things. Some easy, some not so much. But none of them requiring superhuman skills. Here is a brief list.
Let your child fail. Yes, I know, you’ve heard it before – but let it sink in. All of us parents know we need to do this, and all of us hate letting our children fail.
Even so, we know deep down that setbacks in life are inevitable. They are something each of us face from time to time. Learning to experience failure, and have it neither define nor defeat you, is how one grows stronger. It is an essential skill for living a successful life. Getting knocked on your backside, then getting back up, dusting yourself off and standing tall, will do more to build confidence than an entire wall full of participation trophies.
Be supportive but not enabling. When your child has fallen short in some way, it is helpful to provide support and perspective. When life has dealt them a cruel hand in some way, be the shoulder they can lean on, but don’t treat them as a victim. Do this by reflecting confidence in their ability to bounce back, to overcome. Help them realize that they may be victimized by fate, or mistreated by friends they had trusted, but help them never lose sight that they are capable of overcoming those heartaches. Those that overcome hardships are victors, not victims.
Show your child that you have confidence in him/her. Confidence is learned. Children learn confidence by seeing it reflected in their parents’ appraisal. (That is one of the reasons for letting children try and fail – it reflects confidence in the child’s ability to persist and eventually win the goal at which he or she had taken aim). Confidence is also learned through experience. Steer your child toward activities within which he or she can excel.
Put setbacks in perspective, they are not the end of the world. When comforting your child in response to some setback in life, provide some perspective. This is not to say you should minimize the distress your child feels, but the events surrounding that hurt need to be realistically viewed. So you end up doing two things at once: comforting your child, and conveying the message “Toughen Up Buttercup.”
Place more emphasis on character than accomplishments. Character trumps ability. Without character ability is a hallow thing. A ship without a rudder. Your child’s persistence and effort is more important than the final outcome. The youngster who is naturally gifted and earns straight A’s, but puts forth little effort, is much less ready for adulthood than the child who earns straight B’s by putting forth consistent effort.
Build a relationship that welcomes your child’s ideas, even when those ideas conflict with your own. Speak with interest and genuine regard about your child’s ideas, even if they appear foolish. You need not pretend that they are accurate. You should, however, try your best to help your child understand that you welcome the opportunity to understand his or her perspective. In this way, when your youngster is a teen, he or she is likely to feel more comfortable openly discussing various topics with you.
Teach your child how to choose friends wisely. When children are young parents do best by helping them to choose their friends. These relationships will teach your child what to expect from peers as they grow older. They will also help to shape your child’s preference for the type of friendships formed later in life. When they are in their teens, these foundational friendships will act as guardrails to keep them on track. Badly chosen friendships will act as seductive invitations to behave in ways that have long-term consequences.
Teach your child that it is better to follow his/her moral compass than it is to win the approval of others. Celebrate every instance of your child following his/her conscience. When faced with the enormous peer pressures of the adolescent crowd, conscience will be the ultimate bulwark against regrettable decisions. Spend time building that bulwark to be as strong as possible.
Teach self-control. Performing household chores, not allowing temper tantrums in older children, developing good manners, sticking to routines even when it is difficult, are all ways in which children learn self-control. When confronted with the explosive cocktail of adolescent stress and hormones, self-control is a stalwart friend.
Emphasize respect for authority even while emphasizing independent thinking skills. Children who respect authority figures develop a stronger sense of confidence than those who constantly rebel. They have fewer problems at home and in school. Life is sweeter.
Nevertheless, there needs to be a balance. Your child needs to learn to think independently. To understand that authority figures can be respected, and still be mistaken. This is a process. A gradual process.
By helping your child acquire this perspective, the teen years will be relatively free from the unnecessary travails that arise when an adolescent feels obligated to rebel against authority figures.
Teach your child to be grateful. Gratitude provides perspective, instills a sense of connectedness to others (those to whom we are grateful), and encourages generosity. Children who learn gratitude are happier, and this acts as a barrier to the discontent that afflicts many teens.
The teen years can be a wonderful time of growth, or a tumultuous period of stress for the adolescent and his/her family. Maintaining a healthy relationship with your teen during these years is a blessing. For parents it opens the doors for helping to shape, and share in, the adventure and excitement these years bring.
For the adolescent son or daughter it provides a sense of reassurance that the stability of a relationship that had been counted upon since birth remains steadfast. When everything else in life seems to change overnight, the trust, intimacy, and confidence shared with mom and dad remains unchanged. That sort of reassurance is of immeasurable help to a teen, and something for which every parent strives.
Too many families miss out on this experience, and at times this is due to a lack of preparation. Don’t let this be you. Be focused, be intentional, be persistent in teaching your youngster the skills we’ve examined. The rewards are worth the effort.