Parenting Adolescents — 07 July 2004
How to gain the respect of your teenagers

Parents often watch with dismay the drastic change in their children’s attitude towards them, as they become adolescents. The once close, respectful, loving and receptive children suddenly become unavailable, moody, sullen, non-receptive and even disdainful people. This painful transformation often leaves parents bewildered and at a loss.

Though all parents have been adolescents themselves, when their children reach this difficult time it is hard for the parents to comprehend the changes. How did my sweet daughter become so hostile, angry and silent? How could my gregarious, open and sweet son suddenly cease to respond to me and act so antagonistically?

Adolescence is a developmental stage in which children mature physiologically and emotionally. Teenagers have to adjust to the changes taking place in their bodies and minds. That requires more connection with peers who share the same process and less contact with adults who do not.

Teenagers need time to experience themselves, accept their new bodies, respond to their new preoccupations and process these changes on their own. Parents want to talk, ask questions and demand answers to issues that adolescents can not understand or articulate. Thus, parents are viewed as unwelcome intruders, whose mere presence feels offensive to the adolescent child.

Adolescence is a time of great confusion and even shame for teens. They do not understand the urges they feel, but know that they are new, are dangerous and will not meet their parents’ approval. Their physical changes create embarrassment and the need to hide. “Please don’t watch my body change,” they silently cry. Parents trying to help may end up violating their children’s greatest needs for privacy and invisibility.

This stage in life is also the period in which children attempt to carve their own image of themselves. “Am I smart, attractive, athletic, social, popular or not? What do others think of me? Where do I fit? Where am I going? What are my goals, aspirations, talents and capabilities? Not by my parents views, but by the way I see myself.”

To get clarity about these confusing questions, one needs time alone, a chance to “space out” (listen to music, lay around and do nothing). One also needs to create a new “family” of peers who see him and value him as he is, without judgement or expectations.

When parents demand from their teen’s productive use of time, a sense of direction, goals, and a connection with them, the adolescent child feels that the parents are stupid and do not understand anything.

What parents often fail to see is that the teenager’s conduct is not necessarily defiant. The child is learning how to become an adult while his parents expect him to already be one.

Parents are critical of the messy room, the loud music, the slovenliness, the poor concentration, and the sullen attitude. They also feel hurt about the excessive interest in friends and the abandonment of the family as the adolescent’s main social focus.

Though this phase of growing up is normal and known, parents feel shut out and isolated. It is particularly difficult to tolerate the negative energy of the adolescent at home. Parents too get their feelings hurt; they feel rejected, disrespected and ignored. They lament the idea of being seen as having suddenly lost all their IQ points.

If you look at the situation from your adolescent’s point of view, you indeed do not seem very smart. You don’t understand what he or she is going through, you don’t like her music, you are jealous of her friends, you hold to some old fashioned ideas of morality and conduct that no longer fit this modern world. You expect the adolescent to be, feel and act like you, an adult, while he or she is trying to figure out what being an adult means. You criticize her dress, her time management and demand school performance that does not seem to relate to anything current in her life. You restrict her activities, impose a curfew, control the use of the car, manipulate with money, constantly demand to know her whereabouts, ask too many questions, and act like the all knowing boss. So why would she think that you are smart, trustworthy or helpful to her in her life?

So how do we regain our teenager’s respect? What can we do while they go through their metamorphosis from children to young adults? How do we help them while maintaining our own sanity in the process?

  • Understand that your teenager is dealing with normal developmental challenges, which are very hard and confusing.
  • View the withdrawal, sullen attitude, negativity and disdain as the projection of how the adolescent feels about herself, not about you. Say, “I am sorry about your pain and anger.”
  • Respect his need to sleep late, isolate in his room, lay on the bed listening to music and avoid contact with you as time for self exploration and handling confusion. Allow him time to do this.
  • Specify your expectations very clearly. Say, “You can manage your time as you will, provided that your schoolwork and chores are completed.”
  • Teach your teen that as he shows greater sense of responsibility he will earn greater freedom from your supervision.
  • Your feelings of hurt and rejection by your adolescent are not relevant. Your job is to help your child grow up and differentiate from you to gain his autonomy.
  • Be present, available and positive with your teenager without associated expectations. Your support is essential in helping your child to grow up healthily.
  • You will gain your child’s respect by being there for her with love and affirmations, listening more and saying less. When you do speak, she will be more inclined to listen.
  • Adolescence is a transitional stage. It will pass and you are likely to be seen as smart again and have a satisfying life -long friendship with your adult child.

July 4, 2004

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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