Parenting Adolescents — 17 July 2005
How to help teenagers feel more secure

Adolescence is often a hard time for youngsters and their parents. The time of teenagers’ self-definition and the establishment of their identity is also a time of being overwhelmed and bewildered by their parents. There are, however, a few tools that may ease this period for both generations.

During adolescence, children’s bodies, mood, preoccupations, attitudes and behaviors dramatically change. The sweet twelve year old, who used to consult his or her parents about school, social life, and activities, and was amenable to suggestions and guidance, has suddenly turned into a sullen and unapproachable thirteen year old who views his parents in a new and unfavorable light.

The moody, non-conversant, irritable, and even unpleasant child is unfamiliar to the parents. All the previous methods of connecting with the child may no longer be effective. The youngster storms in and out of his or her room, seems continuously annoyed with the parents’ presence, demands to be left alone or driven to be with peers. Any question or attempt to connect with the child is often met with a grunt, an impolite reaction or worse.

It is easy to understand why many parents retreat from their teenager in order to protect themselves from additional hurtful exchanges. Parents often feel ineffectual and helpless in reaching their adolescent children. They step back, and at times watch in horror as their teenager is heading for self-destruction.

Both generations experience similar emotions at the same time: confusion, fear, loneliness, rejection, hurt, helplessness, and pain about their ineffectual personal connection.

As parents becomes overwhelmed and less active, their teenagers become more and more frightened. What the youngsters need is consistent, strong, effective and clear guidelines from their parents, regardless of how they react. In the absence of all these, the children feel abandoned and lost in finding their own ways, which they feel ill-equipped to do.

Adolescents need to know what the behavior boundaries are, and a clear firm view of what is right and what is wrong. In search of their path, the firm guidelines help the teenager decide how to act and whether or not to violate the expected conduct. Finding the limits to be impermeable, gives youngsters clarity about their options. Though they may mock their parents’ ways, rules or expectations, they feel loved and protected by having those limits. A child who can avoid peer pressure by assigning the blame to his parents is greatly helped in resisting negative behavior. Adolescents, whose parents are more lenient about curfew, for instant, must exercise their own limits, which are harder to enforce with peers.

Guidelines and rules help teenagers feel cared for, loved and protected, despite all the noise they make about it. Parents need to be unwavering in setting rules of conduct and expressing their firm stance about critical issues such as: drugs, alcohol, driving, sex, and decent behavior. Letting children determine these for themselves, is not kind, helpful, respectful, safe or responsible.

All parents know that the big issues must be discussed and held firm. However, some parents are so exhausted that they abstain from insisting on less important issues, such as conduct around the house, chores, or even school work.

A good way to set the expectations clear is to write a contract with the child. Once the parents agree on three of four major expectations they have of their teen, a meeting should be arranged with the child, regardless of how uncooperative s/he is.

During the meeting, the parents should explain to the teenager, that they are the coaches of the child, who is an “adult in training”. As such, s/he needs to learn certain skills toward independent adulthood. Just as adults know what is expected of them and the price they will pay for noncompliance, (such as penalty for late taxes or illegal parking), so does the teen needs to know in advance the consequences of his choices.

The young person needs to know what is expected of him or her (such as: serious school work, chores, and respectful attitude) so that s/he may elect to choose behavior from column A (the expectations) or from column B (the consequences). It is best if the teenager selects the consequences, which are often harsher than parents would assign. Column B, outcomes of violation of expectations, need to be meaningful enough for the teenager to remember to avoid it. (Such as loss of phone privileges, computer use, time with friends, or use of the car.)

Once the expectations and consequences are written and signed by both parties, the contract is posted in a visible place. If the youngster does not meet the expectations, there need not be any discussion; s/he is advised that s/he CHOSE the consequences in column B.

Interestingly enough, most adolescence respond well to this method, even if their original attitude is non-cooperative. Firm, signed agreements honor the young person as a mature partner and provide clarity, protection and training for choosing one’s behavior.

If you are a parent of a teenager,

• Remember that adolescence is a difficult period, but you will get back your previously wonderful son or daughter.
• Do not allow yourself to indulge in your own feelings at the expense of staying a strong parent.
• Feeling overwhelmed is normal and appropriate. Get support from other parents who are raising teenagers, you will feel reassured and healthy.
• Stick to your job; abstain from needing to be liked by your teen. It is necessary for your child to feel safe and protected.
• Firmly state your values and guidelines, even if it appears that your teenager is not listening. Children need the repetition and consistency. They rehearse your messages before going to sleep.
• Tell your adolescent child how much you love and value him or her, even when you do not appreciate his or her behavior.
• The report card of your parenting will come much later and is likely to be surprisingly good.

July 10, 2005

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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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