A Funny Friday e-card says:
“Welcome to being a parent of a teenager.
Prepare for a large amount of eye rolling, emotional outbursts, and thoughts of running away.
And that’s just the parents”
As the parent of a teenager, you may not be in the mood to laugh because you’re just too busy doing battle in the trenches. Just when you thought you’d successfully navigated the turbulent currents of childhood, you find that, without so much as a by-your-leave, your cute, acquiescent moppet has morphed into a monster who tests your nerves, your emotions, and at times even your sanity.
There are good reasons for this, of course: bungee-jumping hormones, coupled with the fact that the adolescent brain goes through major growth and changes, which explains the typical teenager’s impulsivity and excitability, apart from other developments that cause parental angst, frustration and bewilderment.
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But there are tactics, techniques and principles to get the best out of teenagers and which can be adapted whatever the personality of your child. The “Ten Commandments”, below, aren’t intended to be a revelation, they are a reminder. Many are common sense, but it’s easy to lose sight of them when you’re trying to cope with a hormonal little demon who thinks the world and everything in it exists solely for her benefit.
This is not to claim that there are just 10 Commandments set in stone, and that you will never need to put other principles or tactics into practice. Far from it. But these are the approaches that I have found, from personal experience as well as from counselling parents and teenagers, to be the most important ones. Different parents will find different kinds of original and creative ways of interpreting these rules successfully. It’s about following the spirit, not the letter.
1. Thou shalt relax
Keeping insanity at bay may seem to be the main occupation for the parents of some teenagers, but for most it will only be occasional moments of losing it that they will have to cope with. The point is, you’ll cope better with parenting a teenager if you stay centred and anchored, not if you are hyper and anxious all the time.
One important axiom is: Don’t sweat the small stuff. I know (I think we all know) parents who are neurotically clean and tidy Their whole world falls apart if their 14-year-old hellion rushes in through the front door and forgets to take his shoes off. That kind of hyper-arousal kindled in a parent makes it difficult for the kid to chill out with his friends in the park in case he gets grass stains on his jeans, or to watch TV with a serving of pizza on the coffee table in case he accidentally drops the sauce.
The really excellent parents I know, on the other hand, are the ones who expect their teenagers to listen to music anywhere, anytime, to be noisy when they get together with friends, to be messy and erratic. They take it all in their stride. They know there’s no need to rush that fourteen-year-old into acting like an adult by tomorrow – she’ll get there in good time.
Some things are simply not worth worrying or whining about. If your teenager keeps his hair conventionally trimmed and wears clean socks every day, that’s nice; but I’ve also seen parents bring up well-behaved, responsible kids with undercuts or fades, and no socks at all.
2. Thou shalt not practise “passive parenting”
Even parents who have raised their offspring with a healthy combination of love and discipline through their childhood years may slip into the mode of “passive” parenting (a.k.a “permissive parenting”) once their child enters the teen years. Passive parenting is marked by few (or no) rules, and few (or no) consequences. Oversight is limited and inconsistent. The parent believes the child should now have more freedom, and goes all the way to the other extreme, eschewing all limitations and rules, and believing that love is enough.
Love is not enough. The results of permissive parenting are catastrophic, studies have found. It seems to break down on gender lines: boys tending to become out-of-control mini-thugs, and the girls demanding and prone to tantrums. Both seem immature in their appreciation of the needs of others, manipulative, self-centred and with poor social skills.
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This is not the kind of adult you want your teenager to grow up to be. Boundaries are essential to a child’s emotional development, and to help him evolve into a responsible, functional adult. Teenagers, in particular, who can be experiencing extremes of ego-centrism, need to know that their parents are there to psychologically hold them – and to control them when necessary.
3. Thou shalt not yell
Yes, of course, yelling may seem the most natural and completely justified reaction when your teenager comes home riding pillion with someone who does not have a valid license. But yelling can trail in accusations (“I just can’t trust you”), it can lead to intemperate language, even swearing and cursing. Even if it does not, if you habitually go ballistic in response to the kind of impulsive, erratic things that teenagers do, then your child will hesitate to confide in you when, for instance, he gets pulled up in school for consistently poor performance; he will hold back from sharing that some of his friends tried to get him to smoke hash at their last overnighter. No one looks forward to interacting with someone who’s a yeller or a screamer. This in fact explains why so many parents find that, no matter how much they shout at their teens, their children just don’t seem to listen.
All parents, if they are honest, will admit that they have done that (yelled or shouted) once in a while, especially when a teenager has put himself in a dangerous situation. But it is chronic put-downs and yelling that can bring on long-term problems. Harsh verbal discipline, which is what yelling and screaming are, can also backfire, research shows. It increases the risk that teens will misbehave, and can also bring on symptoms of depression.
That does not mean you should not talk to your teen about behaviour that is risky or unacceptable, or that you should not set limits on his behaviour. But the better alternative to harsh verbal discipline is to use “Constructive Consequences”, a technique that educates and does not berate or humiliate. One approach that has been successfully tried is to ask your teen what would be an appropriate consequence – a much better word than “punishment” – for behaviour such as staying out beyond the 11 pm deadline you ‘d set for him. You’ll find your teen can be surprisingly fair in determining an appropriate consequence. And it will not make you look like an authoritarian ogre.
4. Thou shalt not compare
Three kinds of comparisons are particularly odious to teenagers:
» Comparing the way things were in your adolescent days, with how they are today. “My father starts this, ‘When-I-was-your-age blah, blah, blah’,” says one teenager, “and I’m muttering to myself, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, you didn’t have a cellphone in your pocket, and you didn’t have to score 99 % to get into college.”
» Comparing your child with a friend. “He’s so clever/ confident/popular...” carries the unspoken addendum, “...And you are not”.
» Comparison with a sibling. This is the worst one of all. “See how hard you sister works at her studies” not only makes your teenager feel inadequate but can also drive a wedge between siblings, spark rows and sprout rivalries that may last a lifetime.
Accept that each child is unique. Focus on your teenager’s individual talents and strengths, encourage him to be his best. It’s burdensome enough that today’s teenagers are endlessly comparing themselves to their friends on social media. As a parent, try to blunt that pressure, not to pile on an additional load.
5. Thou shalt respect your teenager
One of the most common grouses that teenagers vent is that their parents do not respect them. Of course, teens often make the mistake of equating “respect” with “permission.” So, they say things like, “If you respected me, you’d let me...”
So, what does “respect” mean in the context of a relationship between two persons who are not equals in terms of position and authority? It means recognizing your teen’s personhood. Even though he is a minor, he deserves regard and attention. Some ways you can show you respect him:
» Establish rules that are fair and reasonable. Parents often lay down rules out of convenience for themselves, or to assuage their own fears or satisfy their own need for control. Resist that temptation.
» Admit when he's right and you're wrong. And apologize. Apologizing to your child when you are in the wrong does not demean you. Such honesty is the backbone of mutual respect.
» Never belittle or intentionally embarrass him. Publicly or privately -- it doesn't matter. Don't indulge in name-calling, not even when you're angry. Teenagers can be gravely wounded by the careless words of their parents.
» Distinguish between behaviour and character. It's one thing to point out wrong actions, but be careful not to attack your child's character in the process.
6. Thou shalt keep the lines open
As children enter the teenage years, the channels for interaction with their parents seem to get clogged. Peer expectations, feelings that parents don’t understand them, the inability to articulate what they are feeling, and their own confusion make up the gunk that clogs the communication pipeline. Parents compound the blockage with their own emotional baggage: anger, mistrust, fear, their inability to relate, and their own self-doubts.
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Communicating more with their peers and less with their parents can be a normal part of the process by which teenagers establish independence. All the same, they still do need – and want – to communicate with their parents, to feel close to them and to be able to turn to them when they have problems or want to talk.
Here are some ways that parents can help keep those lines open:
Listen. This is the single most important thing you can do to “stay in touch”. Listening sounds simple, but often isn’t.
» Let your teenager finish all that he has to say without agreeing, disagreeing, coming up with a solution while he is still talking, or interrupting him with comments.
» Stop what you are doing if you need to and get rid of distractions in order to give him your full attention.
» Ask occasional questions to show you’re listening and interested. Be careful not to ask so many questions that your questions take over the conversation.
» Use “Door Openers” rather than “Door Closers”.
Door openers encourage your teenager to talk. (Examples: “How do you feel about that?” / “What do you think is the right thing to do?”)
Door closers, on the other hand, will get your teenager to clam up. (Examples: “I don’t want to hear that kind of talk” / “Don’t come crying to me if you end up in a mess.”)
Schedule special times. Keep aside regular time that you can spend with your teenager -- for instance, a fortnightly trip to the mall with a leisurely snack at the food court to follow. Or, walking the dog with her on weekends. The point is that, instead of forcing conversation at home when your teenager is busy trying to load an app or add a ringtone to her phone, you instead carve out some time and space where talk and interaction will flow smoothly and naturally.
7. Thou shalt teach them to think – and to do – for themselves
This is the time – as your teen begins to push for independence -- that you will need to begin facing up to the fact that your children are not yours to keep, but to teach how to soar on their own. So, it’s not only about what you do for your teenagers, but what you teach them to do for themselves. The list is long, but here are a few of the important lessons you need to impart:
» Teach them to take a stand and be their own brand.
» Teach then to fail successfully.
» Teach them that their attitude is as important as their achievements.
» Show them how true happiness comes from experiences, not from possessions.
» Teach them that they cannot change others, and that they have to own their actions before they can change themselves.
Don’t be over-focused on preparing the road ahead for your teenager. Instead, prepare your teenager for the road.
8. Thou shalt not try to be perfect
Yes, of course, there are textbook parents, the ones who are always right. Do they sound like fun? Of course not. It’s hardly surprising that their teenage kids don’t seem to be having much fun, either.
Instead, the best parents around are the ones who have messed up here and there, now and then. Just not too badly and not too often. And they’ve always known when they’ve gone wrong. That seems to be important: know when you’ve gone wrong and try harder to remember next time. That’s good enough.
Keep a sense of humour about this. Teenagers just need someone to kick against, to blame when things go wrong as they sometimes will. I’m afraid their target of blame will sometimes be you. It doesn’t mean they love you less, or don’t respect you. It’s just cathartic for them to blame something you’ve done or not done. So, you might as well give them something to blame you for. And you will, believe me, if you only don’t aim for perfection. The chances are good that you’ll have a character flaw or two that’ll come in handy here. Maybe you’ve got a fuse that’s just a little bit shorter than it should be? Maybe you tend to talk in rambling sentences? Trust your teenager to home in unerringly on those flaws, because that’s how it works. If you were perfect, she’d blame you for that. You can only hope that eventually – perhaps by the time she becomes a parent herself – she’ll come to see that actually she should be grateful to you for not being perfect.
9. Thou shalt keep the faith
You want your teenager to love you. And you want her to know how much you love her. But there will be times when her apparent indifference to your presence, alternating with shouting matches, may make you feel sidelined, unwanted, even unloved.
Know that, if you’re doing your job right, it’s par for the course for your teenager’s behaviour to sometimes drive you up the wall. It’s par for the course for her to sometimes get mad, to roll her eyes, moan and groan, and even wish she’d been born into another family. But, all those scraps she’s having with you -- it’s difficult for her to explain it, but she needs to have them. And she needs you to survive this phase, and to stay in her corner right through it. All through those “Whatever...” days, those “Leave-me-alone” days, what she really wants to hear is, “I’ll be there for you”. Despite all that attitude she flaunts, deep inside she’s shaking in her ankle boots, and she does need an adult or two she can trust and rely upon. She needs to know that, when she’s in a spot or is feeling adrift, “Mom (and / or Dad) will know what to do.” She desperately needs you to hold on tightly to the rope and to keep her safe as she thrashes about wildly, trying to find the handholds and footholds in this new world she’s coming to grips with. Do not abandon her by retreating into sulky silences or leaving her “to her own devices”. She needs you especially when she acts like she does not.
If you keep the faith with her through these trying times, when she emerges from this phase a few years down the road, she will be stronger and smarter. And the fact that you stayed in her corner will be a big part of the reason.
10. Thou shalt know when to seek help
Sometimes, what your teenager may be trying to grapple with may challenge your coping capabilities as well as his own. If the strain on him is too severe or ongoing, it can lead to mental health problems such as depression, or an anxiety disorder. You can help your teenager by recognising signs of distress, which may include:
» being withdrawn from others, or losing interest in usual activities
» changes in behaviour, like being irritable and moody
» feeling constantly tired or experiencing changes in usual sleeping patterns
» appearing restless or anxious, or expressing feelings of worry or hopelessness
» physical symptoms such as frequent stomach pains or headaches.
Don’t sit back and hope these things will go away. Intervene early before a problem gets out of hand. Teenage depression is showing an alarming rise, and early intervention is key because it can change the trajectory for your child’s life.
(The author is a former editor of 'Health & Nutrition' magazine, and now works as a counseling therapist)