Dear Dr. Batya, My little babies are growing up and I am about to have a teenager. I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on raising adolescents.
- J.G., Ramat Aviv
Many parents report that the teenage years are by far the hardest. I adore my adolescent patients (and my own teenage children). I love to watch as they think through an issue and see how passionate they become when discussing things they care about. Unlike adults who try to be socially acceptable, teenagers say it the way they see it.
It is for these same reasons that raising a teenager can be incredibly challenging and no amount of hair dye seems to do the trick for very long. There is a surprise around every corner, but these surprises are often special in their own right. Long after they have moved into adulthood, you'll be reminded of the times when, as the parent of an adolescent, you thought you might lose it.
Here are just a few observations and suggestions from someone who has been there on the home front and sees just about everything else in the office.
Every day is a new learning experience. Teenagers are not detached, selfish and nasty. They are on a mission. Their mission is a search toward independence from you. They are working hard to figure out just who they are. This demands that they turn inward and find themselves. They need to be somewhat self-centered, yet still be respectful of you as a parent so that they can become healthy adults. This is a time when their peer group assumes great significance. For better or worse, their friends often have more influence than you.
Teenagers need limit setting and structure. They won't ask for it and will even tell you they don't need it, but your guidance is critical. Your rules have to be reasonable and your expectations realistic. If you don't mind your teenager out all night roaming the streets and don't care when your child goes to bed or with whom, I promise you they will rarely find it within themselves to be in bed or at home. When they look back, teenagers are actually glad that their parents set limits.
As children become older, your role changes from manager to consultant. Be compassionate, open and honest and be a good role model as children are incredibly intuitive at reading your signals and will be the first to point out if your rules are inconsistent or differ from theirs. Remember, with freedom comes responsibility; you want to help guide them, but not do for them what they can do for themselves. They will have to make important decisions with respect to drugs, alcohol, driving, sex and many other issues. Today's teen is quite sophisticated and faces many issues that you never had.
Talk with your teens and be respectful. They are sincere, at times brutally honest, and have lots to say if they feel safe. If you can be a good listener and be empathetic, you may find yourself impressed with how much thought they have given to various issues, even if they see the world differently from you. You have a right to offer your opinion, but you can't live your life through them. Sometimes this is not easy.
Ask yourself if what you are saying or doing is helpful. If not, you may need to change your approach. Nagging or being critical will result in your being tuned out. Threats will ultimately put a damper on your relationship. Catch them doing good things. If you look, you'll be amazed. Every child says and does things deserving of praise. Don't assume they know when you are proud of them. Tell them and let them know how much you love them every single day.
Avoid power struggles. It just is not worth it and your teen's endurance will far exceed yours. Look at your own behavior. Are you accepting or out for revenge because you're feeling angry or hurt? Can you work together to arrive at a mutually acceptable decision?
Keep your sense of humor. The many physical changes of puberty, coupled with the personality and mood swings, can be distressing to your child. In many ways they need you more now than ever before. Offer those hugs and a chat over a hot chocolate, but don't be upset if they pull back. It is perfectly normal. Knowing you are there as backup is often enough to help them move forward.
Remember, with time your child will reflect upon the values you have as a family. While he may reject some, many he will adopt as he moves into adulthood. Six years ago, I wrote an article on adolescence and mentioned that I had just 1,916 days until my first child was no longer an adolescent. That time has long passed. They really do grow up too quickly. In the interim, enjoy every moment.
The writer is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Ra'anana.