Psychology: Adolescents are amazing

Parents and their teenage children are nice people. They just need to know how to understand each other.

Teenagers partying 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Teenagers partying 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Adolescents often get a bad rap. I was having lunch with my teenage daughter and older son yesterday when two of my daughter’s schoolmates came over to our table. They spoke to her for a minute and then immediately addressed us. They must have stayed for five to 10 minutes and were absolutely chatty and delightful. They asked questions and even waited for a response.
As someone who works a lot with teenagers, it was a real pleasure to see them interact with adults – as adults and with such maturity. Toward the end of our meal, a couple of adult friends came by to say hello as they spotted us sitting in a corner. They stayed for about 10 minutes also and engaged my children in conversation for much of that time.
Yes, adolescents can be sullen and silent, but they can also be a true delight, and it was wonderful to see that adults really can enjoy teenagers and vice versa. This is especially true when the adolescent in question is your own child.
For years I have said that the mothers of many of the adolescents that come into my office seem to have been put through the mill by their children – mostly daughters. The children they describe do not seem to resemble the sweet kids that enter my office.
Were I to hear from the adolescent without ever having met his or her parents, I might also begin to wonder what kind of parents they were. But truth be told, both the parents and the kids are nice people. They often just don’t appreciate each other until the children are – if you are lucky – into their 20s.
Why is this? I have a few thoughts:
1. Teenagers often say it the way they see it. In a good relationship, if they are upset by something, they often won’t hesitate to tell you. They have no need to spare your feelings (or even be aware that you have feelings), and this may not feel very good. Unless teenagers have a reason to lie, they can be brutally honest. It is hard to be thankful for this interaction, but in a bad relationship they may simply ignore you or have little to do with you unless they have no alternative.
2. Teenagers are in the process of finding themselves. No longer children, they are not yet adults, either. Often they are not comfortable in their own body and can be highly self-critical. They can be equally uncomfortable hearing you tell them the positives you see in them and may have a hard time believing you. While they often seem to hear only the negatives, they actually do want to hear the positives, so keep trying. But make sure you are sincere, as they will spot it in a minute if you are not. Adolescents truly need to hear that they are good kids because they often don’t realize just how great they really are. Remember also that if you are unhappy with them, it is their behavior you don’t like and hopefully not the child. This is a very important distinction.
3. Teenagers can have rapid mood swings. They can be serious one minute and laughing the next. They can park their sadness or be fully immersed in it. While you may find yourself totally upset by something they have just told you, once they got it off their chest, they may be quite fine. That said, if your child seems depressed, always take this seriously and get professional help if needed.
4. Teenagers may make fun of you and appear to reject anything and everything you stand for. You may not feel like you are No. 1 on your teenager’s best-friend list or even on it at all. Their friends take on tremendous importance to them; and while they really do value your opinion, they may not rush to tell you, as their friends often come first in their life. Some day, as they leave behind the teen years, you may be quite surprised to discover that their values reflect yours more than you would have ever thought.
5. Teenagers need their space, yet require consistent but clear limits. Don’t think for a moment that they don’t need you or a curfew. They absolutely do. That said, if there are established rules, they may hold you to the same standards and are quick to notice when you do something wrong. Don’t tell them not to talk on their cell phone when they drive, for example, and then have them see you doing the same.
6. Your job is to be a consultant and not manage their every move. Sometimes they will make mistakes, but this is part of the learning process. Unless they are at risk of causing themselves harm, it isn’t a bad thing but will enable them to take a step toward greater independence. With freedom comes responsibility, and your job is to understand the delicate balance between the two and pass this important message on to them. Again, you might not like some of their choices, but in an open and caring relationship, it is nice for each to hear where the other is coming from. When you actually take the time to sit and listen to them, you may be quite surprised by how much sense they make.
7. You deserve to be treated with respect by your teenager, but you must respect them as well. Catch your teenager “doing good,” be respectful of where he is developmentally and be open to his ideas, and you’ll definitely create a recipe for success.
The adolescent years may not be easy, but you can look back with pride as you see just how transformative they were in creating emotionally healthy and happy adults.
The writer is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Ra’anana. She works with children of all ages, adults, couples and families. ludman@