(*I wrote this piece when my two oldest, now 18 and 16, were in the throws of adolescence.) As I entered the parenting arena 14 years ago, I began to hear all sorts of talk about colicky babies, the terrible twos, and the f-ing fours (sorry, that’s what my friends called it). But I noticed that people started to clam up a bit as their kids hit the earliest stages of puberty. When I’d complain about something my toddler was doing, like wetting the bed or throwing food at the dinner table, people with older kids would respond with a little chuckle, “Oh yeah, just you wait.” And that’s about all they would say. But they would be grinning…in an almost evil kind of way. Adolescence sneaks up on us and we are almost blindsided by it. It is a force that takes hold of our angelic kids and throws them into an internal turmoil, and one that lasts for years. Adolescents are sweet and kind, they LOVE you; you are the BEST! And then, with a flip of a switch, they HATE you! They are NEVER going to talk to you again, they wish they had different parents, they tell you that you are doing everything wrong, you have no idea how to parent, you do not understand them and that if only you would listen to them, then things would go smoothly. And for a split second you think that maybe they are right. You question yourself as a parent and as a person, “What have I done?!” You wonder if you are indeed qualified for this job. You know you are supposed to remain strong but you feel very, very weak--almost overpowered--but you can’t let them see that. You cannot show any signs of vulnerability or wavering because you know what they do with that! They pounce! And your son is on you once again, explaining with incredible articulation that if he doesn’t get to go to the concert that ALL his friends are going to without an adult chaperone, his life will surely fall apart. He will miss the most important event of his life and will never be invited to another social gathering throughout junior and senior high. His friends will tease him that his parents are over-protective and they will never want to come over to his house to hang out so he just might as well just quit school because he is not going to have any friends! And P.S., IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT!!!
It is a very strange time, adolescence. It is a time filled with internal contradictions: A time of independence and neediness; growth and insecurity; confidence and fear; socialization and loneliness. It seems as though you almost have to be a mental health professional to understand how to guide your kids through this time. But do you? Are there some basic presiding principles for parents that can help us to not only survive our kids’ adolescence but to actually do some good during it? I am not a professional. I have four kids from the ages of 14 down to 4, and most of the time, I am learning as I go (don’t tell my kids). But I will share some things that I have learned over the years, and then will hand you over to a real professional who will share her insights and tips on raising adolescents by having a better understanding of them and what they are going through.
1) Don’t be afraid to say no. Setting limits and sticking to them is crucial to getting your kids to understand and respect boundaries.
2) Know your kids’ friends. Know their cell phone numbers. Look at their Facebook pages (as well as your own kid’s, of course!) Attempt to know the parents of your kids’ friends. And communicate with them. It takes a village to keep adolescents on the straight and narrow.
3) Communicate with your adolescent’s advisor or teacher/s. Find out how she is doing is school (not just academically).
4) Take every opportunity to talk with your child. Ask questions. Listen. Remember. Check in. And keep doing this. And when they don’t want to talk, come back later and try again, and again, and again. Do NOT give up on keeping the lines of communications open.
5) Remember to be the parent, not the buddy. They have buddies. They need parents to lead, guide, and advise them (even though they would never admit that). Not that you shouldn’t have fun with them—au contraire, have a blast! But first and foremost, be a parent, not a playmate.
6) Stay cool when they “freak out.” They need the comfort of seeing you stay calm when they are feeling out of control. A parent and adolescent both “freaking out” simultaneously… NOT a good thing (trust me, I’ve been there).
7) Show them love as much as possible. Even when they are “hating” you, they still need you to love them. And sometimes love comes in the form of tough love: “You can go to the concert with your friends under one condition; I will be sitting in the row behind you.”
So, there’s my stab at pretending like I know something about parenting adolescents. Who knows, maybe by the time my 4-year-old gets to be 14, I will look back on this advice and have a good laugh. But with a 14-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy, I am certainly in the throws of trying to figure things out in the adolescent arena (and yes, still dealing with the fun 4s as well…and then there’s my 7-year-old who will soon start to sneak toward the big A just as the older ones, oh please, are through it!). Thank goodness for professionals, right?! So, here is Katy McCormick Pearson who has worked with adolescents for the past 20 years as a special education teacher, Outward Bound Instructor, and currently as the middle school counselor at the Breck School in Golden Valley. Katy is also the mother of two emerging female adolescents:
Adolescence can be an exciting, turbulent, time for both parents and the adolescents themselves. An adolescent person experiences changes in physical development at the rate of speed unparalleled since infancy. An adolescent’s brain is not fully developed until a person is about 20-25 years old. The connections between neurons affecting the emotional and physical development are incomplete at this stage. Many adolescents have difficulty controlling emotions, impulses and judgment due to this incomplete yet ongoing brain development.
The upside of the adolescent brain is that teens are able to engage in more logical thinking. They can handle more options and possibilities in this stage of development and, therefore, can begin to grapple with abstract concepts such as faith, trust and beliefs. Many teens become activists during this stage in life and appreciate being taken seriously. They can be quick to see discrepancies with adult’s words and actions. There is a strong sense of a need for justice at these ages. Adults can help by including adolescents in developing rules and consequences for themselves. It is important to provide structure for adolescents especially since their judgment/impulse control is not quite effective and many have a false sense of being invincible when in the throws of adolescence.
The main task of an adolescent is to establish their identity. They are in a phase of life between childhood and adulthood. They are starting to develop autonomy within relationships, establishing their sexual identity and learning how to further interact with intimacy in all of their relationships. An adolescent’s body is often awkward as different parts align together. Many adolescents are self-conscious and a bit “me-centered.”
Parents can help by encouraging healthy eating habits, exercise, and allowing time for those growing bodies to have a good night’s rest. Don’t criticize or compare your adolescent to others. Patience and understanding is key when living and loving an adolescent. Parents will need to be “the bigger person” and not take many interactions with their son/daughter too personally. Remember that adolescence is a stage. Enjoy the journey together. Adolescence is a rite of passage and you are the guide.