Six tips for surviving the teenager years
#Note: Everything I write is subjective to my experience – there are always exceptions to every rule and social norm. Where it is evidence based I will add a reference, or supported by the opinions of others I will add a link.
I hear it almost every day from parents, “Who took my little angel child and left me with this evil teenager?”. Here are a few of my thoughts about the teenager / parent struggle that is going on in many families.
For the first year of high school my son caught the first bus home and arrived at 3pm, but recently he started getting home at 3.30pm so I immediately jumped on him – “why are you home late home?”, at which time he told me that he simply wanted to chill with is mates after school and catch the second bus occasionally. So after a short discussion about it was agreed that he could catch the second bus and I shouldn’t be concerned until after 3.30pm. It was about him having his independence and being able to make the choice for himself. Now that he has the opportunity to make the decision he rarely ever catches the late bus – but he knows it is his choice to do so or not.
As a parent it can be a struggle to accept that our teenager is not a little kid in need of our constant guidance anymore. They are out to find their independence and mummy and daddy are often not ready to let go. Teenagers need to seek out their own identity, gain a feeling of independence, create their own safety net of friends who help them to feel safe and accepted, make their own mistakes in which to learn from, and do some things which us adults my see as being stupid. All of this is a necessary part of the adolescent development process – so now I have stopped fighting it, I support him in his journey and just assure him that I am here to help if he ever needs me – and he regularly does come to me whenever he needs guidance.
No interest in life
There was a time not so long ago when I was always trying to get my son interested in new things; what I didn’t realise was that he was interested in things – they just were not the same things I was interested in at his age because they didn’t exist back then. So what I have turned my attention towards is learning more about what he is interested in and it turns out that he is interested in a lot more things than I ever was at that age – they are just different.
Now that I am aware of it may attention is tweaked when parents are upset because little Sally at 13 doesn’t like doing the things mum did when she was growing up, or because little Peter doesn’t like riding a bike like his dad did – but guess what? Sally hates netball, and Peter hates bikes – and now I know it is OK because chances are they are interested in other things. It doesn’t make them weird rebellious teenagers who have lost their way. Here is a great example – the other day a mum said, “I am worried about my son (12) who used to love swim team, t-ball, soccer, basketball, karate, and guitar lessons but he is not longer into those things and has no interest in life. He would rather stay home and draw, mess with his keyboard and ukulele or play games with his school friends on the computer”. So my question was, “So you say he has no interests in life – do you not consider things like drawing, keyboard, ukulele, and games on his computer to be interests of his?”.
Next time you get the chance ask your teenager what they are interested in, but be warned – it may take a few times of gentle encouragement before they realise you are actually being serious and start to open up so go easy.
Technology and friends
My son for the past 12 months has had a cheap $30 burner phone which is designed for basic text and phone calls – we do consider it to be a safety device now that he is seeking more independence and we like that he can contact us if needed. In the next 12 months he will get a more usable phone with more features but his call plan will still be capped so that he cannot go crazy with calls. He has shown us that he is being responsible with his technology use most of the time so he has earned it, and knows that if he abuses it then we will just go back to the burner phone.
Teenagers don’t spend hours on their phone talking with their friends because they hate their family, it is because staying closely connected with their social group is more important to them at this point in time. In many cases their anger at family is due that need being threatened – not because they hate their family. They know that family love is unconditional but the love and acceptance by their social group is not – hence why they need to give it more attention. The reality is if they loose the close connection and acceptance by their social group they become vulnerable to external threats such as bullies; maintaining their close social connections is their survival instincts at play.
Curfews and staying out late
Last weekend was the first time my son (13) actually asked to go out on the weekend with his friends. So it was time for his very first timing to be home – ‘this could be interesting’, I thought to myself. It was 9am so I asked who he was going with, where he was going, and what was a reasonable time for him to be back – he said 11:30am, to which I said “make it 12, but don’t be late, and if you are going to be then msg me and let me know”. Since then we have sat down and talked about curfews and reasons for them (until he is 18) and our agreement for the future is this – curfew time is the time he either has to be home or has to have called me to arrange a new time to be home. We are not about limiting his freedom – curfews are simply the time for an update so that we know he is OK and not in any trouble.
From my experience with many teenagers, breaking curfew and staying out late is generally not because they intentionally want to disrespect their parents or be a rule breaking rebel. Once again it is about their need for acceptance by their social group being more important to them at that time. If they leave early and their friends are still out and having a good time and being part of the social group, what happens to their credibility and acceptance as part of the group? If they go home early then they miss out on events which may be necessary for maintaining their status within the social group. “Did you see what happened to Sarah last night – it was so crazy? Oh that is right you were not there as you had to go home early – you were not part of it”. So can you guess what happens to curfew next time?
I feel that by building a mutual understanding about curfews early in the teen years and letting them know it is about our own needs as a parent, and not about limiting their freedom if the need extra time with friends, then we have a much better chance of them playing the game…
They don’t want to talk with you
Hmm This is going to get me in hot water… The reality is most parents don’t talk with their teenagers, in most cases they talk at their teenager, and I too have been guilty of this all too often. Many parents lack communication skills and then wonder why their teenagers don’t want to talk with them. It is because they don’t feel listened too or understood in any way; instead they feel judged and criticised. I have spent so much time with so called ‘at risk’ teens who are in most cases just your typical teen who say they cannot communicate with their parents, and sadly when I meet their parents after the program – I have to agree with the teenager. Their parents lack any effective communication skills such as active listening – they are just too ready to talk.
Try surprising them one day and just listen, ask non-judgemental questions of curiosity, show a genuine interest in them even if you are not interested in the topic of conversation, and even if you disagree or know of a better way keep it inside of you and focus on leaving them feeling heard and understood. You may be surprised as to how quickly things can turn around once they feel like they can come to you…
Teenagers often lack conflict resolution skills because they have learnt from the best – their parents – who in many cases also lack effective conflict resolution skills. Many parents and teenagers do not know how to, or do not want to, play the game of give and take in order to find a balance which everyone feels happy with. Sometimes we have to give in on minor things in order to win the big things. And at times we adults need to relinquish control just a little, go with them for a while, and give them little nudges in the direction we would like to guide them in. Nobody likes the be told what to do but we do like to be supported and guided. For proof you only have to look at the number of marriages falling apart and the aftermath caused to families due to adults not being able to communicate and negotiate effectively to resolve the conflict.
Sure teenagers are pretty messed up – but then so are us adults. That being said this not about blame; after all they didn’t come with a how-to guide. Most parents are doing the best they know how with what they were given from their parents. This is simply a chance for us to self reflect on what we do and how we can change things to get better results for our teenagers AND ourselves.