Parenting Perspective: The Truth Behind Teens

David Murphy found the job of raising teenagers, including his daughter Sam, fun and rewarding.

May 7, 2010 7:09:17 AM PDT
As soon as you have your first kid, you hear it. Some wise guy with more parenting experience than you (which, let's face it, basically means everybody) says something like, "Oh boy, just wait until you hit those terrible twos!" This is incredibly annoying (and also incorrect, in my experience, since it's actually the terrible threes you need to worry about).

Years later, when this same guy finds out your kid is about to become a teenager, you get it again, only worse. "Oh man!" he says to you this time, a look of such total horror on his face, you'd think he had just walked off The Tower of Terror for the first time down in Orlando. "Good luck with THAT!" It's still annoying, of course, but the reason is twofold this time. First, the guy is still acting like a jerk. Second---and this one won't hit you until later that night, say, around 2AM, as you're fighting a double dose of insomnia and that creeping, sickly feeling that usually accompanies unnerving realizations---your kid really IS about to become a teenager.

Teenagers are notorious, mainly because of the myriad of changes they must negotiate, both internal and external. There are so many "firsts" in a teen's life, and they all seem to arrive at roughly the pace of a travelling laser beam. Teenagers learn to drive, achieve an unparalleled level of independence, and discover love, hate, and everything in between, all in the space of a few relatively short years. They can be exposed to alcohol and drugs. The highs in their lives can be exhilarating, the lows pronounced. In short, teenagers are immersed deeply in their many experiences. To you, the parent, the challenge of negotiating this rich, emotional landscape can appear daunting, especially as you prepare to begin the process for the first time.

But there's good news. Teenagers, despite all you may have read, heard, and supposed, are actually relatively intelligent and reasonable human beings. The key to relating well with them, in my view, rests largely in your awareness of the changes they're going through, and your willingness to give them credit for knowing a thing or two about what's happening to them. In that light, I'm going to make a suggestion that I believe could help you avoid what in my experience is one of the basic pitfalls of parent-teenager relationships: don't assume that you know everything about teenaged life.

True, you were once a teenager yourself, and yes, you did negotiate much of the same sort of ground your teen is now negotiating. But everyone's experience is different. And let's face it; it's been a while since most of you were in your son or daughter's shoes. A generation's passing changes everything, from hair styles to what's considered acceptable social behavior.

And when it comes to the lingo?

When I was 16 and I told my parents I was going to "hook-up" with somebody, it meant I was meeting them at the pizza parlor. When my teens said it, I can assure you, it meant something entirely different.

The point here, is that trying to impose your experience too heavily on your teen's situation, especially at the initial onset of a problem or controversy, may not be met with the level acceptance you would desire. In fact, taking too strong a stand on issues like friends, clothing styles, and social attitudes as soon as you're presented with them, may actually come off as insulting to some kids, and label you in your teen's head as someone "who just doesn't get it".

But how do you avoid looking and sounding like an alien to you teenager? Long before the teen years arrive, it's important to establish basic behaviors between you and your kids that you can fall back on later, when the more adult, serious issues come along.

Be a family that talks a lot. Tell jokes. I've always found that sharing humor together is one of the greatest bonding mechanisms there is for parent and child. Aim for humor that's general or even silly, versus cutting or sarcastic. Making fun of your kids is probably not a good idea, in general.

Spend time together at regularly designated times. Dinner is an excellent opportunity for regular conversation, and while I know it can be hectic for some families, managing to work that in, at least, on some regular interval can be valuable.

Initiate conversation. And at any time, no matter where or when, ask your kids how they are. You don't need to be a maniac about this, and even if you're not getting a big response every time, don't let it bother you. The idea is to make it obvious to your child that you're interested and available. Do this often enough, and after a while, you'll be surprised by how even a quiet kid will suddenly start talking to you about something out of the blue, giving you an opportunity to engage them in a subject they find interesting, while at the same time teaching you a little more about your child's personality. You can revisit the same subject later, to reinforce your own interest.

And here's a big one: take time out to praise your kid. There are all kinds of opportunities for this. "I liked the way I heard you playing with your friend," or "That thing you said last week was so funny!" And whenever they bemoan the fact that they're "no good" at something, point out their strengths. If your kid's upset because he can't shoot a basketball, point out that he or she sure is FAST, or funny, or creative, or whatever. Turn the negative into a positive.

Basically, what I'm suggesting is that, through an established pattern of communication and support, you lay the groundwork early for those teenaged years, when a kid may have a tendency not to want to talk about things as much. "How's it going?" is going to sound a lot better coming from a parent who always showed an interest, rather than a parent who is suddenly showing interest out of worry or suspicion.

Once those teenaged years arrive, try your best to keep that long established pattern of communication open, keep the humor going, and stay interested. And when problems or controversies do arrive, present yourself as you always have: a parent who listens first, and responds with careful words and thoughtful concern. I can remember starting out some of these responses with, "I know it's been a while, and I can't know exactly how all of this is making you feel, but I am seeing something familiar in what you're saying, and here's my sense of what may be going on here." This wasn't so much a tactic. I was actually speaking the truth, not jumping to conclusions, acknowledging my son or daughter's experience as their own, and then trying to lend my advice as a parent.

There were times when, by the nature of whatever was going on, I had to be more forceful in expressing my views. Without revealing anything from my own family's history, I can easily list some of those situations that would generally warrant this: alcohol, curfew, vandalism, bullying or some other violent behavior. Some of you, unfortunately, will be presented with more daunting obstacles than others. Some, of course, may actually need to seek the advice of professionals (hopefully, you'll have teachers and administrators at your child's school who are good at helping to guide you in these areas). But in those situations where I had to be more compelling with my argument, it was always couched with the idea that my words and opinions were not meant to be combative, but emanated from the fact that I cared for my kids more than anything, and that's why I was so concerned and involved.

Hopefully, if you've laid the groundwork in the years leading-up to the inevitable "rough patches" that parents and their teens often encounter, your teenager will remember the good ground you've covered together and allow you to be a real player in helping them find their way.