The Terrible Teens!

"Teenagers! Dey tink dey know everyting!" proclaims Sebastian, the "guardian" crab of 'Ariel', the Little Mermaid in Disney's film of the same title. "And isn't that the truth!" most parents of a teenager respond with dispair.

For many parents and their teens, adolescence is a period of upheaval and conflict. A child who was once cooperative and communicative suddenly becomes opinionated, withdrawn, and rebellious. Parents often wake up one morning to find themselves totally bewildered about how to handle this "stranger" who used to be their child. Suddenly, all of the old ways of discipline and communication no longer work. Many parents find themselves remembering the "terrible two's", another developmental period when children seem unmanageable. If you find yourself harkening back to those years as well, it's for good reason. Many experts have deemed the developmental period when toddlers are striving for some independence as "first adolescence", the teen years actually being the second time they go through the adolescent stage!

The key to surviving the crucial stage of adolescent development lies in sharpening your listening skills. But to be able to listen to our teen we must first examine the reasons that teens act the way they do. Psychologists say that adolescents are undergoing a process of "seperation and individuation". What this means is that teens are attempting to define themselves as individuals who are different from their parents, as people who have their own ideas, values and opinions. In addition, they are preparing to physically seperate from their parents when they reach adulthood. This process, however, throws the teen into conflict with themselves. On the one hand, instinct (and hormones) demand that they prepare for adulthood by pulling away from parents. On the other hand, mom and/or dad still provide the very real physical and mental security that teens need and depend upon. Hence most teenagers spend adolescence in a kind of mental "tug-of-war". If they do feel close or dependent upon mom or dad it scares them and they push away ... often by expressing extremely opinionated ideas or values which they know to be different from their parent's. Not all of these opinionated statements are designed to alienate mom or dad so that the teenager can seperate, however. Often these strongly expressed views are the expression of the teens "true" thoughts about a subject ... at least temporarily. Thus, if we tell our teens that their ideas are "wrong" the teen invariably will staunchly defend those ideas, both to seperate from their parents and to rebell against them. What all of this adds up to, of course, is a child who is very difficult to listen to. Yet actively listening without judging is actually what will make this awkward period easier for teen and parent alike.

So how do we listen to an opinionated person who is adamant that not only are their ideas the right ones, but that they are the first person to have ever had that idea in the history of mankind?

With teenagers, saying the right thing to them is more about what you don't say, than what you do say. As hard as it may be, it's important to give your teen space to explore his opinions, ideas and values, no matter how different they are from yours. Just as a two year old tests the physical limits you set ... touching the VCR for the third time after you've asked him not to, the teenager is testing mental and emotional limits. Are there ideas that are different from the ones you have? Will he be allowed to have his own opinion about something, no matter how outrageous that opinion might be? Most importantly, will you still love him if his ideas are different? The answers to these questions are provided indirectly when you either listen without judgement or refuse to listen (which includes judgemental listening). A teenager who feels unconditionally loved ... no matter how outrageous his opinions ... is a teenager who feels safe at home. That feeling of safety will provide a foundation for the teenager to continually come back to as he begins to explore the adult world and all it holds. Ultimately, teenagers who feel accepted at home will choose the values of their parents as opposed to the values of their peers. If, however, a teen feels that the love his parents provide will only be doled out if he meets certain criteria, he will certainly turn to his peers who offer unconditional support.

One way to show unconditional love to your teen is by not getting sucked into the content of what she says...instead, listen for her feelings. For example, when your teen tells you that she's curious about drugs and might try them someday to "see what it's like", mute your alarms bells. Don't listen to the subject and begin to lecture her (yes, I know it's hard). Instead, reflect her feelings and ask questions which might help the teen explore the subject futher. For example, "What do you think the effects of drugs would be?" This type of question not only keeps the lines of communication open, but also helps your teen ultimately explore the undesirable consequences to certain actions without actually "going through with it."

So if you show unconditional love to your teenager, does this mean that you should unconditionally accept any behavior he might exhibit? Should you allow him to be rude to you, to break rules which you've set down about living together as a family (such as not smoking in the house), to throw his clothes and possessions all over with complete disregard for other family members? Does unconditional love mean being permissive? Heavens no! Like children of other ages, teenagers need the limits you provide in order to feel safe. In this developmental period of emotional and physical turmoil, where the changes their bodies and minds are undergoing can be very scary, teens, like all children, need a safe haven. Your limits and rules provide that haven, provided you are consistent about enforcing them and communicate them clearly. It is important, however, that you reexamine your rules to determine if they are appropriate for your child and to change them if they are not. There is nothing worse for a teenager than to feel as though they are being treated as a four year old.

1) Determine what the rules are, and if they are appropriate for your teenager's developmental level.

2) Sit down with your teen for the purpose of allowing her input into the rules she will have to follow in the house.

3) Go over the rules, and explain the reasons and feelings which caused you to set these rules.

4) Listen carefully when your teen explains her like or dislike of a particular rule. Try to understand her point of view before defending your own.

5) Be willing to allow some negotiation. Teens who feel they've had input into the rules and have been heard are more likely to feel responsible about carrying through on the rules.

6) Set up another time to meet again to reevaluate the rules. A month is ususally an appropriate amount of time. While the reevaluation may not result in any changes, teens need to know that there will be another forum for their concerns and complaints in the future.

Showing respect for your teen's feelings and developing a non-judgemental attitude are your best tools. They smooth the rocky road of adolescence and ease the "terrible teens".