A few days ago, some friends and I were discussing the Dreaded Teen Years.
Once again I was struck by the terror in some parents’ voices as they contemplated their sweet little munchkin turning into Teenzilla—as though adolescence is an automatic ticket to histrionics, epic battles of will, and smelly laundry.
Okay, I’ll grant you the smelly laundry.
But seriously, I was puzzled. I know I sound like a prat when I say, “My kids were both great teens,” because so many people really have gone through the Teen Wars and have the emotional scars to prove it.
But I also know that it’s possible to minimize, if not completely avoid, screaming matches and angst during our kids’ teen years.
I’ve talked before about my basic parenting premise: R-E-S-P-E-C-T. (Come on, baby boomers, you know this one—follow the bouncing ball!)
But today I thought I’d offer a cheat sheet for parents whose wee ones are about to enter adolescence…and for those who are currently hiding their heads under a pillow, sucking back wine and wishing the whole messy hormonal sturm und drang would just disappear already. Ready? Here goes:
- Teens want you to be proud of them. Seriously, they do. And by “proud,” I don’t mean you think they poop vanilla ice cream. That’s just delusional.
No, they want to know that you think they’re good people. They want to now that you approve when they get it right, and that you’ll still love them when they mess up. They don’t need you to brag to your friends about them; they just want to know that you can see they’re doing the best they can.
- Teens want you to be straight with them. They don’t want you to lecture at them about sex or drugs, for example—they want you to give them the facts, without embellishment or exaggeration. They want to know they can come to you for information, and that you won’t freak out and enroll them in the nearest military college to scare them straight. Just the facts, ma’am.
- Teens want you to set a good example. Let’s face it: teens can smell hypocrisy a mile away. I remember Mum and Dad, both raging alcoholics, trying to tell my 16-year-old self that smoking marijuana would cause me to become a heroin addict and probably a prostitute. And I remember the contempt I felt for their booze-soaked words.
And keep in mind: you might think your kid doesn’t notice when you break your own rules. Trust me. They notice.
- Teens want you to understand that the times have changed. Their worlds include texting, sexting, twerking, cyber-bullying, binge drinking, earlier and earlier sex…things you and I couldn’t have imagined back in the Disco Era. Yes, you were a teen once, and yes, some things don’t change. But trying to pretend you know what your kid is going through these days? Bad plan. Here’s my advice: don’t talk about your youth. Listen to theirs.
- Teens want you to set limits…but not too many. Here’s an exercise I used to use when I counseled families as a social worker: stand in the middle of a good-sized room. Close your eyes, and stretch your arms out. You can’t touch a wall…what does that feel like? Notice how your heart starts to beat a bit faster, your breathing speeds up. That’s because you can’t find any boundaries.
And that’s how teens feel when they don’t know what’s expected of them. I’m no fan of helicopter parenting, but I can’t overemphasize the importance of letting your kids know your expectations—and the consequences for breaking the rules. On the other hand, don’t set so many rules that you stifle your teen’s ability to grow. If you’re puzzled by how much is too much, sit down and talk to your teen. Remember, you’re in this together.
- Teens want you to understand that it’s tough becoming an adult. Their bodies aren’t the only thing that’s changing; their brains are undergoing enormous developmental shifts too. Their cognitive skills are growing by leaps and bounds, but their ability to predict outcomes for their actions tends to lag a bit behind. The transition from child to adult is hard work on all fronts, and your teen needs validation that they’re doing okay.
- Hugs are rarely a bad idea. Many a difficult parent-teen conversation has been defused with a hug. Go ahead—it’ll help both of you.
Okay, I called this the “ultimate” cheat sheet, but can you think of things I’ve missed? Let me know!