The very idea of adolescence strikes fear in the hearts of countless parents nationwide. But if your 11-13 year old child has recently entered that challenging period of development we call adolescence, don’t panic. Contrary to what popular culture suggests, adolescence is not necessarily synonymous with dangerous behavior and constant conflict.
The media would have us believe that every teenager smokes, does drugs, engages in risky sexual behavior or suffers from an eating disorder or some other “disease of the week”. The truth is that while there is certainly a percentage of teens who do have significant problems, most adolescents are healthy, happy, and actively involved in school activities, sports, and the arts. This is not to say that they will be easy to get along with at home, or won’t ever break the rules, take risks, or challenge authority — but it does mean that there’s a good chance your teen will emerge on the other side of adolescence as a healthy young adult.
Studies have shown that teens who live in households that are too strict (“my way or the highway” on all issues) or too permissive (“All teenagers drink. It’s part of growing up”) are more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors and develop more serious problems. Rather, it is the parenting strategy that falls somewhere in the middle of these two extremes that has been proven most successful. This “authoritative” parent who parents by combining love with limit setting seems to have the right balance and a strategy that best resonates with teens.
Following these guidelines can help put you on the right path to parenting an adolescent in an authoritative way.
Be a parent! Don’t try to be a “friend” to your teen. He or she has plenty of those. Your teen needs you to be strong, supportive and to set limits. Whether or not they agree or disagree with a decision, having “limits” helps them to feel safe. As a parent of an adolescent, you need to be able to tolerate your teen’s inevitable anger towards you when things don’t necessarily go their way and stick firmly by the choices you have made.
Acknowledge your teen’s individuality. Although it may be difficult, by accepting your adolescent’s choices with respect to clothing, appearance, music etc., you demonstrate respect for your teen. You are letting them know that you recognize that they are becoming their own separate person. You can still express your opinion about these matters but never ridicule their choices. Remember the phrase “pick your battles” … If you allow your teen some flexibility in these less important areas they will be less likely to act out in major ways in order to prove they are different.
Listen when your adolescent speaks. Focus on their concerns. This may be difficult if it comes at a busy moment for you, but try to allow time to really listen. Don’t offer advice unless asked directly and remember not to use every discussion as an opportunity to preach about something.
Allow your teen to express his or her opinion. Really listen and respect that opinion even if you do not agree with it. Share your own concerns, experiences, and feelings on the matter, but don’t try to win the debate.
Respect their silence. Sometimes teens just want to be alone with their thoughts. Share your day, but don’t press your adolescent to do the same. They may be listening even if they are looking out the car window. A rule of adolescent communication is that when you want to talk, you will get one -word answers, and when they want to talk, you will get volumes.
Encourage independent problem solving. Remember that college is only a few years away. If your teen brings up a problem or concern, ask what they are planning to do to solve the problem, before you jump in with advice. Praise your teen when you recognize how they solved a problem by themselves. This encourages the kind of problem solving skills and independent thinking they will soon need.
Maintain a close connection even if your teen pulls away. Regardless of what is going on in their lives, most teens still want to be connected to their families and they may even remain connected through arguments or angry tirades. This may seem like a contradiction, but it is how your adolescent can maintain a connection while pulling away at the same time. It is striking this balance between attachment and independence that is one of the central tasks of this stage of their lives.
Know your teen’s friends and try to get to know their parents. Maintain communication so that you are all on the same wavelength. Don’t be afraid to check out stories. I.e. that parents will really be home at that party.
Share meals as much as possible. Despite the hectic pace of today’s lifestyle for most families, it is still important to share family meals as much as possible. Even one weekend meal together allows for discussion of important or even unimportant topics. A recent study revealed that teens reported that sharing meals with family members was very important to them. To many parents who struggle daily with their adolescents, this news may be a shock. But it is a very revealing piece of information about teenagers – again, that despite the need to pull away, the need to be connected is even stronger.
RULES AND BEHAVIOR
Set clear and reasonable limits. Establish rules and “achievable” expectations and communicate these to your teen. Be very specific and concrete. Let them know that there will be consequences if they break the rules and be very clear about what those consequences will be.
Enforce the rules consistently. Do everything possible to make sure that both parents (even if living in separate households) are in agreement about rules and consequences. Even in families not affected by divorce, this will require constant communication between both parents. Teens are experts on manipulation when they sense there is disagreement on an issue.
Let teens experience the natural consequences of their behavior within reasonable safety limits. Consequences like missing assignments, being late for school, compensating someone for damaged property, or writing apologies to others when appropriate can prove valuable learning experiences for your teen. Having that said, under no circumstances should you allow a teen to enter into a dangerous or illegal situation, like driving while under the influence, for example, just to prove a point.
Share with your teen how you feel about issues that might affect his or her life. It is important to voice your opinions and concerns about issues such as smoking, alcohol and drug use, sexual activity, violence, harassment of others and destruction of property. Even if they occasionally break the rules, they will store this information somewhere in the back of their minds and it may just help influence a difficult decision when you are not there to prevent them from making a serious mistake.
Let your teen know you will be there to support (but not necessarily to rescue) him or her no matter what happens — then follow through. If they break the law or cause harm to another person or property they will have to face the consequences of their actions, but need not fear they will “lose” their parent as a result.
Grant freedom in stages. Tie increased privileges to responsible behavior. If a teen violates a rule, privileges, as well as a parent’s trust, may have to be earned back. By balancing control with independence, you maintain your right to parental authority.