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February 23, 2015 —
Caught your attention didn't I? Yes, it's possible, even if your teenager frequently behaves as if your existence on this earth is intolerably irritating. And you never know when your next word or action will be a terrible mistake. Trust me, I know from whence I speak. But believe it or not, adolescence is not incomprehensible. It just takes some adjustment on the part of the parent. And herein can lie the rub. I work with many parents who don't understand this fundamental truth about parenting an adolescent; your relationship with your child has to change.
When you think about it, it seems simple. After all, adolescence is a time of rapid and profound development, not to mention those powerful hormones. Parents often describe feeling as if their child has changed overnight, which is frequently the literal truth. So...
1. Accept that what you did yesterday won't work today Your child is changing and growing and your relationship with him or her has to accommodate that growth. To do this, your behavior is going to have to change, too. Face this early, before you learn it the hard way. As with most things, it's better to be out ahead of the curve than behind it.
2. Start listening, and stop talking. And I really mean stop. Entire conversations with teenagers can consist of the following responses: "Really," "Wow," "You are kidding," "Hummm," "REALLY," "Okay." To do this, you are also going to have to...
3. Resist the urge to fix things, offer advice or have a "teaching moment." Of course, there is a time and place for all of the above, but I see many parents who assume that this is their role all the time. It's not. Young children welcome this, and teenagers hate it. If you can accomplish both steps 2 and 3, I promise you that your adolescent will talk to you more. But...
4. Recognize your teenager is younger than you (or he) thinks. There are many factors that influence this, but the two I see most frequently in my clinical practice are a) overparenting and b) technology. I say this not to cast blame, but to simply acknowledge two ways in which being an adolescent is radically different today. As a generation, we all are much more attentive, involved and proactive parents than our own parents. And technology has created a world in which our children have far less practice in real time, face-to-face interactions and relationships. The net effect has been to delay adulthood and prolong adolescence. In all probability, your 16-year-old son is far less self-reliant than you were at the same age. Additionally, it's important to...
5. Learn about the adolescent brain. It will be less frustrating. The medical board governing British pediatricians has moved the age of entry into adulthood from 18 to 25 years of age. In part, this was informed by relatively recent neurobiological findings that the prefrontal cortex of the brain does not fully mature until age 25. The prefrontal cortex controls executive functioning; decision-making, problem solving, understanding future consequences, and impulsivity. Speaking of which...
6. Understand impulsivity as it relates to adolescence. Most teenagers are not actually impulsive. In fact, they will frequently spend a great deal of time carefully planning out their dumbest actions. Neuroscience research has taught us that what they do do is overvalue the pros of any decisions and undervalue the cons. After all, what is a school suspension relative to an action that will, MAKE ME A ROCK STAR AND LEGEND AT THIS SCHOOL TO MY GRANDCHILDREN? As a result, it's not necessarily effective to lecture adolescents about impulsivity. Far better to spend your time exploring what they, and you, value. However...
7. Monitor them closely. They'll complain loudly, but research* has demonstrated that adolescents are less likely to engage in risk taking behavior when their parents monitor their activities, even when they are not telling you the truth. Stay in close contact with them, and insist that they do the same. They want to know you care. But...
8. Stay out of their social lives, unless you have real, legitimate cause for concern. Teenagers want their friends and peers to themselves, and they need their privacy to experiment and grow. This may go against every protective parental urge in your body as they enter the age of experimentation, but try not to pry, don't ask questions about their friends, or (God forbid) express an opinion, and don't read their texts. For that matter...
7. Limit technology, (yours and theirs) when you are together. I know how hard this is, so set the example. I can't tell you how many surprised parents sit in my office and say, "She complained about the fact that I was on my cellphone when she was playing soccer! How did she know? Does she have eyes in the back of her head? Where you are concerned, yes.
8. Be more transparent. Teenagers respond when their parents interact with them on a more personal level. Be brave. When it's appropriate, apologize. It won't undermine your authority, and it will model personal responsibility. If you have an argument, initiate the repair. Too many parents think their adolescent "has to come" to them. They want to, but they won't. Begin by saying something like, "I have been thinking about..." Teenagers LOVE to hear that their parents have been thinking about them.
9. Tell them stories about your life, yourself, and especially, times you failed. Adolescents need to hear that failure is a part of life, and a learning experience. Who better to learn this from than someone they admire? If it's okay for you to fail, they will be more confident about taking risks themselves.
10. Stick to consequences. Your teenager does not want to be a parent. She actually doesn't want to rehash and reargue every transgression (believe it or not) with you. Set clear, reasonable limits, and be firm about them. If there is a problem, there should be a relatively immediate consequence. Okay, 11.
11. Catch them when you can, and do what they want to do. Play with them, whatever that looks like in your family. Teenagers love to be with adults who enjoy and appreciate them.
* Luthar & Goldstein, 2008. Substance use and related behaviors among suburban late adolescents: The importance of perceived parent containment. Development and Psychopathology, 20, 591-614.
This post was originally published on Huffington Post.
Donna Wick, Ed.D, is a clinical psychologist and the founder of Mind to Mind Parent. She teaches parents how to practice reflective parenting, which allows them to focus on the thoughts and feelings that underlie their child’s behavior, rather than react to the behavior itself. She works extensively with adolescents and their parents, and as the Executive Director of Freedom Institute, a substance abuse treatment facility in New York City, designed a developmental social and emotional resilience curriculum for adolescents.
Her movie about three first-time mothers, Baby I'm Yours, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, and was shown on Oxygen. She has appeared on "Oprah," "The Today Show," in the New York Times and various national publications to discuss motherhood and parenting. She is a graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the Parent-Infant Program at Columbia Psychoanalytic Center for Training and Research and received advanced post-doctoral training in child and adolescent psychotherapy from the William Alanson White Institute. She is on the faculty of the Parent-Infant Program at Columbia University and a Consulting Psychologist to Freedom Institute. She is also a blogger for The Huffington Post.
She and her husband are the proud parents of three daughters, 24, 22 and 17.