I ran into one of my colleagues in the hallway recently, and asked him how he and his family were doing. “Everything’s great,” he replied. “Except now I have a teenager.” I knew immediately what he meant.
When my daughters became teens, everything in our family changed. They didn’t want to go on family vacations. They could barely greet me when I came home from work. When we did all go somewhere, they were snarky and sarcastic. They came home after school, went to their room, shut their door and came out only for meals. They stopped talking to us.
They were also sneaky about where they were going, who they were going with and when they were coming home. These delightful sweet girls became mean and manipulative. I wondered if those lovely kids — who used to shake with delight when I came home — would ever return.
I worried about them. Would they get in a car with a drunken driver? Would they get pregnant? Would they get hurt? Would they get involved in drugs? Would they make it to adulthood? During those teenage years, I didn’t sleep well. I never fell asleep until I heard the door slam when they came home at night.
We fought about everything — curfew, driving and money — just to name a few. My younger daughter, until she became a mom, wanted to tell me about all the things she got away with. I told her I never want to know. It would just make me feel bad about myself.
When I look back, I was no model teenager myself. I was a chronic school truant and was really mean to my father. He used to tell me that he couldn’t wait until I had teenagers. I hated when he said that but, of course, he was right. When I became a dad, I did apologize to him for my bad behavior.
So, how can parents cope with these challenging parental years?
When in doubt, have faith. I knew these teenagers when they were little kids, and I hoped and believed in my darkest moments (and there were several), they would come home to who they really were. And they did! When they become young adults, they returned to their appreciative, sweet selves. Our close relationship returned, but in a new, adult form.
Don’t let go of the reins. Parenting teens is like flying a kite. The kite can fly high in the sky as long as you’re holding on to the string. Let some string out when they are doing well. But don’t be afraid to pull in some rope when they need a little reminder that they’re still kids and you’re the adult. Let go of the rope, and the kite will plummet to the ground.
Focus on the big stuff. Forget about the small stuff — hair styles, nose rings, clothing, making their bed and their attitude. What’s important to you? School, follow-through, integrity and safety. Lose some battles, but win the war.
Remember that their brains are still developing. Those parts of the brain, the left pre-frontal cortex, that exercise judgment, reason and reflection are not yet fully developed until they’re 26. It takes a long time for those circuits to come on line.
Focus on the positive. It’s so easy to become a negative Nancy or Nick when it comes to your teens. Notice when they are doing something right and make sure to give them those “atta-girl’s” and “atta-boy’s” Savor the good moments.
Be the person you want them to be. This is the most challenging of all of the parenting advice. If you want them to be patient, be patient. If you want them to keep their cool, stay calm yourself. If you want them to be kind, be kind. Phew. It’s much harder to be a role model than to give a lecture.
And do remember, they will grow up.
Paul Schoenfeld is a psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/family-talk-blog.