All your friends and all the media warn you about the difficulties of parenting through the teenage years. While it's true that the whole family rides an emotional roller coaster when a teen is working toward independence, the flip side of the coin is that everyone's life gets more exciting. Your daughter is thrilled by her driving lessons. Your son has just discovered Jimi Hendrix, and "Purple Haze" blasts from the stereo. The phone is always ringing. Your home bursts with energy and activity.
Being a family with teens
Parents need to realize, though, that all teens feel insecure and constantly question their self-worth. Am I attractive? Am I fun to be with? Am I smart enough? Am I sexy enough, or am I sex-crazed? Let your teen know that she's not only OK, she's fabulous. Adolescents want their parents to listen to their stories, their concerns, their feelings. They don't like to be questioned -- your questions put them on the defensive. If your son's stories spark a lecture from you, he'll be less inclined to share his experiences with you another time. Do as your teen instructs -- stay cool. If your child tells you he wants to have his eyebrow pierced or confesses to having had a beer on a school trip, express your concerns, but realize that it's not only normal for teens to experiment, it's part of the adolescent's job description.
Because teens have shaky self-esteem, they need lots of approval from their parents. It's important to offer kind words about his work on a science project or how well he told an anecdote at dinner. He needs and wants encouragement even more than he wants that new pair of jeans.
At times, it may seem as if your younger teenager doesn't want your love. She seems to be pushing you away all the time. But if you react to your teen's defiant glare by turning away, you may be in for problems -- all teens need to feel that they're a valued member of the family. Nevertheless, both parents and their teens need to loosen their embrace. It's not uncommon for parents of older teens to feel that while they love their kids dearly, they won't be sorry to see them leave to live independently. It's as if, when the time comes for your child to try his wings, you are as ready as he is.
Beginning at about age twelve, kids need their peers more intensely than at any other time in their lives. They constantly need to compare themselves with their friends to make sure they're OK. The family has to make room for a teenager's friends. That means setting more places around the dinner table or negotiating the use of the phone so that nobody in the family misses an important phone call. A cell phone is a worthwhile purchase for the teen who is not often at home.
Families need to support their teens in their quest for friendships. You may miss doing things with your daughter now that she prefers to be with her friends. But it's a normal and healthy progression, so don't make her feel guilty. Instead, look for other ways you can enjoy each other. Maybe it's flipping through a catalogue together, or watching her favourite sitcom with her every week.
The way teens forge friendships tends to be gender-dependent. Boys tend to make friends by participating in an activity together -- by playing baseball or being a member of a computer club, boys bond with one another. Girls tend to make friends by talking to one another. As if you haven't noticed, the phone is crucial in these relationships. On the phone and at sleepovers, girls become best friends by gossiping, sharing secrets, and giggling together.
My kids don't like me anymore
The job of a teen is to push off into her own life. By the age of fifteen, your teen may tell you that you don't understand her. After all you've done for her, your daughter has the nerve to unabashedly adore her ballet teacher, who can do no wrong, rather than you. You, she says, are hopelessly old-fashioned. Your son tells you that he can't wait until he's eighteen so that he can get his own apartment.
Throughout their adolescence, your teens gradually expose a part of yourself that you may not like. At age forty, you may find out how immature you are. You become jealous of the ballet teacher, and you can't believe how you let your daughter's comments about your stodginess really get to you. The messy bathroom that your child leaves behind can send you into a tantrum.
Your child used to cuddle beside you on the couch, look up at you with adoring eves, and tell you all about her day. Now her bedroom door is closed -- tight. Every parent of a teenager has stared at that closed door and wished for X-ray vision. What's she doing in there? She's probably listening to music, or exploring her new body, or writing about her feelings in a diary. Or maybe she's off in a fantasy.
By the time your child reaches her late teens, she's again more willing to spend time with you, as her peer friendships lessen in intensity. She finally feels secure enough in her identity and self-worth to return to a more connected family relationship. Once again, she'll sit with you and talk about her day. She may not put you on a pedestal anymore, but that doesn't matter. She likes you just the way you are.
Sure, you've taught your son how to brush his teeth, do long division, and make lasagna. Now he needs you to help him learn how to drive, apply for a job, choose an apprenticeship program, and separate the whites from the colours when he does the laundry. He can also use a little help managing money, time, and stress. Of course, he might not ask for your help, but offer it anyway. Don't wait until things go wrong to step forward -- not that you should take over his job or fill out his college application for him. And if you insist that he do it the way you did, you can count on his stomping off. In the second decade of parenthood, your cue is to be involved without intruding. You'll know when you've overstepped that elusive line because he'll ask you to butt out of his life.
As your teen masters the final tasks that lead to adulthood, families should mark these milestones. In a society with few rites of passage, you may need to invent your own rituals. Celebrate your daughter's getting a driver's licence by letting her drive the family out for ice cream. Have a corn roast to mark your son's finally getting his braces off. Being accepted into that apprenticeship program is definitely worth a celebratory dinner.