Next to the loss of a parent through divorce or death, nothing worries a teen like losing the acceptance of his friends. Especially in the early and mid-teen years, when a teen struggles to establish his identity, he worries that his friends will reject the person he's working to become.
Choosing between parents and peers
When a teen begins to develop some independence from his parents and focuses on fitting in with his peers, he nevertheless worries about losing his parents' approval. There's often a big gap between the behaviour, music, clothes, speech, and attitudes that he and his friends express and what you approve of. A teen may be torn between the fear of losing his friends and the fear of his parents' disapproval. Parental resistance to a teen's changing preferences may give rise to tension and conflict. A teen grows as an individual as he develops his own balance between the values of his parents and his peers.
Self-doubt and fears
Teens' self-consciousness about their rapidly changing bodies often extends to self-consciousness in thoughts and feelings. They usually think that people who look at them are criticizing and judging them. When a 13-year-old feels a new sense of privacy, he may become intolerant of his younger brother. A 14-year-old girl who's developing at a slower rate than her peers may worry that she's not normal. A seventeen or 18-year-old may feel intense pressure to make choices about his future when he doesn't feel ready.
Take me seriously
Many teens are reluctant to talk about their fears or they prefer to keep them private. If you have created an atmosphere that lets your teen know you take her feelings seriously, she may be more inclined to try to express her anxieties and fears. From an adult perspective, a teen's fears about a ituation may seem overdramatized, but be careful not to dismiss the feelings. If you dismiss, downplay, or tune out the concerns, your teen will shut you out. Listen while your child talks through the current dilemma, and help him gain some perspective.
A teen wants his parents to treat him more like an adult than a child. Although he may sometimes still act like a child, he needs you to respect the person he's becoming. Open the door for discussion, and leave it open. You might say, "I know it's not easy to talk about the things that bother you, but when you're ready to talk, I'll always listen." When the time is right, your teen may come to you.
Think back to the pressures and confusion you felt when you were a teen. Share some of your worries, too, when the two of you do eventually talk. This is one of the healthiest ways to establish mutual respect. It gives teens a grounded, secure zone if they know they can come to you for help in dealing with their worries and fears.
Teens have worries that you, as a parent, can help dispel. Your 16-year-old daughter might worry that you'll get angry if she calls you at 2 a.m. from a party because there's trouble. Assure her that she can call you whenever she's in a jam, that you'll always be there to help. Let your older teen who's worried about the choices that face him know that you'll support his taking time to make decisions. Many decisions made at 17 are not irrevocable; there's usually the possibility of changing direction or adjusting details.
As a parent, you can't eliminate stress from your teen's life, but you can help him learn to cope effectively. Acknowledge to your teen that the pressures he feels are real. Learn how to monitor his behaviour under stress, and keep the lines of communication open. Show an interest in your teen's world without being judgmental. Most teens already feel they're being judged by peers and teachers and society at large. Helping him feel good about himself provides a strong antidote to stress.
Develop your role as a consultant to let him know that you're an ally, not an enemy. A good consultant listens well, offers considered opinions, but lets the teen make up his own mind. Teach him that it's OK to make mistakes and sometimes fail-that's how he learns and gains experience to solve future problems. If failure occurs despite your advice, don't say "I told you so." Despite all their bravado and rebellion, teens need their parents' support when the chips are down.
Stress management involves knowing what to do to alleviate stress. Energy-demanding sports, music, journal writing, and private time are some outlets that help teens reduce stress. Talking with sympathetic and supportive friends, siblings, teachers, and parents also helps. Parents can help teens manage stress by subtly suggesting certain techniques and modelling good stress management themselves.
Share your perspective
One strategy to help kids put their stress in perspective is to ask them to rate their problems on a scale of one to 10. Where does the breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend rate on the scale? Where does a bad hair day score? By ranking problems, a teen gains some perspective on what triggers her stress reactions and can set priorities for a plan of action.
Thoughts vs. feelings
Help your teens learn that thinking and feeling are two separate processes and that they should consider both when making a decision. Ask "How do you feel about this? What do you think about it?" Show your confidence in their ability to handle a new problem by recalling how they handled a similar problem effectively in the past. Even if they aren't ready to talk, offer a neck massage or a hot cup of herbal tea. Reinforce the idea of positive stress relievers that work for them. Regular exercise and participation in vigorous physical activities can be a powerful tonic and antidote to stress for many teens. Others may prefer the soothing or distracting qualities of their favourite music. Some even get the urge to dean up their room or reorganize their closet just to regain a sense of control.
Dealing with personal stress
Teens mature, in part, by challenging and testing their parents' values and guidelines, so sometimes the source of your teen's stress is the parent-teen relationship. If you're feeling pretty stressed yourself about the relationship or other responsibilities, it may be harder for you to help.
Even if you can't eliminate the challenges that your teen's struggles create, you can convert them into opportunities to help your teen grow and mature. In between times, shore up your relationship with your shared sense of fun. An open, sometimes heated and combative relationship is healthier than a resentful or indifferent silence in which the lines of communication between parent and teen shut down.
Excerpted from Understanding Your Teen: Ages 13 to 19 by Christine Langlois. Copyright 1999 by Telemedia Communications Inc. Excerpted, with permission by Ballantine Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.