Many parents would agree that their child’s teenage years are harder to cope with than all the sleepless nights when they were a baby, or the tantrums they threw when they went through the “terrible twos” phase. There’s something monumentally frustrating about a child who is not yet an adult refusing to listen to your advice, follow the rules and stay out of trouble. A lot of the time you feel that level of frustration because you know only too well what being a teenager was like, and the regrets you may have from when you were that age. Why can teenagers be so difficult to live with, and what’s the best way of getting through this tricky transitional phase?
Teenagers aren’t a separate species!
Teens are people from all different walks of life and in all different situations that just happen to be aged between thirteen and nineteen. That’s the only thing many of them have in common, so to tar them all with the same brush would be very unfair. Many teens are studious, polite, hardworking and a pleasure to be around, and generalizing about them is as mistaken as generalizing about any other group of people.
The science behind teen behavior
Scientific studies have shown that the attitudes to risk that define much of the behavior common in teenagers is caused by a biological imperative that seeks to prepare them for adulthood. So if they seem to be ignoring your advice about staying safe when they’re out, or they don’t seem to understand the risks in a given situation, it’s not defiance as such, it is just an ancient evolutionary mechanism coming into play. It’s thought that the function of this imperative is to educate the brain in dealing with dangerous situations (e.g., a marauding smilodon) by taking part in potentially unsafe behaviors (e.g., trying to locate the smilodon’s lair). There are no longer any threats from the long-extinct saber-toothed tiger, but the part of the brain that controls these behaviors hasn’t quite caught up with that knowledge yet. So teens are still programmed to dodge trains and race cars.
It’s all about breaking free
Part of the process of growing up and leaving childhood behind is to distance yourself from the protective embrace of home and parents. If you think about this, it does make sense. A teen who had been protected and cossetted all their life would find it much harder to cope with the harsh realities of adult life than one who had been out experiencing those realities. When they move out, your kids need to be able to look after themselves and manage all the difficult situations they encounter, which is far easier to accomplish if they’ve already had some experience.
Strict or lenient?
It can be hard to know how to deal with the volatile and unpredictable behavior of teens, and parents usually stick with the method they’re familiar with. Some will continue to be strict – imposing curfews, being intolerant of any behavior they don’t approve of, and meting out punishments like removal of privileges if the rules are broken. Others adopt a more laissez-faire attitude, in the hope that by being tolerant of the undesirable behavior they will be able to avoid confrontation and keep the child close. Unfortunately, neither approach is likely to be tremendously successful. Being overbearing and denying freedoms is likely to make your teen want to act out even more, and could end up alienating them from you. On the other hand, being lenient encourages the bad behavior because there are no consequences for their actions and they just take more and more liberties.
Finding the middle way
Experts in child rearing and psychology recommend having an approach somewhere between the two. You have some rules, but nothing too draconian; you listen reasonably to their arguments and take on board what they say, and you don’t get too stressed about what they wear, or listen to, or who they see. While you are being tolerant and, to a degree, permissive on the one hand, you still need to enforce the rules you do have and not waiver in your determination to uphold certain standards. By allowing your kids some choice and freedom without giving them an entirely free rein, you stand the best chance of maintaining a relationship that will survive the turbulence.
Times you may need to be more concerned
It is worth keeping an eye out for warning signs that something may be more seriously wrong in your child’s life, just in case they have got caught up in something:
- Drugs: changes in behavior, secrecy, physical changes like bloodshot eyes and odd dilation of the pupils may be indicators of a drug problem. Kids may also be driven to commit petty crimes to fund their habit. If you suspect something of this nature, don’t get mad at your teen. Try talking to them to get to the bottom of what’s going on so you can help them. If drugs are affecting your child’s life, get them into treatment as soon as you can at a specialist clinic like Trafalgar Addiction Treatment Centres.
- Mental health issues: could cover many conditions, but depression is probably the most common. These issues are exacerbated by the fluctuating hormone levels and new emotions teens are trying to cope with, and any negative outside influence like bullying, rejection, or social withdrawal can lead to mental health problems. Again, don’t be mad. Offer help and support and monitor the situation, and seek help together or give them information on places they can go and people they can talk to.
For the most part, teenagers get through those difficult years relatively unscathed. They may give you a few frights, coming home with bleeding gashes from trying to be too clever on their skateboard, or locking themselves in their room crying all night over an unrequited love, but barring some stress and upset, this transition is normally completed without any serious harm – even if you do have a few extra gray hairs!