CHILD AND YOUTH CARE NETWORK
18 MARCH 2004
Surviving the teen years
Like death and taxes, impetuous behavior from adolescent kids is a delight parents can't escape. No matter how pleasant the child may be much of the time, nature undoubtedly sits back with a wry grin as the inevitable eruption of pubescent forces rocks the foundation of an otherwise tranquil home. Even parents of “good kids” suffer through periods of tumultuous teens, as Waco mom Tracy Hermann can attest. “Oh, we've had our share of door-slamming, tears and yelling at each other some nights,” she said of her relationship with 17-year-old daughter Mabrie. “But we try to keep a proper perspective and work things out the next morning after everyone has cooled off.”
Mabrie, a junior at Waco High School, said that as hard as it is sometimes, she tries not to take her parents' rules and discipline personally. “I don't always like to hear that ‘It's for you own good,’ but I know deep down it's true,” Mabrie said, with a sigh of admission. “It's just not easy to take sometimes when my peers get to do pretty much whatever they want.”
It's not like Mabrie gives her parents a lot to complain about, relatively speaking. She's in the top 10 percent of her class, already is looking at several large state universities she would like to attend, is a member of the Waco Youth City Council and keeps busy playing basketball for the Lady Lions. While her parents are her biggest role models, she said they still find things to butt heads about. “I'm a procrastinator, and that's a pet peeve of (my parents),” Mabrie said. “I always wait to the last minute to do projects, and I get them done, but it bugs them a lot more than me.”
“I'd say the thing we disagree on most often is her curfew,” Tracy said. “We're flexible, it depends on what she's doing as far as what time we want her home, but we've had some issues with that. Especially when her friends get to stay out later.”
Those scenarios, played out across America daily, are part of the tightrope parents constantly walk, said Sharon Rollins, a licensed family counselor at Family Counseling and Children's Services in Waco. She said parents have to maintain balance between stifling a child with too much control and losing them from not enough. “Constantly laying down the law in a military style or, at the opposite end, allowing a teen to do whatever they want have both shown to be ineffective, research has shown,” Rollins said. “The key is providing choices for the child within a framework of set rules. That gives them needed structure but freedom to make some choices on their own.”
While society may change, Rollins said, the root of teen angst is constant through one generation after another — freedom, or a perceived lack thereof. What's changed, she said, are the stakes. They're higher now because the consequences of poor decisions made by teens involving drugs and sexual activity are evident in the rates of addiction and pregnancy in that age group. Another difference in the parent-teen relationship is the level of respect, she said. Kids are talking back more and, in many instances, trying to push parents' personal hot buttons.
“If you let a child bait you into shifting an argument from the issue at hand into something personal, then you've lost the battle,” Rollins said. “It's best to maintain a businesslike demeanor and never discipline a child when angry yourself. Having balance in your own life and the support of family and friends in your parenting approach makes it easier to avoid taking a conflict personally.”
Some of the behavioral changes teens succumb to are due to biological changes. For example, studies have shown that puberty is associated with a shift in sleep tendencies. A hormonal change causes adolescents to have a natural tendency to become a bit more like night owls, going to bed later and sleeping longer in the morning, according to a report in the summer 2003 issue of Cerebrum, a journal published by The Dana Forum on Brain Science.
The report compares the change in sleep behavior to jet lag. Once the teen's body becomes accustomed to a later body-clock phase, such as a summer schedule of sleeping from 3 a.m. until noon, switching back to an earlier schedule when school starts in the fall feels like several hours of jet lag. Reverting back to the late schedule on weekends perpetuates sleep deprivation during the school year, which may explain why many high school and college students struggle in early classes, according to the report.
But when you get right down to what's bugging teens these days, not much has changed. Romantic break ups and peer pressure to do drugs or become sexually active are still daily battles for teens, Mabrie Hermann said. For her, grades cause more anxiety than anything else.
“Drugs, alcohol and the pressure to have sex are certainly out there,” she said. “I see kids who give into that pressure because they want so badly to be in the 'in' group and feel like they belong. Fortunately, my friends may tease me a little about some of my restrictions, but they don't pressure me to do things I don't want.”
Mabrie said she's opinionated enough to tell her friends when she thinks they are doing something they shouldn't, to which she often hears a dismissive, “Whatever — it's fun,” response, she said.
Being a teen's friend instead of his or her parent is a recipe for disaster, Rollins said. Without the boundaries of a parent-child relationship, the child steps onto equal ground and the parent loses control quickly, she said, especially nowadays when children reach puberty at earlier ages and are more sophisticated through awareness from various news and media sources.
Perhaps the hardest part of dealing with the ultra-sensitive emotions of teens is the doomsday outlook they so heartily embrace. You know that's true if you've ever tried convincing a teen that being dumped by a boyfriend or girlfriend isn't the end of the world. Because “the sun will still rise tomorrow” condolence is the last thing a spurned teen wants to hear from a parent, having a network of extra advocates and mentors is extremely important in helping a teen overcome that type of setback, Rollins said.
“The most well-adjusted teen in the world still wants their parents to stand 20 yards away from them at the mall,” she said. “Sometimes they are just more receptive to the advice of a third party and more forthcoming as well. The key is acknowledging the pain, then leading them by asking, ‘What's going to happen next?’ This helps them start looking forward and realizing that life does indeed go on.”
By John Allen
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