How to deal with adolescents

Adapted from Reader’s Digest, July 2011

Adolescence is not a „bad‟ phase to go through. It is a phase that ultimately helps both the adolescent and the parent to grow and, if handled in a balanced way, your relationship with your child will only emerge stronger. The bottom line is loving your child unconditionally and being there for him or her through the highs and lows. Up until the age of 10 or 11, children take their identity from their parents. By age 13 or 14, adolescence warrants a departure from this dependence and the discovery of his own identity. It is nonetheless important for the parent to be there for the teen through this phase. Research by psychologists in India and abroad has indicated substantial evidence that a high level of parental involvement significantly affects adolescent well-being. But the truth is more and more parents have a tough time connecting with their teenagers. Here are seven steps for parents who want to break down that wall of silence: 1. Create a listening climate: It is important to listen to what your adolescent has to say. As the child enters adolescence there may sometimes be an increased reluctance to tell their parents everything compared to when they were younger. A simple question, like „what happened at school?‟ is often met with a little resistance. Teenagers may tentatively throw indications of what is happening in their lives and observe their parents‟ reaction to it. Based on whether you choose to react or respond, they will judge whether or not to build the rapport with you. Based on what they read of the response, they decide how much to disclose or to withdraw from the conversation. One of the best ways to achieve an ongoing listening climate in your home is to regularly set aside special time with your teenager. Say, by having a „treat time‟. Or read to them. Better to start this habit from their young age. After reading a story ends, linger with them for some time, and often, many teenagers open up and tell how their day has been or whatever it is they want to share. Or games time. It is important to laugh with them. In the aftermath, many teenagers open out. Dinner is an important time, but often overlooked. „Empty Shell Family‟ syndrome refers to a situation where family members continue to dwell together but have little communication or interaction among themselves, and fail to give emotional support to one another. In our fast-paced lifestyle it is almost easy to miss each other with family members shuttling in and out of the house as per their individual schedules. Ensuring you eat at least one meal together can help avoid the syndrome. It sounds almost too simple. When you are eating together, it is almost natural to discuss your day with each other. This non-threatening environment at a simple mealtime allows teenagers to be a lot more comfortable and confident about sharing what‟s on their mind. But make sure you do not misuse this time to sermonize.

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2. Learn the art of ‘Parallel Conversation’: The best discussions with teenagers happen when you are engaged in parallel conversation. That is when you are doing something ordinary together, side by side, putting more emphasis on the activity than on what you are saying, and not looking at each other directly. This type of non-confrontational setting keeps parents, as well as kids, at ease. Such time together could include anything from reading a book together to driving somewhere. You could have an evening walk with your teenage daughter. When pressed for time, you could simply walk her to her evening classes. This will be „time-off‟ for both of you. You won‟t have to talk as „mother & daughter‟ here. As parents we often paint a rosy picture of the world, but discussing even trivial issues helps convey the fact that most problems are common and can be dealt with. Doing so makes your child more comfortable coming to you when he or she faces a problem. Experts agree that mothers, in general, are more accessible to their children. While fathers are often seen as the authoritative figure and the provider, mothers are associated with the role of the emotional caretaker. But that may be changing. The mother is no longer the only confidante. More and more fathers are now striving to develop a loving and open equation with both sons and daughters. This is especially true of the educated, liberal, urban Indian parent. 3. Be a consultant, not a manager: If an average teenager is told to do something, they will do the exact opposite because, often, according to them, it is the only way they can assert their authority. This is where the parent can step in. Collaborate with them and facilitate the decision-making process rather than imposing your decisions on them. It will encourage mature thinking in the long run. A teenager‟s prefrontal cortex, part of the brain responsible for consequential thinking, is in the process of being formed during adolescence. Teens may therefore think only in terms of black or white. Yet, given the right guidance, teenagers can surprise you with their own creativity and resourcefulness in solving problems or taking decisions. It is imperative, however, that while helping teenagers to sort out their options, they do not feel judged-which perhaps explains why teenagers often recoil when parents jump the gun with advice, even good advice. Jeevan D‟Cunha, head counsellor and therapist at Mumbai recalls a 14-year-old girl telling him that she intended getting physically involved with her boyfriend. “Instead of moralizing or simply putting my foot down and informing her parents, I sat down with the girl and discussed questions such as „why do you think this is important?‟ And „what do you intend to do if such and such a situation occurs?‟ My aim was to assist her to understand whether, physically and emotionally, she was prepared for it. At the end of our discussion, it was she who said, „I don‟t think this is such a good idea‟. I believed there was a higher chance of her following through with this decision because she had been helped to take ownership of it, rather than having the decision imposed on her.”

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4. Present a united front: Probably every child has tried, at some point to play one parent against the other – using the old line, „but dad said I could go!‟ Teens, however, are even more likely to play this game if they see their parents arguing. Don‟t argue in front of your kids. Parenting is a joint responsibility and teens must be made to realize this. If your spouse has already given the teen a rule, or alternately, allowed her to go somewhere, agree with your spouse for the moment. Trust your spouse‟s parenting instinct. You may share your concern or point of view later when you are both alone. Of course this is easier said than done, and kids may overhear an argument. If this happens, tell the child that it is okay for couples to fight once in a while, but that doesn‟t mean that they will not remain together. Additionally, small acts of „making up‟ with each other in front of your teen will signal the strength of your relationship – an important gesture that is often ignored in Indian families. 5. Give your kids privacy: Nidhi Kaul, a practicing psychologist in Delhi says, “Teenage is when the parent needs to realize that their child wants to be treated like an adult. Their privacy is a crucial factor and must be respected. The parent of a teenage girl once confessed to me that she would read her daughter‟s diary to keep track of her life. Although the parental concern here may be understandable, such an action is unacceptable.” Parents should consider two more suggestions to help ease the problem of „letting go‟. Often, parenting responsibilities take precedence over almost everything else. While this is normal when children are very young, you mustn‟t take your partner for granted or keep putting the marital relationship on the back-burner. What‟s more, you are able to give the teenager more space when you know you still have each other. The second solution is to find your own desires and aspirations and keep them alive. A doctor-parent reveals, “Now that Rishab, my 14-year old son, doesn‟t need me around so much, I‟ve taken up writing seriously – something I always wanted to do, even before I took up medicine. My son still knows I‟m around if he needs my help and, at the same time, I don‟t feel inclined to hover around him all the time.” 6. Write it down: Writing things down in situations where an adolescent may not be ready for a conversation can help. Although discussing the problem face to face is the best way to exchange points of view, the actual issue and its pros and cons may get lost in any emotional outburst. As long as the parent has first tried to talk to the teenager about the issue, writing can be a very practical alternative. Parents should re-read their handwritten note or email carefully before sending it to the adolescent in order to avoid going off at a tangent or appearing vague. It is necessary to separate your emotional reaction and feelings about the issue at hand, whenever communicating to adolescents, for greater impact.

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A researcher of human relationships, Isabel Paul recounts the case of a stubborn 17-year old who was insistent about obtaining a motorbike license when his parents felt he wouldn‟t be able to handle a bike safely. Whenever his mother tried talking to him, it would flare up into an argument and be unresolved. His mother then wrote him an email putting across her point of view and concern. The logic presented struck a chord and the boy agreed to wait till he was 18. 7. Take what you get: You cannot force teenagers to reveal every aspect of their lives; nor should you. When a teenager decides what to tell you and what not to, they are also developing their sense of discrimination. So treat what your adolescent shares with you with a great sense of respect, rather than an attempt to mislead or lie to you. Parenting any teenager is a process of negotiation and of redefining your relationship with your child – open communication is the key. Sometimes this requires the parent to come down to the teenager‟s point of view; sometimes respecting it, and at other times even reminding them that you are in control. The trick is to trust your parenting instincts while responding according to the situation. At the same time, don‟t hold on to an incident and label the child irrevocably. ****************

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