Dealing with Teens in Six (Easy?) Steps

Increased at-home time during this health issue is bringing up questions from my clients about family interaction – especially when it involves restless teenagers. My experience has shown that there are six basic techniques to use when dealing with kids – especially kids who are cooped up at home.

  1. Speak reasonably. For example, instead of, “Just say no to drugs,” say, “If you use drugs, you can harm your body and mind. You might get addicted, make less money and have to depend on others to live. Is that what you really want?”
  2. Acknowledge the teenager’s need for autonomy. For example, instead of saying, “Stop being so selfish! Think of my needs for a change,” try “I know you need to find your own way without me telling you what to do all the time. However, it’s my job to tell you when I think you’re wrong. You’re also free to say what you think.”
  3. Don’t let your anxieties overwhelm your teenager. Instead of reacting to every little thing, help him make good decisions by reasoning things out on his own. Anxiety blocks thought. If you show confidence in your teenager’s ability to think, then he’ll feel less dependent on “what everybody else is doing.”
  4. Pull rank only as a last resort. Let her learn by making her own decisions and facing the consequences as much as practical. Predict negative consequences, but recognize that you could be wrong. Don’t teach her to second-guess herself with “What will my parents allow me to do?” Train her to figure out what makes the most sense.
  5. Don’t take your teenagers’ errors personally. Her errors are her own. It’s not about you; it’s about her need to find her own way.
  6. Create a climate of open communication. No subject should be off-limits. Don’t say things like, “That’s stupid,” or, “When you’re my age, you’ll see it differently.” Instead, listen to his arguments and point out what you think is right or wrong. Seek the same from him. He’s now a young adult, and needs to reason and argue. It’s a good mental exercise for you both.

Robert Epstein, author of “The Case Against Adolescence,” told Psychology Today, “We have completely isolated young people from adults and created a peer culture. We stick them in school and keep them from working in any meaningful way, and if they do something wrong we put them in a pen with other ‘children.’ In most non-industrialized societies, young people are integrated into adult society as soon as they are capable, and there is no sign of teen turmoil. Many cultures don’t even have a term for adolescence. … we not only created this stage of life: We declared it inevitable.”

So true! Adolescence is a state of mind. There’s no inherent reason why a thirteen- or sixteen-year-old should be irrational. Long before their kids reach the teenage years, parents assume that they will be obnoxious; it’s no wonder that they often become self-fulfilling prophesies. I’ll never forget what one parent told me. Her teenager had never “rebelled,” and went into adulthood without the “usual” problems. I asked her why this was, and she responded, “We never gave her anything to rebel against.” Now THAT makes sense.

Expect teens to take responsibility for their decisions. Adulthood means freedom of choice coupled with responsibility for those choices. You can tell him what to do all you want, but it’s not going to work. Teenagers are different from six-year-olds. They don’t hero-worship you, and they’re not desperate to win your approval like they once were. And they’re not going to admire you unless they have reason to do so. And the most important reason to admire you is your integrity.

If parents truly mean what they say and say what they mean, then teens won’t have any real reason to rebel. Oh sure, they’ll disagree and try to make a point (loudly, perhaps), but that’s not rebelling; that’s just independent thinking. Independence is important to everyone, including young people. You don’t have to endorse everything he or she does, but you have to support independence, because it’s coming whether you like it or not.



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