Thursday, September 3, 2009

Why Teenagers Don’t Think Like We Do & What We Can Do About It

Most people will think it rather obvious to acknowledge the highly-conspicuous difference between adults and teens. But the fact is many parents do not cater very well for these differences. Instead they’ll occasionally or even often choose a ‘log-aheads’ approach—and that’s a method generally always destined for failure.

Teenagers straddle the divide between childhood and adulthood. It is both an awkward, horrible in-between time of relative periodic nothingness—a way-station—and a time of exhilarating experimentation, dabbling with both kid-stuff and adult-stuff. (We often look back with at least some fond memories of this time.)

With this ‘in-between time,’ together with the complex and unpredictable mix of rampant growth hormones and the under-developed brain also conspiring against them, no wonder they’ll occasionally (or often!) feel confused, desperate—and even at times deranged. (I mean, how many of us adults haven’t felt deranged from time to time?)

I received a word regarding my approach to parenting in the teen years. It is simply to ‘travel with’ my daughters as they approach, travel through, and eventually exit those crucial teen years. The passage of father (or mother) giving away their bride-to-be daughter is symbolic of the parent’s role. We travel with them through this part of life.

I once learned that the middle teen years (15-19 years) are not the worst. It’s the periods before and after that often present the most problems—these early and later periods are the key transition times.[1] But keeping them at ‘steady-state’ during the entire time is probably conditional—at least to some extent—on the following:

Teens, we know, have different sleeping, eating, working and resting patterns and habits as compared to us adults. We will seem to be totally opposed if we make endless comparisons. Comparisons are generally not helpful. The point is they’re not meant to be like us during this phase of their lives. This is both a psychological and biological truth. The quicker we can accept that the better it is for all of us (and not just the teen and us parents—the whole family benefits or suffers).

The key for the period during the turbulent teen years, especially if the right training’s gone in during the ages up to 12 years, is knowing when to go with the flow and when to intervene—with patience, wisdom and guile with our words, tone and body language.

We all get it wrong from time to time, but what is it that we’re characterised by? Our teen kids won’t pigeon-hole us if we make only the odd mistake. But if we issue no grace when they make a mistake we’re likely to end up with egg on our face. Whether we or they make mistakes both parties must be willing to make appropriate restitution. We must be consistent.

At the end of the day, it’s the mistakes we make and learn from that are going to be the making of us. We don’t learn everything by pure observation. Allowing the teen to make mistakes as part of a learning process is responsible parenting. And we must allow them to pay (again, fairly) for their mistakes in a nurturing, supportive environment.

We’re holding our teen kids up to the adult standard but not unfairly so. Our expectations are not high. We recognise they’ll fall short more often than not. We allow for it but we don’t excuse it.

We encourage them to get back on the horse recalling that we’re travelling with them on this arduous part of the journey. We’re their sponsor and coach. We always have their best interests at heart, not merely our own.

The ‘in-between time’ is time for training and progress, not perfection. It’s also a time to shore-up our relationships with them as we prepare for the eventual next phase of friendship with them as our adult children.

[1] I refer to information presented through the wonderful teaching ministry of Gary & Anne Marie Ezzo—a course of study in early parenting, Let the Children Come Along the Virtuous Way: Growing Kids God’s Way (Happy Valley, South Australia: Growing Families Australia, 2002).

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