By Ron Huxley
In my years of work with teenagers, I have learned some very important secrets that might interest parents. It wasn't easy getting these secrets. Your teen will probably deny all of them. For some, it is so secret, even they are not consciously aware of it. But trust me, once they know that you know about what most of them know, it will improve your relationship. What do I mean? Let me show you by telling the first secret:
Secret #one: Teens want parents to know them.
It doesn't seem like a big deal? It my opinion it is huge. Teens have worked hard to convince adults that they don't want them "butting into their lives." On the surface this is true. But deep down they do want to share with us their fears, joys, and dreams. The main reason they don't just open up is that parents discourage it with analysis, judgement, and lecture. To cover up, they make those weird funny faces like parents are the one's from another planet. Teens are biologically driven to differentiate from their parents. The problem, psychologically, is that they don't know what they want to be instead. They just know what they don't want to be you! It's called an identity crisis. The challenge is to get to know teens gracefully, without raising their defenses, and share with them some of the wisdom parents have learned since adolescence. The remaining nine secrets will help you do just that.
Secret #two: Teens are troubled by peer pressure.
Almost every teen I have talked to will say that peer pressure is not a big thing. They tell me adults overrate peer pressure and you can see why with all the drug campaigns flooding the media with peer pressure messages. They don't want you to know their secrets (outwardly) and when the media blasts the truth about peer pressure on television, radio, and billboards their cover has been blown. What is a teen to do, except deny that peer pressure has any power over them? Take their dress for example. To us adults, they all look the same and yet every one of them will maintain their uniqueness. Point out that any two are wearing nothing but black clothing and they will correct you that they are wearing very different styles of black clothing. Ironic, isn't it. But you can't convince them differently, so don't bother trying. As teens differentiate from mom and dad, they turn to their peers for support and guidance. Not all these peers give good advice. Those junior "Dear Abby's" are lost too.
The challenge for parents is to get teens to accept values that will steer them through their turbulent years. Part of the solution is to give teens something to say "yes" to, instead of telling to "just say no" to harmful substances and behaviors. Since peer pressure is so powerful, why not use it to the parents and teen's advantage by finding organizations and groups that have healthy peers to influence them. Take teens to church youth groups, community recreation programs, and police-sponsored activity leagues. If you don't have one in your area start one up. Involve teens in the ground rules at home and school. The more they are involved in the process, the more likely they will follow those rules. It also communicates that their thoughts and ideas are important. If their rules are unacceptable (too lenient or unrealistic) talk about the problem and find a middle ground. And as much as they say they hate it, discuss values and peer pressure with children. Don't argue, lecture, analyze, or judge them for their thoughts. They are still on the learning curve and usually their responses are naive and exploratory. Another way of saying it is "Guide them, don't force them." Take small opportunities in the car, at the dinner table, or in the middle of a project together. This makes everyone more relaxed and comfortable to discuss uncomfortable topics.
Secret #three: Teens perceive the world with emotionally charged lenses.
To the teen, life is techno colored. To us their world is sensitive, moody, and often dangerous. As their hormones kick into high gear, they go from feeling manic and on top of the world to depressed and at the bottom of the barrel, all in a matter of moments. Don't go get prescriptions filled yet. It is simply part of being a teen and fortunately, doesn't last forever. The more parents understand the ebb and flow of teen energy, the better they will cope.
The challenge is to channel this energy into positive outlets. Find opportunities for them to be active and involved and learn how to swing to the mood music. Although parents don't want to overload their teens, they do need a balance of activities that focus their mental, physical, and emotional energy. Allow your child to have a "bad" hormone day from time to time. See the long view. Tomorrow they will be back up again. Don't talk about the mood swing and create defensiveness and don't blame them for their mood swings. Don't excuse it either, just don't make a case of it. The less pressure from adults, the quicker the positive moods will come back up.
Secret #four: Teens have very few time management skills.
"Who does," you say? Exactly my point. If we, the adults, don't have good time management skills, why would we expect teens to have them. Who would they learn from if not us. But even if we are the most punctual of people that is no-guarantee that our teens will be. They might act as the exact opposite in an effort to find their own identity.
The challenge is to help teens learn to use their time wisely. That might involve become better time management models ourselves, suggest time management techniques, and doing nothing. We have already mentioned that we need to be good models if we expect our children to manage their time but watch for signs of poor school performance, inattentiveness, and excessive sleepiness. These signs may point to deeper, emotional problems. In some cases, time management skills may help. In others, it may require more professional help. Suggest, don't lecture on time management. Teens will save face if they pick up a technique "on their own" that you suggested. And if they don't you will have to decide how important the situation is to know if you should strongly suggest, demand, or do nothing. Parents must decide what is negotiable and nonnegotiable with their teen. Perhaps having a messy room is negotiable ("clean it at least once a month" or "no food left as science experiments under the bed") while daily chores and doing homework are not. Teens can be good manipulators so it is good to know this before hand.
Secret #five: Teens like the practical and social side of school.
Although some teens will talk about school as if they are being forced into manual labor or tortured by sadistic criminals disguised as educators, the truth is that they find a lot of reinforcement from school and actually like learning. Vague statements, by parents, that they must study history because it's good for them will never work. Telling a teen that they must study Algebra in order to get into a good college won't be very motivating either. They need to see the more pragmatic or social side of school.
The challenge is to help teens understand why they need to learn various subjects in school. Talk with your teens teachers about the concrete objectives of each class. Find practical uses for it in daily life. Build in connections with past learning to show a continuum of learning over time. Have teens' brainstorm practical uses for the concepts they are learning. Or go the other way and talk about what they are interested in doing in life and how different subjects are necessary to accomplish that goal.
Secret #six: Teens want limits placed on them.
This is perhaps the most startling secret of all. It is also one of the most unconscious secrets for teens. When they have limits, they don't realize their need for them but when they don't have any limits placed on them, they do realize their importance. One teen, whose mother died of a drug overdose, had lived a very unsupervised, unstructured life. He told me that he liked having his foster mother put limits on him. This was puzzling to me, given that he rarely followed them, but he stated that this is what it felt like to have a "mom who cares for you." And he eventually did adjust to the structure and start following the rules.
The challenge is to know how much and how often to set limits. Loving children is the easy part of parenting. Setting appropriate limits is not so easy. The world is still unknown to teens and consequently they need someone who "has been there" to place limits until they learn about the limits that exist in the world. The goal of limit setting should be teaching teens about very real limits of the world. Limits should never be permanent walls around a teen. Generally speaking, limits should decrease over time but can be put back up if the teenager is not able to tolerate freedom or makes inappropriate choices. This creates a cycle where they are decreased again, allowing the teen to earn back freedom and responsibility. Theoretically this cycle can continue undefinedly until the teen is finally able tolerate freedom or is old enough to leave home and make their own decisions in life. In the meantime it is the parent's job, and teen's secret desire, that parents set the limits.
Secret #seven: Teens often feel insecure and anxious about growing up.
They will act as if they are a superman. They talk about what they will do when they are old enough to be on their own and although they can't wait to be an adult, the truth is that they are frightened. Feelings of insecurity will crack their thin shell of confidence. Parents see these cracks in their annoyance and anger. Anger being just one way to try and seal up those cracks.
The challenge is to increase their feelings of confidence to succeed in life. This confidence comes from experience and experience from failure. Why failure? Because failure is a part of the learning cycle. And because teens (and adults) fail a lot. Better to acknowledge failure now and not be surprised when it occurs. Toward this end, parents need to model failure for teens. Be willing to confess to times when you were unsuccessful and what it taught you. When teens fail, reframe it as a normal part of life that teaches us how not to behave in the future. Don't make a huge personal issue of it. Stay focused on solutions. You have just discovered one solution" that won't work in the future. Work on those solutions together, or at least, be a strong cheerleader for your teen as he or she works on them.
Secret #eight: Teens fail mostly due to inexperience rather than maliciousness.
I know this doesn't seem like a big secret but many parents make some of their biggest errors here. Teens are awkward, clumsy, anxious, and unskilled. They have more experience as a child then as an adult. When they are in trouble they will draw on childish ways more often than adult ways because they are more familiar with childish ways.
The challenge is to keep from overreacting to their behaviors and teach them the skills necessary to overcome failures. As we have said before, spent time with them, discuss rules and values, and model skills. Most importantly be patient with them. Remember what it was like for you as a teen. No, really remember! The mind has built in defense that causes us to remember the good and ignore the bad. But those memories are still there. Dig deep and meditate on what it felt like to be a teen. This will give you more empathy for them and empathy will give you more patience to teach them.
Secret #nine: Teens want respect too!
Parents are big on demanding teens be respectful but they neglect the reality that teens want it too. Respect is a reciprocal commodity. The more you give, the more you gain. The truth is that most teens don't respect adults because they don't feel respected.
The challenge is to mutually respect your teen when frustrated by his or her behavior. Respect is not the same as acceptance. You don't have to accept a teen's behavior to be respectful. Common courtesies, such a "thank you" or knocking on their bedroom door before entering, are simple ways to respect a teen. Respect their privacy and never lecture a teen in front of friends.
Take teens seriously. Don't use "get into their face confrontation" to discipline. Don't attack them personally. Stay focused on the problem you want to change. Do confront them in an assertive manner. Do address inappropriate behavior by staying focused on the problem and the desired solution. Do listen to their side of the problem before you talk. Repeat back what you heard your teen say and try understand where they are coming from. Parents always have veto power over teens. Just don't abuse the power.
Secret #10: Teens want to have fun.
This is the best secret of all. It's hard enough growing up and discovering who you are without having some fun every once in a while. The challenge is finding a balance between fun and responsibilities. Make some verbal agreements about whom, when, where, and what is considered appropriate fun. Make plans for fun together. Show an interest in their fun even if you feel you can't relate to their music, games, or movies. Break up responsibilities into small chunks of time where fun or relaxation can take place. Involve your teen in various mediums, such as, music, art, sports, writing, and popular culture. Don't impose your interests on your teen but don't let them go totally unsupervised either.
Now that the secrets are out, try one or two on your teen in the next week. Don't make a big deal about knowing the truth. They won't admit to it and just look at you like you're crazy. Having a relationship with your teen is possible. Even a good one!
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