Magazine article Insight on the News

Teens Behaving Badly

Magazine article Insight on the News

Teens Behaving Badly

Article excerpt

Parents find it increasingly difficult to understand their teen-age children, who have found new ways to express their rebellious spirits. Insight talks with experts who offer timely advice.

Katherine McMillan knew she was in for a wild ride when her oldest son, Ben, came home one day with a Mohawk haircut. Then nearly 13 years old, Ben already had been struggling with his parents about curfews, house rules and boundaries. When his father took a distant job that kept him away from home and the family during the workweek, everything escalated.

"I was absolutely unprepared for parenting a teenager," says McMillan, a mother of four. "Within two weeks of my husband's new job, Ben got that haircut as a declaration of independence and a visible rejection of everything I thought our family was about. I felt like he fell into an alien culture."

Parents often are unprepared when adolescence transforms their once-familiar children into rebellious and moody strangers. Experts, while agreeing that middle-school years can be tumultuous, remind parents that these are just the growing pains that signal a healthy move toward adulthood. "That's the primary developmental task of adolescence," says Ava Siegler, director of the Institute for Child, Adolescent and Family Studies in New York City and a practicing psychologist. "It's the time when children learn how to separate from their parents. Since they are so attached to their parents, they mobilize hostility and anger to create a separation."

Parents often feel hurt and betrayed when their child pushes away from them, but Thomas Phelan, a clinical family psychologist near Chicago who specializes in discipline issues, urges parents not to take it personally. "I ask parents, `Do you want them to live with you forever?' Whether it's green hair or their terrible rudeness, realize that this is a phase and relax and enjoy it."

Engaging in angry dinner-table arguments or enduring endless sulky moods can be far from enjoyable, and most parents feel helpless when the parenting techniques that served them well during their child's earlier years no longer are effective. Phelan says parents can minimize their discomfort by distinguishing between harmless annoyances and issues that are worth fighting over.

"Teens come equipped with an MBA," says Phelan, referring to "minor but annoying" behavior. "Expect drawn-out, totally annoying discussions. Expect that they will hone their negotiating skills on you. You don't always have to argue back. Let the minor ones go." After arguing for 10 years over your 17-year-old's messy room, "it's time to wave the white flag. Admit it, you lost that one. Stop fighting."

Parents should save their energy for the major confrontations -- those issues that involve a child's health or safety, such as drugs, alcohol, driving rules and sex. Once those issues are defined, parents should determine a level of involvement. Some issues require parents to participate as silent observers as teens learn important lessons through trial and error. Others demand that parents play the adviser or negotiator. At the highest level, a parent will have to intervene to solve a serious problem. "Many parents don't realize that it's not just the child that changes, but parents must change as well," Siegler say. "The rules and regulations from childhood are just no longer appropriate."

That's a difficult change, says Susan Panzarine, a health professional from Basking Ridge, N.J., who specializes in adolescents and has two teens of her own. "Parents of teens are dealing with a loss. They don't know who they will greet when their child comes down the stairs each morning, and they wonder what ever happened to their sweet little girl or boy," she says. "They have to give up their old comfortable, warm and snugly relationship and come to terms with getting to know their child all over again."

Parents need to work hard to find ways to stay involved in their children's' lives -- that's quite a challenge when teens are seeking the opposite, a disconnection from parental ties. …

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