Read an Excerpt
Communicating with your teen
By Greg Smalley and Michael Smalley
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2003 Smalley Publishing Group, LLC
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSPARKS ARE GONNA FLY!
The Reasons behind Parent-Teen Conflict
One mother we know is so resigned to the teenage argumentative response, she actually met her son at the door one day when she returned home from work and told him: "We're invited to the Stevens' for dinner. You've got thirty minutes to clean up and argue about it."
Conflict is inevitable in any relationship, but especially in the relationship between parents and teens. Since it's nearly impossible to avoid conflict in this stage, the wisest response is to learn to recognize why it occurs and seek to manage it positively. Take a look at some of the factors we've found that cause the most disagreements among parents and teens.
Sometimes it feels as if teens actually enjoy arguing with authority! It's important for parents to recognize that it's natural for conflict to increase during adolescence. As your child hits the teenage years, a very important developmental change occurs involving his or her intellectual abilities. Before your son reached adolescence, there were times when he thought you, his parents, knew everything. He was amazed at the seemingly endless amount of knowledge you possessed, and he assumed you could handle any situation. This is because younger children have difficulty looking at the bigger picture; instead, they focus on literal or concrete ideas. They also have limited experience with the world and find it difficult to judge logical consistency. This is why it's easy for most young kids to believe in Santa Claus. Even though it's clearly not logical to believe that one man could visit every house in the world in one night, traveling in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer, young children believe that he does. Why? They have concrete proof that he exists-presents!
When kids reach adolescence, however, parents say good-bye to the days of literal meaning and difficulty with logic. A teen's ability to reason and grapple with abstract ideas pushes him to think and create solutions and resolutions independently. Does it ever feel like your teenage daughter thinks she knows everything? At this age, most teenagers feel the need to challenge authority or established experts. They don't want to take anyone's word for it; they want to find answers for themselves. The result? Your child no longer believes every word you say just because you said it.
Yet just because your teen is developing the ability to think and reason in the abstract doesn't mean he or she is always going to exercise high logical ability. In fact, most parents find it pretty frustrating if they try to use logic when arguing with their teens. Jean Piaget, a pioneer and expert in the area of cognitive development, discovered that a teenager's thoughts are usually quite idealistic. She may be able to think about the future and its endless possibilities, but she still has trouble thinking in practical terms. Sometimes a teen's overly optimistic outlook on the future causes trouble because he or she doesn't yet understand the many obstacles or difficulties that must be overcome to reach these future goals. In an attempt to help their teen be more realistic, parents sometimes go overboard with caution, and teens perceive this concern as criticism.
In addition to idealistic thinking, teens are beginning to develop the mental capacity for problem solving. They're learning to detect the logical consistency or inconsistency in a set of statements, especially statements made by authority figures. In other words, you can no longer expect your child to accept that "there are starving children in Africa who would love it" as a reasonable reason for eating his broccoli.
These physiological changes in your teen's brain will affect your disagreements with him. If it seems like every time you bring up a topic, your teen wants to argue about it, it's probably because of these developmental changes. Arguing with you doesn't necessarily mean that your teen loves to terrorize you or that you two have a shaky relationship. Instead of being discouraged, try thinking of your adolescent's new mental abilities as a Christmas present. When you first unwrap a present, you're filled with excitement and want to use your new gift all the time. It's the same for teenagers. They have new abilities and gifts and can't wait to try them out. They probably won't find a better "practice field" for experimental arguing than at home with the family. Teenagers need to be able to utilize these new idealistic and logical abilities.
Teen-parent fights have a lot of common triggers. Take a look at the sidebar on page 3 for some specific ones. But a number of underlying social and behavioral issues can also be factors in conflict:
* Privacy. Teenagers usually develop an intense desire for privacy. Sometimes young people who were never overly shy as children become reluctant to reveal themselves, their feelings, and their ideas once they reach the teen years. This change, which necessarily creates distance in the teen-parent relationship, is often difficult for both parents and adolescents to negotiate. You may feel hurt that your child no longer confides in you; your teen may feel upset by the distance even as she insists upon it. This results in-what else?-conflict.
* Risky behavior. Another source of friction may develop as teens begin to engage in rebellious, show-offy, or risk-taking behaviors-and that drives the concerned parent completely crazy! Perhaps the teen drives fast or recklessly. Perhaps he stops studying or experiments with alcohol, drugs, or premarital sex. Teens often have an unrealistic "it can't happen to me" attitude that rejects the notion of danger or resists the long-term view of these often self-destructive activities.
* Friendships. It's common for teens to value their friends-and the advice and input they receive from friends-more than their parents during adolescence. Parents and family, who are forced to take a backseat to these favored relationships, may feel rejected. Peer pressure becomes an issue, as "the group" exerts an almost irresistible influence on your child.
* Dating. Young people also begin to pull away from their families more as they begin to date, finding friends of the opposite sex in whom to confide and on whom to depend.
* Working. The potential for conflict increases when your young person steps out into the world of employment-a world complete with a busy schedule that can be difficult to merge with the family or school schedule and an income that may not necessarily be spent wisely or well.
* Fads and fashions. As young people express their individuality by making fashion or being "in style" a priority, new areas of conflict often emerge. Parents may disagree with teens spending money on fad clothing or styles that are disagreeable to them. Sometimes teens want to dress in a way that's sexy without understanding the dangers associated with that choice. They also tend to be excessively focused on their looks, and they may give this aspect of their personhood too much importance-either capitalizing on good looks or despairing over average ones. Both girls and guys may struggle with body image and eating disorders.
In short, teens are experiencing more choices than they ever have before, and the newfound freedom can be both exhilarating and frightening.
Most tension between parents and teens grows out of the young person's movement toward becoming an individual separate from the family group. Generally, the young person's longing for more autonomy-"I'm in charge of me"-smacks up against what you, the parents, know he or she is really ready for. As you struggle to find the balance between how much responsibility can be shifted to the teen and which areas of authority need to remain in your domain, you may begin to feel as if you're always arguing with your child. But take heart. There is a way to navigate these choppy waters and reach a solution everyone can live with.
While teens are changing, so are you, Mom and Dad. You may find that the atmosphere of conflict in the home is taking its toll on your marriage too. It's typical for marital satisfaction to dip during these years of parenting teens.
Adolescence arrives at a rather inconvenient time for some parents. It comes when many middle-aged parents are asking themselves: Who am I, what have I accomplished, where am I now, and what does the future hold for me? In some ways, midlife parallels adolescence.
Some women look toward the empty-nest future and realize they may want to pursue more education or a different job-especially if they've put careers on hold in order to spend years raising their families. Other parents find themselves doing work in a field that hasn't brought them much personal satisfaction, yet they may feel trapped by financial obligations to their family. Many people in the midlife years look for drastic changes-in education, hobbies, cars, and so on. If this sounds like you, consider talking to a counselor and looking for a way to make positive changes. If you're interested in a new career, check out the career section of your library or local bookstore. Several books are available that will help you evaluate your interests and skills.
Furthermore, many parents experience an "authority crisis." They feel their authority is being threatened as the teen questions their values and rules, which is part of the process of individuation. Parents may also begin to question themselves. If they made mistakes in their own adolescence, such as experimenting with drugs and alcohol or having a child out of wedlock, they may become increasingly frightened and try to control their teen's behavior to make sure history doesn't repeat itself.
Another stress affecting parents at this time is the increase in the family's financial burden. Teens have more expensive activities and pastimes, and car insurance for teen drivers is costly. College is now in the not so distant future, and many parents may be forced to do some fast figuring-and sometimes some take on side jobs-in order to make college a possibility for their children. In families where teens are required to contribute to car-insurance payments or college savings funds, parents may find that motivating their teens is another source of stress.
Other personal stresses may affect the adults. Perhaps their own physical attractiveness is in decline, which can be hard on some people. What's worse, they may be dealing with more health and physical concerns. Many parents are extraordinarily busy, driving their teens to and from activities while trying to work at home or on the road. Some parents must join the "sandwich generation" and care for their own elderly parents as well as their children.
A matter of style
No matter what your parenting style, these teen years can be tough. Adults who struggle with low self-esteem, or parents who have until now enjoyed a good relationship with their children, may be hurt by their adolescent's preference for outside input and friendships. Parents who have been more controlling or authoritarian will find that trying to exert control at this stage of the game usually leads to more conflict with their teens, who struggle even harder for independence. And parents with rigid or unrealistic expectations for their kids will find these years especially difficult. Teens who are struggling to discover who they are and what they want out of life may revolt against having to measure up to anyone else's standards.
Family styles and the changes that take place during these tumultuous years can also contribute to the background causes of conflict. Family relationships undergo a transformation when children reach adolescence. Parents and teens spend less time together during adolescence than earlier in life. Many of the interaction patterns that were appropriate for parents and their preschool- or elementary-school-age children are no longer appropriate for interactions between parents and soon-to-be-adult offspring. A teen who is bent on autonomy will likely spot these patterns and rebel against them before the parent-who can't quite believe his or her child is growing up-does.
The organization of the family also plays a part. Has there been a divorce, resulting in single-parent home life or stepfamily situations? Split families can have more financial pressure and less geographic mobility, and it is more likely that the mother will have to work outside the home. Families recovering from divorce or adjusting to a blended situation must deal with complex issues, such as trying to merge parenting styles, deal with new sibling relationships, and cope with loss and change. All of these add to tension in the home. (For help with these tough issues, check out the titles listed in the resource section at the back of this book.)
Differences in the personality types in the family members often become more noticeable and pronounced as teens "come into their own." Differences that used to be easily managed or accepted may shift into more marked opposition. A picky eater may become a strict vegetarian when she becomes a teenager and turn every family meal into a diatribe against meat eaters. A child who has always been quiet by nature may become even more quiet and withdrawn during the teen years, especially if his parents or siblings are more extroverted. Sibling rivalvary often intensifies as one child or another gets more attention, even if that attention is negative.
These years change the family's emotional connections. Parents and teens are more emotionally distant, often separated by conflicts of morals and values. As your teen attempts to find his own set of values, it will often seem as if he's rejecting everything you've taught him about right and wrong. Don't worry. This is normal. In order to build a strong moral foundation for his life, your child needs to understand why he believes what he believes. Most parents find that their children do return to what they've been taught as they move into adulthood.
With the teen's developmental and social changes, parents' midlife issues, and questions about the family's style, it's no wonder this period can be fraught with tension! Not only is life dramatically changing for the adolescent, but there are important adjustments for the parents and the family as well.
Is there any help for this situation? Of course.
Excerpted from Communicating with your teen by Greg Smalley and Michael Smalley Copyright © 2003 by Smalley Publishing Group, LLC
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.