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"Can I come with you, Daddy? Can I? I could help out at the book table."
Hannah, then thirteen years old, looked at me with those adorable, pleading eyes. How could I say no? But inwardly I smiled to myself, fully aware of what I was speaking about at the conference Hannah was asking to attend with me-information that Hannah lacked.
"Sure, honey, I'd love to have you come along," I said.
Instantly Hannah got suspicious. "What are you talking about tonight?"
"Adolescence," I said.
"Oh no," Hannah said. "Please, Daddy, please, please, please don't mention me. Don't say anything about me."
Suddenly my daughter started laughing. She hit herself on the forehead with the palm of her hand and said, "Oh no! I just gave you material for tonight, didn't I?"
Indeed she had! At thirteen, Hannah was just breaking into that rollicking, fun, treacherous, frustrating, meaningful, and wonderful time we call adolescence. It's a contradictory period, when young teens want to be the center of the world at the same time that they don't want any attention drawn to them! They want to be perfect in all they do and in how they look, yet they also desperately desire to be just like everyone else in their peer group.
The only thing more difficult than being an adolescent is trying to parent one. I know. My wife, Sande, and I have walked three children through this process, are taking our fourth-Hannah-through it even as I write, and are getting ready for child number five-Lauren-to join what I affectionately refer to as "the hormone group."
When our kids hit that magical moment of adolescence, most of the parenting rules that helped us for the first decade of their lives become outdated. Everything changes, even as our kids change. We need to adapt, adjust, and grow in the way we relate to our kids if we want to maintain a meaningful, healthy, and strong relationship during this admittedly turbulent time.
Perhaps it would surprise you to know Sande would agree with me that our favorite stage in parenting our kids has been their time in adolescence. Though this season can be difficult, it can also be very rewarding.
I'd like to invite you on a journey of exploring what is going on inside your children's minds, bodies, and souls during the ten to twelve years that mark adolescence. Although I'm a trained psychologist and counselor, I think my best training has come at home-as I'll explain in just a moment!
The Family Counselor
I came home in a great mood but soon walked into a tornado. The group I had just spoken to was unusually responsive. They laughed in all the right places, whipped out the hankies just when I hoped they would, nodded their heads when I dropped in the insights-to be honest, it couldn't have gone better. I had an opportunity to talk with several couples afterward and really felt that I had made a difference in their lives. As a psychologist and speaker, I couldn't ask for more. That's why I came home feeling so great.
Now let me explain the tornado.
I live in Tucson, Arizona, the only place in the world where water costs more than gasoline. On my way back from the airport, I reached the outskirts of our development, where I was greeted by a little stream of water running down the street.
What idiot has this much money to burn? I thought to myself. So imagine my, uh, pleasure when I followed that stream all the way to its source-the Leman outside faucet.
Obviously the kids had been playing with the hose. When they had finished, instead of turning off the faucet, they dropped the hose and thereby proceeded to water half the desert.
What sweet, sweet kids I have, and what tender, paternal thoughts I carried through the front door.
Actually my first words upon entering our hallway resembled a waterfall's roar: "Who left the water running in front of the house?"
There was a sudden dead silence, finally broken by my precious wife's voice: "Oh, he's home. The family counselor."
Man, was I slammed! And rightfully so. I put down my bags and did what I should have done in the first place: I went back outside, turned off the hose, came back inside, and hugged my family.
I share this story to illustrate that all families have their moments of tension, and anyone can have his times of imperfection and shortcoming, no matter how many letters appear after his name. I have learned as much from being wrong as I have learned from being right. I don't speak as a perfect authority but as one who has been on the journey of parenting adolescents for quite a while. I've learned I am just as capable as the next guy of saying exactly the wrong thing and hurting tender, budding teenage feelings by suggesting that a certain boy is special when my daughter would rather not talk about that just then.
Throughout this book, I want to be a kind friend who shares some of his stories about surviving the adolescence of his own children. Whatever you've lived through, I've probably experienced it myself. Because of my experience, however, I won't put you off with easy answers or a know-it-all attitude. One thing I can say, however, is that adolescence isn't terminal (it just feels like it). I've seen three kids come out on the other side, and if you go through this stage in the right way, believe me, there are tremendous rewards awaiting you as you relate to your adult children.
My goals are realistic. I jokingly told one group that the primary goal of getting our children through the teenage years is actually quite simple: to get them into their twenties without having them kill someone or being killed themselves! If they can avoid jail in the process, so much the better.
But seriously, the reason for this new book is simple: The kids we're raising now are from a different generation; old rules no longer apply. Let's look at "Planet Adolescence" in the new millennium.
Planet Adolescence 2001
When exactly do children enter that stage we call adolescence? I've got a good test for you. You know your sons or daughters are embarking on this period when you see them sink down into the car seat as you drive past some kids on the corner. As soon as you see this near universal moment, you know your children are entering that period in life when they desire to be free from parental restraint. It could begin when your children are as young as ten, and almost always strikes by the time they are twelve or thirteen. And when it happens, you know that for the next decade, you're going to be orbiting around Planet Adolescence.
While adolescence is something we've all experienced ourselves, we make a big mistake if we assume our children's experience will be just like our own. I'm probably not the only person who feels as if my kids turned thirteen on a planet different from the one I was born on.
During a four-year period, CBS conducted scientific polls of more than 2,300 students (from various high schools) scheduled to graduate in the year 2000; CBS also followed and interviewed 200 students more closely. The results were interesting-and sobering.
In 1997 a surprisingly large 43 percent knew of someone who had tried to commit suicide, a number that got even worse by graduation, with 70 percent of them knowing people who had tried to kill themselves.
As freshmen, less than 25 percent knew someone who was openly gay. As seniors, 66 percent did.
There were also some encouraging signs, including the fact that 46 percent of the students felt that their relationship with their parents had improved to excellent (up from 34 percent). Unfortunately that still means more than half were not satisfied at home.
Another study found that illicit drug use doubles during the adolescent years. While 28.3 percent of surveyed teens admitted to using illegal drugs as eighth graders, over half-54.7 percent-of the students in the twelfth grade made the same admission. Yet another study found that 39 percent of students surveyed had used tobacco at least once by the end of seventh grade.
In spite of these troubling statistics, today's teens are almost comically optimistic about their financial future. According to an Ernst and Young survey, 30 percent of college students polled expect to be millionaires in their forties. More than one in five expect to retire in their forties or earlier! More than 60 percent plan on retiring at a younger age than their parents did. If you can believe it, only 25 percent believe they will never be millionaires.
Not only are today's kids a little more adventurous and a lot more optimistic than we were, but the things that would have made us blush as adolescents are second nature to them. While I served as assistant dean of students at the University of Arizona in the seventies, I saw my share of provocative girlie posters-but now women have posters of men striking roughly the same poses, something you never saw back then. I read with interest an Ann Landers column in which a mom complained that her fourteen-year-old son's girlfriend gave him a collage of pictures of naked women-including cutout photos of side, front, and rear views. Call me old, but fourteen-year-old girls didn't do that sort of thing when I was in junior high!
This can create almost humorous misunderstandings between the generations. I got a chuckle when professional tennis player Anna Kournikova-who at the time of this writing had yet to win a professional tournament but whose knockout looks have given her great fame-complained during a press conference organized to promote some undergarments that she endorses, "I'm not here to talk about my personal life. I'm here to talk about bras."
In the world many of us grew up in, husbands and wives couldn't be seen in the same bed on television, so producers created the marital double-bed set. Most of today's kids have already seen everything that goes on in bed-and the scenes on TV many times are not even between husbands and wives.
Planet Adolescence 2001 is in a different galaxy from the one we grew up in. Parenting rules that worked for your toddlers and preadolescents won't serve you well in this new age. For instance, when your kids were toddlers, you were able to control their environment so that many of the negative influences we just mentioned could be minimized. You could control what they watched on television and the friends with whom they played.
With adolescents, unfortunately, those days are gone. As we will see later, the days of controlling are over. You can still influence your children, but you can't control them.
You're also going to have to accept that your children may develop a different agenda for their lives than the one you've laid out for them. Adolescence is all about trying on independence-and that means your children will develop their own concerns.
Along about age twelve-but perhaps as early as age ten-your children will start to grow away from you. They'll become more dependent on their peers, and in reaching toward adulthood, they may even act as if they regret ever having any association with such "uncool" parents.
This is a normal developmental stage that the wise parent will have fun with rather than resent. One time one of my daughters wanted to thank me for something, so she said, "I'll do anything you want!"
"Great!" I said. "Let's go walk around the mall together while I wear Bermuda shorts, black socks, and white tennis shoes!"
I soon found out that no teenage daughter's love extends that far! And to be honest, I didn't expect it to.
Also, about this age your teenagers' concerns will be different from your own. One recent study found that while parents and teens share the same top concern, other concerns diverge widely. The following table illustrates the differing concerns. Each number represents how each group ranked their concerns. For example, both teens and parents ranked HIV and STDs as their number one concern. Teens then ranked drinking and driving as their number two concern, but parents listed it as their number nine concern, with car accidents as their number two concern.
Two things strike me about this poll. First, most parents are unaware of how much a topic suicide is among today's teens. That's a dangerous omission, which we'll thoroughly deal with later in this book. Second, notice that casual sex isn't even among the top ten concerns of today's youth. They don't see it as a problem-they view it as an opportunity! Once again, we're going to have to do some work here to help parents and teens come together.
The Girls Scouts of America commissioned a poll of girls ages eight to twelve-preadolescents-to determine their top concerns. Unfortunately the study revealed that most young girls today are preoccupied with body image and relationships. One respondent, a fifth grader, told researchers, "I've been counting calories. I'm doing 1,000 to 2,000 calories a day."
Just as sobering, the study found that while preteens want to talk to their parents about these issues, they often refrain from doing so because they believe "our parents do not want to hear about these issues." One fifth grader said, "All [my parents] say is I'm too young and I shouldn't even think about stuff like that until I am sixteen."
This is what I'm talking about when I say you'll make a terrible mistake if you assume that the concerns you had as an adolescent will mirror the concerns weighing on your children's minds today. We're living in a different age and a different world. If you already have a great relationship with your preadolescent-fantastic! But you still will want to pay close attention to the advice in this book. I've seen so many relationships go sour within twelve months or less of a child's hitting puberty.
If your relationship has already been rocky, take heart! As a father I've steered several children through this tumultuous stage, and as a counselor I've worked with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of adolescent children. While I can't guarantee you smooth sailing, I can guarantee that adolescence isn't terminal-eventually those self-centered, insecure, independent-minded teens grow up into productive, caring, and balanced adults.
If in the midst of the struggle to raise your kid right, you wonder whether it's worth the effort, let me assure you that it is. Your son or daughter may grow up to affect millions of other lives-and the way you raise them could have a major impact on whether that influence is for good or for ill.
Let's look at the wildly divergent tales of two adults who have just recently passed through adolescence and are having an impact on their world.
Excerpted from Adolescencce Isn't Terminal by Kevin Leman Copyright © 2002 by Kevin Leman. Excerpted by permission.
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