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Surviving Your Adolescents
How to Manage â" and Let Go of â" your 13-18 Year Olds
By Thomas W. Phelan, Rex Bohn
ParentMagic, Inc. Copyright © 2012 ParentMagic, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Somewhere between perhaps fourth grade and high school, it gradually dawns on your kids that life is presenting them with a big job to do. Or rather, big jobs to do. Your kids don't necessarily see these things as jobs; they just see them as part of life. These Herculean tasks are the essence of growing up and they're the same ones that you had to deal with when you were young.
Often listed under the banner of "establishing one's identity" or "proving oneself," these daunting assignments include the following:
1. Making sense out of life: the world, other people and yourself
2. Finding and keeping friends
3. Finding and keeping a sex/soulmate
4. Establishing a job/career
5. Physically leaving home and establishing economic independence
6. Discovering how to enjoy life on a daily basis
As time goes on, your children come to realize that these tasks have to be done largely alone. No one, no matter how well-meaning, (not even parents), can do these things for anyone else. But the teens also realize that all their friends are in the same boat. This fact provides reassurance as well as — off and on — a disturbing sense of competition.
Teenagers have mixed feelings about life's assignments for two reasons. First, they're not sure they can live up to all these challenges and wind up being reasonably happy. TV, movies, religion, parents and politics all present drastically different views of the world and of human beings. In addition, you can't control the behavior of would-be friends and it's hard to even understand — much less control — the behavior of the opposite sex! The idea of leaving home may become more and more attractive as the kids get older, but adolescents often have little idea as to how that job can or will be accomplished.
Second, teenagers aren't sure they want to accept all these tasks, especially items 4 and 5. Pink Floyd once sang, "Welcome my son, welcome to the machine. Where have you been?" Isn't the machine the lair of "The Man" and "The Establishment"? Isn't The Man the head of The Establishment, which was put into place to exploit people and bring them down? And isn't The Man probably a male Caucasian who has acquired quite a bit of wealth through questionable activities and who is not about to share it? So who in their right mind would want to join all the phonies in The Establishment in the first place?
But, then again, if you don't join, where does that leave you? Unfortunately, kids in our society have a lot of time — from the ages of eleven to about twenty-two or so — to mull over this dilemma.
Sex and Soulmate
While the friend and career issues are very important, the sex/soulmate-finding problem is obsessive during the adolescent years. The problem is infinitely compounded, it seems, by new feelings regarding sex and romance (for the boys) and romance and sex (for the girls). Strangely, many parents of teens are not only unsympathetic but often critical of their sons' or daughters' goofy romantic behavior.
Adolescents know there are two parts to the sex/soulmate problem. The first is finding your companion. As Madonna (and a few million others) have pointed out, falling in love is quite a high:
It's all brand new,
I'm crazy for you
And you know it's true
I'm crazy, crazy for you
Unfortunately, falling in love and finding someone to love is only the first (and probably the easiest) part of the game. The second and harder part of the job is keeping the person you found. The history of music if chock full of painful stories about relationships gone wrong. Here's Elvis:
Well, since my baby left me,
I found a new place to dwell.
It's down at the end of lonely street
At Heartbreak Hotel.
"Job and career (and this nuisance called school) can wait for a while. I have more important things to worry about: relationships or the lack thereof." If you could magically examine the stream of consciousness of teen boys and girls, you would find that massive amounts of thought and emotion are tied up with the romance and with sex itself. Reciprocated love can provide one of life's greatest thrills; unreciprocated love can generate some of life's lowest lows. Soulmate-finding is a world of intense excitement and intense anxiety.
The mind of the adolescent, in many ways then, is occupied more with imaginations than with actual experience. The dreams about the future are both exciting and frightening and they are always instantly available. But since the fantasies are not realities yet, these dreams can produce a painful sense of inadequacy and frustration. The career that might come later does not exist now and might not even be chosen. The unidentified love of one's life may be unknowingly wandering around out there somewhere. Or she might not exist and a life of loneliness might be ahead. What can be done now about all these concerns? You wait and then wait some more. In the meantime, how about a little Grand Theft Auto?
Proloooooonged Adolescence Means Insult
Adding insult to injury for most adolescents is the fact that their "teenage" years last so long. Adolescence for many "youngsters" is not simply the ages thirteen to eighteen; it really encompasses the years from age eleven (for many girls the onset of puberty) to age twenty-two (the completion of college) or even longer. During these years a young man or woman may still be dependent upon older adults for food, shelter, clothing and warmth, as well as for some (often unwanted) direction and supervision. This situation may persist even though the young person may be biologically and mentally capable of managing a lot more herself.
Of all the animals on earth, the human spends the largest portion of its total life span (approximately one quarter to one third) with its parents before achieving final independence. Bugs, fish, birds and even monkeys live with their parents for only a relative fraction of the time human offspring do.
And of all the countries on earth, the more modern, industrialized nations — such as the United States — keep their kids under foot for the longest period of time. This stretched-out and difficult period of dependence is due to the extended time required to educate children for the more complicated, skilled jobs and careers that are characteristic of industrial countries. There is first a high school diploma, then perhaps an associate's or bachelor's degree. Then how about an MBA, Ph.D., M.D., M.S., R.N. or J.D.?
It hasn't always been like this. Anthropologists long ago pointed out that in simpler societies the transition from childhood to adulthood was usually much shorter and, in a few cultures, "adolescence" hardly existed at all. One day you're a kid, and then wham! after a brief ceremony or "rite of passage," you're an adult — ready or not — with all the privileges and responsibilities of other adults in your community. Here's your boat, knife and fishing net — go get 'em!
The Sioux Indians, for example, had carefully designed rites of passage for males who might become warriors. Some of these rites involved piercing your own chest with devices that were attached to cords hung from a tall pole. The initiate then dangled from the cords and danced in the air until the cords ripped out of their torn flesh. Those surviving the ceremony were consequently recognized as adult warriors, their courage, bravery and new role appreciated and admired by themselves and the other members of their tribe. The duration of adolescence here? Just a few days.
Contrast this state of affairs with that of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. After perhaps four or five years of adolescence, Holden has no meaningful view of life, no real friends, no sex/soulmate, no realistic thoughts about job or career, certainly no economic independence or even a place to live, and no real expertise when it comes to enjoying himself. And he's only about halfway through his teenage years. No wonder he feels anxious and depressed.
The Sioux warrior did not have to endure a seemingly never-ending, directionless existence. That's probably one reason why enlisting in the military service is appealing to some young men and women today. Instant self-respect and the admiration of pretty much everyone around you. Holden had only his hunting cap.
Insult Means Irritation and Alienation
Generally speaking, though, rapid rites of passage, straightforward role definitions and positive public recognition during one's adolescence are hard to come by. In the United States, as well as other modern nations, privilege and responsibility are dished out piecemeal to the new adult/child between the approximate ages of thirteen and twenty-one. Now you can manage your own money and choose your own clothes. Now you can drive. Now you can date, go to work or leave school. Now you can legally vote or drink or stay out past midnight. What about sex? Many adults feel young people should delay sexual gratification for a long, long time.
Our society has not yet found a way to deal with the fact that prolonged dependence is insulting to young people. Many teens feel they're ready for adult responsibilities and privileges long before parents and society are willing to let the adolescents tackle them. For some kids these youthful perceptions may be correct, while for others these views may be off base. Doesn't make any difference: The inevitable result of prolonged adolescence in our culture is that teens will regularly feel irritation toward older folks and a sense of alienation from the society they are a part of.
The result of this irritation and alienation includes a desire to rebel, to do things differently, to pull back from and to criticize the ways of parents and other adults. After all, aren't most adults and most parents part of the conforming, impersonal, unfulfilling, unemotional and man-eating machine? In some kids, especially where serious family conflict exists, the impatience and frustration of adolescence can contribute to underachievement, vandalism, drug misuse and other kinds of dangerous risk-taking behavior. Whatever form it takes, this oppositional stance is one way for youngsters to both maintain their self-respect — while still in a semi-dependent state — and distance themselves from their unwanted caretakers.
It's also part of what's behind The Snub.CHAPTER 2
You take a deep breath and you walk through the doors, It's the morning of your very first day.
– Taylor Swift, Fifteen
Given the protracted unrest we described in the last chapter, what can we expect teens to be like? One of the toughest parts of being the parent of a teenager is trying to figure out which aspects of your kids' behavior are trouble and which are normal. Some days it seems that most of what teens do is strange, aggravating and worlds apart from the way they used to act. Whatever happened to that easygoing nine-year-old you used to enjoy so much?
In this chapter we'll describe the characteristics you can reasonably expect to see in your normal, average teenager (if there is such a creature!). Anticipating these features can help you in several ways. First of all, this awareness tells you that these new traits are common and not necessarily dangerous. Second, knowing what's normal can liberate you from taking these qualities personally — as if they were your fault, or as if they represented some kind of personal rejection. Finally, memorizing this list will get you to work on one of the primary jobs of the parent of an adolescent: toleration of nonessential differences.
Younger adolescents become extremely focused on their own thoughts, feelings and activities. In fact, some writers have pointed out that it's almost as if the child feels she is constantly on stage in front of some imaginary audience. She may feel that her own experiences are so intense and unique that no one else — least of all her parents — could possibly understand what she is going through. In feeling misunderstood, teens forget that their parents were adolescents once, too.
In a sense, though, the kids have a point, because many parents react impulsively to their adolescent offspring and don't take the time to recall what it was like when they were that age. Parents may complain that "she's too wrapped up in her own little world" without remembering what that "little world" was like for themselves a while back.
While extreme self-consciousness may be egocentric, this orientation toward life is also a burden. If everything revolves around me and the whole world is watching, that feeling is very, very uncomfortable. The adolescent may feel that her successes are marvelous and amazing — testimonials to her incredible ability and potential. "Way cool!" On the other hand, failure or being criticized, especially in front of others, can be excruciating. "That's just great. Now everyone will think I'm a total dork!" In high school an adolescent's worst fear is embarrassment or humiliation in front of her peers.
Adolescence is a time of multiple, massive changes. Some of these changes take years, while others seem to occur almost overnight. Some changes are exciting, while others may be bewildering or even upsetting for teens and parents alike.
He's not concerned with yesterday
He knows constant change is here today.
– Rush, New World Man
Physically the body of an adolescent will change more than it will at any other time of life except infancy. From the beginning to the end of puberty, adolescents on the average add ten inches in height and 40 pounds in weight. The growth spurt for girls begins around age 11, on the average, and is completed by age 16. Girls' hips broaden relative to their shoulders and waist, and they tend to add more fat on their arms, legs and torso. The growth spurt for boys starts around age 13 and continues until about age 17-1/2. Boys' shoulders broaden relative to their waists, and they develop larger skeletal muscles while decreasing arm and leg fat.
During puberty, sex hormones start to do their thing. Perspiration, oiliness of the skin and hair, and body odor all increase. Sex hormones also see to it that primary and secondary sexual characteristics develop. Teens do not always greet these physical events with enthusiasm. Girls react to the arrival of their first period with surprise and mixed emotions that depend, in part, upon how much support they receive from family members and how much prior information they have. Boys usually have more advance information before they experience their first ejaculation, but in general they receive less support for the physical changes of puberty than do girls.
While the physical changes mentioned above take a few years, it may seem to parents that some of the nonphysical changes occur overnight. One day, without warning, the child's bedroom door shuts and stays shut. During one summer month the youngster seems to have become glued to a new set of friends, and suddenly he couldn't care less about family affairs.
Sometimes adolescent change goes back and forth. One day the girl is friendly, warm and fun. The next day she is moody and distant for no identifiable reason. You have a hard time making sense out of her frequent bouts of ambivalence. Anthony Wolf's recent book about teenagers is entitled Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me & Cheryl to the Mall? Whatever the case, change is a large part of the teen years, and Mom and Dad's understanding and tolerance of the non-dangerous alterations in their offsprings' appearance, thinking and behavior is an important part of the tricky new art of parenting.
Shock Value and Weirdness
Teens love weirdness and shock value: strange sounds, colors, clothes, posters. Being different — from adults but not necessarily from each other — becomes an important goal in their daily activities. Forging an identity certainly does not mean slavish imitation of your own mother or father! It also helps to keep your parents confused and off-balance:
His palms are sweaty, knees weak, arms are heavy
There's vomit on his sweater already, mom's spaghetti
He's nervous, but on the surface he looks calm and ready to drop bombs ...
– Eminem, Lose Yourself
What was that again!? While in a grocery check-out line one day, I was struck by the appearance of the young girl who was ringing up the orders. Though she had a very pleasant personality, her hair was amazingly unconventional. Half of her head was sporting a blue crew cut, while the other half had spiked, orange hair. While gazing at this remarkable display, I found myself trying to decide if she had been pretty before she had done this to herself.
Excerpted from Surviving Your Adolescents by Thomas W. Phelan, Rex Bohn. Copyright © 2012 ParentMagic, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of ParentMagic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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