The teenage years may transform your delightful child into an alien being. Agonisingly self-conscious, sullen, lacking all social graces, angry, mind-blowingly self-centred…these are the teenage traits we have all come to dread.
Enslaved by a riot of hormones, stressed by exams, sexually self-conscious, desperate to break free from over-protective parents – being a teenager isn’t easy. When you’re the ‘victim’ (ie parent) of a typical adolescent, you’ll find it hard to focus on your own embarrassing memories of teen trauma, but it’s very important that you do just that.
Don’t be fooled by your teenager – they may be doing their utmost to project themselves as ultra-cool rebels without a cause, but they’re still young kids. They need lots of positive feedback, compliments and affection.
Give them a bit of space – they’ll probably spend hours microscopically examining their acne in the bathroom mirror, or trying on hundreds of different outfits, or experimenting with hair gel and make-up. Just live with it. Banging on the bathroom door, demanding “what are you up to in there?” will enrage them. Let them have their privacy.
Teenagers want to be different, and will enjoy shocking you. Piercings, tattoos, weird and wonderful hair colours, bizarre clothes – this is all ammunition in the ‘shock the parent’ game. Don’t rise to the bait.
Above all, listen to what they’re trying to tell you. It’s all too easy to fall into the outraged parent mode, hectoring and haranguing, convinced of your superior wisdom, intent on pointing out the errors they are making. But growing up is about making your own mistakes and learning from them – it’s painful to watch a much-loved child go through this agonising initiation, but you can’t do it for them.
You may have come to terms with your teenager’s anguish in the privacy of your own home, and may well have learnt to accommodate their behaviour, but how do you cope with them when you’re out in the world?
You may find that your maddeningly gawky and grumpy teenager turns into an absolute charmer when you wheel them out to visit the grandparents or have your own friends round to dinner. If that is the case, just be grateful and don’t dwell on the fact that you are not treated in the same way – remind yourself that you are being victimised because they love you and feel safe with you.
If, on the other hand, your teenager is a social embarrassment, who can’t engage in eye contact, communicates in Neanderthal grunts, and provides a passive-aggressive eye-rolling commentary on all your social interactions, think very carefully about forcing them to socialise. Other people may well be discomforted by your teenager’s antics, and the last thing you want is to make your guests feel awkward.
You may have to accept that – for the time being at least – your teenager is standing apart from society. Their agonising self-consciousness is too much of a social burden, and the safest thing for them to do is to sequester themselves away in their rooms. In these circumstances, it is really best to let them withdraw, rather than fighting to maintain your existing social arrangements. This can be a very difficult step for parents who are used to introducing delightful small children to their friends, and watching proudly as they captivate all and sundry. But you need to reconcile yourself to the fact that this magical childhood chapter is now over.
It is one thing to allow your teenager to withdraw when outsiders are present, but do not let yourself go down that tempting route when you are alone as a family. No matter how dispiriting and depressing it feels, try to eat family meals together. Keep up your own standards in relation to table manners and conversation, and you will find that your teenager is continuing to absorb valuable lessons about how to behave and how to socialise, which will stand them in good stead when they leave adolescence behind.
It is very easy to see a teenager’s revolt as the end of a family era. The destructive, frustrated presence in the midst of the family can cause long-established traditions to fragment, and civilised behaviour flies out of the window. But the teenage years, no matter how painfully arduous they may feel, are only a passing phase; providing a bedrock of normal, unchanging family life will ensure that your teenager can return to a safe haven, confident that you have been able to absorb the worst they can throw at you, and ready to embark on adulthood.
• Give them some personal space. Respect their privacy, knock before you go into their rooms, don’t poke around in their stuff, or snoop on their social media.
• Listen carefully to what’s being said, and take time to respond. Don’t get caught up in a stalemate where you’re issuing diktats and refusing to explain why – the response “Because I said so…” is, understandably, a red rag to a bull.
• Try not to be too judgmental – if you radiate an air of open-minded tolerance it will create an environment in which they’re more prepared to confide in you.
• Don’t be provocative. If you’re faced with a super-sullen teenager, trying to tease them out of the mood may well escalate the grumpiness.
• Keep calm. Teenagers are prone to flying off the handle and – if you reciprocate in any way – disputes can easily escalate into out and out conflict. Moderate your behaviour at all times.
• Give them some respect. You may find their views preposterous or just plain silly, but pointing this out is not a good idea. Don’t be too critical, and never pull the adult card, as in “When you’re my age you’ll realise…”
• Try and break through “don’t touch” barrier; be affectionate, positive, complimentary. This is a time when children need lots of encouragement to build their confidence and self-esteem.
• Try and find the time to talk to your teenagers – but choose carefully. One to one or family occasions are best – trying to socialise with your teenager and friends may cause scorching embarrassment.
• Don’t get trapped in disputes over trivial issues. Accept that you are no longer able to control every aspect of your child’s life, and only have confrontations over the things that really matter.
• If your teenager is rude to you, don’t accept it. Keep calm, but state clearly that you don’t like the way they’re speaking.
• Be polite, even under severe provocation. Your good manners may (eventually) rub off on your teenager…
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