Monday, October 8, 2012

'A New Job Description for Parents of Teens' Guest Article by Thomas W. Phelan

This is the third guest article in a series by Thomas W. Phelan, Ph.D. He is the author of the 1-2-3 Magic series for parents and teachers. This post comes from his latest book Surviving Your Adolescents.

A New Job Description for Parents of Teens
by Thomas W. Phelan, Ph.D.

Mom and dad are angry. Why is that? It’s because their fifteen-year-old son just walked out the door and only grunted when they said, “Have a nice day.” They’re thinking, “So what are we, chopped liver?”

In the third edition of Surviving Your Adolescents, I offer some specific advice to these parents. The advice begins with what a major attitude adjustment. The adjustment begins with realistic sympathy for this mom and this dad: Their teenager’s behavior is unpleasant and inconsiderate. At first glance, there seems to be no reason for this snub. Mom and dad wonder what they did wrong.

On the other hand, though unpleasant, their teen’s behavior is normal and it is not a sign that they (mom and dad) did anything wrong. Teens all over the world are treating their parents the same way: snubbing the older folks as well as scaring them with regard to potential problems such as driving, drugs, alcohol, sex and tech involvement. Regularly snubbing parents, however, doesn’t mean the teens are screwy. Distancing themselves from parents is one way for the kids to manage a horrendously long, drawn out and insulting adolescence that wasn’t their idea in the first place. On top of that, adolescents have a ferocious desire to run their own lives.

So you’re the parent of an adolescent. What are you supposed to do with this kid? A solid new job description for you will depend on some bad news and some good news. Let’s take a look at both.

The Bad News

The bad news has three parts. First of all, when your kids were little, you certainly worried about their behavior, but not as much as you do now. Why? The stakes seem to be higher at this point. It’s drinking and driving now vs. the toddler who got out of bed then. It’s sexual behavior now vs. not eating all your dinner then. Drug taking vs. sibling rivalry, and so on.

Second, while your anxiety level has risen due to the increased severity of the possible behavioral consequences, your control has dropped way down. When the toddler got out of bed, you were there to do something about it. When the youngster wouldn’t eat her dinner, you were physically present and could come up with some way of dealing with the refusal. Now, however, it’s different. The teens, if they want, can tailgate while driving the car. They can have sex if the opportunity presents itself, experiment with marijuana or access porn sites on the web. You can no longer physically stop them; you are no longer The Director.

Third, if you want to see things change, to the extent that you can still affect your kids’ behavior, you will have to change first. The teens have too much on their plate, and they will not reach out to you. That’s just the way it is.

The Good News

That was the bad news; now the good news. First, most teens don’t kill themselves or others while driving, get addicted to drugs, get pregnant, get STDs, or have disastrous encounters with technology. Even if you did nothing intelligent about your relationship with your kids, odds are they would not be ruined by their behavior.

Second, research seems to show that your differences with your kids are not as revolutionary as you might think. On the one hand, for example, it appears teens are more affected by their peers in matters such as dress, appearance, musical tastes, friendships and their treatment of adults. On the other hand, however, parents have more effect on an adolescent’s basic life values, such as kindness, hard work, ability to follow the rules and cooperate with others, effort and courage. Parents also significantly affect a youngster’s educational plans.

Third, in spite of their behavior, teens still care a lot about what their parents think of them and of how they’re doing with the gigantic tasks involved in growing up. That’s one of the sad things about parents who simply snub their kids right back. Irritated, rejected moms and dads don’t show appreciation or encouragement for a teenager’s hard work. And yes, hard work (in fact, very hard work!) can involve something as straightforward as getting out of bed and showing up at school for a history test with a pimple the size of Mt. McKinley in the middle of your forehead.

Finally, in the good news category, research has repeatedly confirmed that teens do best and get hurt less frequently when parents a) maintain some reasonable type of behavioral monitoring and b) maintain as open and as friendly a relationship with the adolescents as possible, as opposed to a hostile and distant one. So, though it isn’t always possible (and yes, sometimes it is too late), a new job description should be geared toward these two goals.

A New Job Description

Here is a five-part outline for the profession known as parent of adolescent:

1. Don’t Take It Personally: By and large, teens’ aggravating behavior (rejection and risk) is not directed at you, their parent. This behavior, instead, is the result of adolescence itself. Understand that and your angry reaction will change.

2. Manage and Let Go: Teens may say they want you to totally leave them alone. Too bad. Some reasonable monitoring is still required, but you also need to know when to keep your mouth shut and let the kids handle their own lives.

3. Stay in Touch: Once you’ve gotten the urge to snub the kids back out of your system, how do you relate to someone who won’t answer a simple question like “How was your day?” First, you avoid the Four Cardinal Sins and second, you employ four simple connection-building strategies.

4. Take Care of Yourself: If life isn’t treating you too well, you’re the last person in the world who should be trying to “manage” a worrisome teen. How do you know if your negative emotions come from the kid or from yourself? You don’t, so you’d better deal with yourself first.

5. Relax and Enjoy the Movie: Handle items 1-4 reasonably well and maybe you’ll be able to calm down, let go and enjoy—most of the time, anyway—the unfolding of your adolescent’s life.

Your primary goal is no longer to control your teens. Your goal is to help them become competent adults who leave home, establish new relationships, contribute something to the world and who enjoy life. If you can get past the worry and irritation caused by The Snub and the threat of risk-taking, your hope for your kids might be that they get the most out of their existence and that you can enjoy them in the process.
I hope you never fear those mountains in the distance
Never settle for the path of least resistance
Livin’ might mean takin’ chances, but they’re worth takin’
Lovin’ might be a mistake, but it’s worth makin’
I Hope You Dance, Lee Ann Womack
To do your part you’ll have to let go of your former director role and ease into more of a consultant position. That's the new job. The teen is going to be doing most of the work, with the assistance, hopefully, of a positive relationship with you.

Dr. Thomas W. Phelan is an internationally renowned expert and lecturer on child discipline and Attention Deficit Disorder. He appears frequently on radio and TV, including regular appearances on "Fox News in the Morning" on WFLD-TV in Chicago. He has been quoted in numerous publications, including Parents Magazine, Reader's Digest, Today's Parent, Ladies Home Journal, and The Wall Street Journal.

A registered Ph.D. clinical psychologist in private practice since 1972, Dr. Phelan has produced many video, book and audio titles for parents and teachers

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