Surviving Adolescence

Our typical teenage patient arrives with a parent, slumps down in the chair and lets us know through their behavior that they are not happy to be in a psychologist’s office. The parents look embarrassed, angry, frustrated, and begin the session with a litany of daily arguments, hassles, et cetera. How do teenagers perfect that look that can drive a mother through the roof? How do they know exactly which behaviors will get their father screaming like his head is on fire? It is common for mother and fathers to feel befuddled by their teenager’s behavior and to even question their own sanity.

Adolescents are excited by the unlimited opportunities that life holds and believe that all their dreams can become reality. They have begun to fend for themselves and feel that no problem is beyond their ability to solve. Teenagers want to spend their time with friends, people who are like them and who understand them. They have little patience for things that do not seem immediately relevant to their lives.

Parents, on the other hand, may find it difficult to recall their dreams from adolescence. They know that hard work, planning and discipline are required to realize one’s goals. Parents also recognize that even though their child shows maturity in some matters, there are others where their teen still requires guidance and direction. Therefore, it is understandable that parents may wish to protect their child from unnecessary or painful mistakes. Finally, even though most parents understand their child’s desire to socialize, they still feel hurt or disappointed as their child pulls away from them. And if their child is old enough for these privileges, shouldn’t they have commensurate responsibilities such as helping out around the house?

Most parents and teenagers survive the adolescent years without too much difficulty. For some families, however, this is a tumultuous phase that causes considerable conflict and creates many bad feelings. Despite differences between parents and teenage children, both share a similar goal – that the teen grows into a responsible, well-adjusted and self-confident adult.

The primary concern we hear from parents is how to get their teenager to behave cooperatively at home and at school. Many parents are concerned that their teenager’s behavior will go from bad to worse. They have concerns about the child flunking out of school, becoming sexually active and running the risk of AIDS or pregnancy, using alcohol or drugs, or getting into legal difficulties. In addition, parents may be concerned that their adolescent is unable to effectively handle feelings of sadness or anger and may harm themselves or others. Sometimes parents are unsure whether a particular behavior or attitude constitutes a bona fide problem, but they are aware that their home life has become very stressful and seeking guidance is a good idea under these circumstances.

Since teenagers display such a wide range of tastes, interests, attitudes, and behaviors, there often is no single characteristic that differentiates those who are well-adjusted from those who are troubled. Typically, in assessing teenagers, we look at how well they are able to abide by reasonable rules and expectations at home and at school. We look at the quality of their peer relationships and how these adolescents define themselves. We also look at their ability to handle stress and resolve conflict effectively. In addition to assessing a teenager’s overall level of functioning we evaluate the quality of the parent-child relationship. Are family members concerned about one another? Do they spend time together, talking about daily events or problems that arise, or is the contact infrequent and filled with anger and discord?

We also look at each adolescent’s individual functioning and the quality of parent-child interactions. Furthermore, we assess the severity of the parent’s concerns to determine if the behavior in question is age-appropriate, or not. For example, are the concerns related to annoyances such as loud music and a messy room, or are there serious problems such as drug abuse or indiscriminate sexual activity?

In the majority of cases families can resolve major areas of concern once they have learned the skills of communication and negotiation. It is often very difficult for parents to communicate with their adolescent children in a calm, reasonable manner because the adolescent’s behavior appears so unreasonable and confrontational. Yet threats, nagging, lecturing, demanding, ridiculing, and yelling are unlikely to get cooperation from teenagers. Rather, it gives them ammunition to blame their parents and to avoid taking responsibility for their own actions.

We recommend that parents and teenagers learn how to approach problems together through active communication. This is not only likely to be a more effective response than arguing, but it will also strengthen the parent-child relationship and teach the adolescent important skills they can use in other relationships throughout their lives. Effective communication includes active listening, sharing information, problem-solving, and negotiating a resolution. Effective communication involves giving the other person full attention, allowing them to speak without interruption and acknowledging their comments and feelings. This approach gives parents the opportunity to evaluate the nonverbal behavior of their teenager (i.e. are they becoming tearful as they tell you they don’t care that they have no friends?) as well. It is a time for gathering and sharing information in a calm manner, clearly focusing on the problem, identifying the reason it is a problem and identifying what each party would like to see occur. Problem solving and negotiation involve exploring alternatives and brainstorming to find an agreeable solution.

Developing good communication skills will not “cure” your adolescent. There will still be times when a teenager refuses to discuss a problem or refuses to be cooperative. At that point allowing a natural or logical consequence to occur may be the best bet. Logical consequences place the burden and responsibility on the child. For example, if an adolescent refuses to put dirty clothes in the hamper, then s/he will not have clean clothes to wear. If a teenager is consistently late getting home, then s/he loses the use of the car for a week. Each teenager has a choice to make, and suffers unwanted consequences if s/he chooses badly.

If the problem is serious or severe and active communication does not resolve the difficulty, or if the logical consequence is potentially dangerous, it is the parent’s responsibility to take appropriate action to protect their child. For example, if a parent hears a child talking about using drugs at a party, it would be wise to not allow the child to attend the party.

Your teenager is unlikely to thank you for setting rules and restrictions, and there will be times when s/he tests the limits. You may wonder if you can survive the uphill battle as your adolescent finds creative ways to push your buttons. But there will also be times when you see the responsible adult within your child, and times when you are proud of what s/he has accomplished. Remember to take time to reinforce the positive behavior you observe, to reward good behavior, and allow increased privileges as your child exhibits increased responsibility. Talk with your adolescent about the good times as well as the bad. Share information about your day and about yourself. Eat together and have fun together. Adolescence is a stage of transition and change for your child, for you and for the relationship. It is an important step on the road to adulthood.


For more information or to make an appointment, please call Swerdlow-Freed Psychology at (248) 539-7777. Our offices are conveniently located at 30600 Northwestern Highway, Suite 210, Farmington Hills, Michigan 48334, and 55 North Pond Drive, Suite 6, Walled Lake, Michigan 48390.

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