First of all, give yourself a pat on the back. You have a great kid, they are well adjusted, have good manners, follow the rules, and stay out of trouble...you've raised them well! Congratulations!
But hold on. Your parenting is not over. Your kids still need you at every stage of their life. When you have a good kid, you expect them to always be that way, so you step back. In a book I recently read, "The Teen Whisperer" by Mike Linderman, that is exactly what happened to several families. They just lost sight of the needs of their children. The children were very independent which was great but maybe too much and yet not mature enough to make the best decisions. I think its important we continue to play the active parenting role. This book provides a good perspective on the emotions and behaviors of teen adolescents. The details are presented by a cowboy, turned counselor, sharing he perspectives from his coaching sessions, with an unconventional, direct approach.
Linderman presents, although much research has been done on the brain, it has been in the most recent years that discoveries about the brain’s development have focused on adolescence. Teens often don’t have a reason for some of the seemingly foolish things they do because they truly lack the skills and ability to evaluate their actions, but, keep in mind, they are capable of learning these higher-level cognitive functions. They can learn from us as we lead by example, showing empathy, model reasoning and evaluate consequences for our own actions. And we must show mutual respect and kindnesss. According to Arnett (2013), parents and adolescents tend to argue more due to the cognitive changes that are taking place in our youth. Adolescents have increased ability for thinking abstractly and with more complexity, which in turn make them better arguers. In fact, many common conflicts seem to creep up during early adolescence, like how clean to keep bedrooms, what the child wears, their choice of friends and more. This is a time when adolescents are first pressing for a stance on these issues and parents struggle with just how to respond. Most of these issues seem minor, but as we will discuss later, its important as parents to watch the patterns so you can quickly detect when there may be a deeper, underlying issue your adolescent is facing.
There were three main concepts presented in this book; 1) The five primary needs of any human; 2) What happens when needs aren’t being met: 3) Developing the right approach with relationships. According to the book, our choices in life are motivated by a desire to satisfy one of our five basic needs: Survival, Love and Belonging, Power, Freedom and Fun. All of these needs could have positive or negative effects.
Survival suggests having basic, physical needs met, such as food, water, clothing, housing and so on. While most of the time these needs are met and provided by family, there are definitely times youth may find the need to steal just to have food or clothing to survive.
Belonging is big, especially as our youth enter adolescence and experience the need to belong to something outside of the family they know. However, as these kids are seeking separation from their families, parents and communities they have grown up in, they still need that connection with their parents. In fact, the author suggests that it is when these needs are not being met that they begin to act out, in some cases, to test the limits of their parents devotions. Teens frequently lack the strength to stand alone as they begin to venture off in a world of independence. Arnett (2013) states, lacking a sense of belonging often sends unpopular, as he defined, rejected teens into issues with behavior, depression and academics.
Power is a tough struggle. As parents, we want our kids to speak up, gain independence and take on real world responsibilities. But it is those same actions that cause conflict when our children want to make their own decisions to achieve that state of power.
Freedom and power overlap in many ways. The author provided some great examples of how his own children had to “earn” their freedom, with freedom comes responsibility and that freedom has limits. I found a video of Pixar’s depiction of Adolescence and Kelly Ball, M.A. (2012) who provided the analysis of the movie Brave that resonated with me. In the video Merida says, “but I want my freedom” and her mother is quoted as saying, “But are you ready to pay the price your freedom will cost?”
Finally, FUN! The interesting part of this topic is that what our children and youth may think is fun or funny can be extremely different than our definition. And, some fun can go horribly wrong like, joy riding with friends, playing the pass out game, drinking contests and more. Often, we may feel their decisions were just plain stupid, but they have to experience that to learn. Again, it is important to find that middle ground for parents that lets our children explore while keeping them safe. We have to recognize that our perspective is very different from theirs, but we should not belittle them or lash out, rather use these as teaching moments.
Next, let’s explore what happens when teens needs are not being met. An interesting perspective is that when teens feel pain, they really feel PAIN. Everything seems to be at the extreme for them. If you listen to them describe a situation it is almost always the WORST, BEST, UGLIEST, HOTTEST….the extreme. We adults often dismiss this as exaggeration but to our teenagers, this is the real pain they are feeling, and we have to put their feelings into perspective. Our teens lack the tools to put these painful or sometimes pleasant events into perspective because their higher cognitive centers in the brain are still developing. There is more to be concerned with if your teen goes into isolation, has reduced social contact, changes in sleep patterns, modified eating behaviors, declining academic performance, mood shifts, change in appearance or increase in disrespect. While that may seem like normal teen or pre-teen behavior, you really have to watch for even the slightest of changes and spot the development of anger before it actually comes out. And most importantly, when we notice these changes, we must approach our teens in a nonjudgmental way with conversations that start with, “I’ve noticed…” or “Is something going on that you would like to talk about?”. It is important they recognize you care but not the point of inspection, so again, a fine line to walk.
One clear and common way teens act out is with Alcohol. The US Surgeon General’s Office (2007) complied a report about why teens drink. In all situations, it is when they are in pain, and with alcohol they feel powerful, free and a sense of belonging. In terms of belonging, often drinking is a bonding experience, its all-inclusive (geeks and jocks come together), you can let your guard down, overall, it’s a pain reliever. And finally, its “cool”. Of course, it all sounds great, but we know there is a negative side to alcohol as well including depressive effects and risks with driving. The author also discusses eating disorders and other illicit drugs but points out its more important to figure out WHY teens are abusing rather than WHAT they are abusing.
So, with all this knowledge and awareness of our teen’s behavior and lack of emotional development, how do we as parents, educators, counselors and influencers respond? The first step, according to Linderman is having the right mindset. Often our natural tendency as a parent is the tighten the reigns and “take away” what our teens value most as discipline, which is not always effective. The author presents the idea of pure intention, not to be confused with unconditional love. It is what I tell my children, “I will always love you, no matter what but I may disagree with the choices you make”. Step one in repairing a relationship is trust and establishing clear expectations. In addition, consistency and flexibility go hand in hand, allowing for your child to negotiate terms with reasonable justification. This approach is far better than having a teen consistently bend the terms after the fact. Remember the Golden Rule, think about how you would want to be treated in your daily work or job and use the same respect with your child. If it’s a relatively fair request, then what harm is there in negotiating the contract or terms. Things come up, it’s a way of life.
Let’s get specific for the rest of this. To talk the right talk with your teen, start with an open-ended question. The author provides a loose script or highly adaptable formula for engaging in dialogue with your teen based on studies by a theory by John Bradshaw (cited in Linderman's book) using, I see….I imagine….I feel….I want…and I’ve learned. During this, we must suspend judgement and allow for our teen to talk openly. As we close this dialogue, it is important that we remember to provide feedback while reserving our judgement of the given situation.
Even when your teen seems to disconnect, spending time with them is still the most important thing you can do as a parent. We speak words of love and support, but we also need to act on them.
Arnett, J. J. 2013. Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood. A Cultural Approach. Pearson Education, Inc,: New Jersey.
Ball, Kelly, M.A. 2012. Brave: Pixar's Depiction of Adolescence. Emory University. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QoNkz6UZWdQ
Linderman, M., & Brozek, G. (2008). The Teen Whisperer: How to Break through the Silence and Secrecy of Teenage Life. Harper Collins:New York.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The Surgeon General’s Call to Action To Prevent and Reduce Underage Drinking: A Guide to Action for Families. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Surgeon General, 2007. https://www.surgeongeneral.gov/library/calls/underage-drinking-family-guide.pdf