tantrums? Yelling and yelling over homework? Complete lack of interest in school? There are so many changes going on in the life of a teenager, like changing friendships, dating problems, and “horrible teachers.” When so much is uncertain and changing, what can you do to stay calm at home?
For over a decade, I have experienced the daily treatment of adolescents. As a teacher, I saw the negative side of them coming into my classroom tired, angry, crying, and sometimes ready to fight. Teachers expect a student to focus primarily on education, but that is not always the case. On many occasions, I would experience mini episodes of a juicy talk show or reality TV show. However, while every teen is different, there are some common themes that come up when crises occur. Boys generally seem to respond by dissociating or avoiding school responsibilities, while girls may lash out verbally and emotionally.
One of the most common conversations I’ve had with parents of teenagers involves worrying about lack of interest in school. Your focus may be on sports, girls, or video games. When we meet as a group, parents just don’t understand why their child isn’t completing homework or studying for tests. What can we do? How can we get it back to normal? When you ask the young person what’s going on, the most common response I get is, “I don’t know.” And when pressed for a reason for behavior, we often hear, “Fine, whatever. I said I would.”
Girls are a little different. When they walk through the front door of the school, many girls seem to transform into social butterflies. The connections and bonds they develop with other peers are more important than the activities in the classroom. They often misbehave by dressing inappropriately, leading to school staff asking them to change. This often leads to additional behavior problems, as peer perception is more important than creating a friendly learning environment. Girls often have a revolving door of friendships. At the beginning of the year I always tell them to never share their locker combinations because the people who are your friends this week will probably be your enemies next week. It is a weekly occurrence to see girls crying in the hallway or in class because of a problem with a classmate. When grades start to slip and parents request a conference, the meetings can be intense. Often the response is emotional. On several occasions I have had to remind girls to speak respectfully to parents as girls tend to lash out.
No parent wants to hear, “I hate you.” However, for parents with teenage girls, there is a good chance that they will experience this at some point. It’s like the parents have never experienced the stress of school, dating, or life. “You do not understand!” And in some respects, the teenage girls might be right. There are so many new pressures being placed on teens these days. While there has always been the stress of “status” or being accepted in a certain group, kids now face new types of bullying like cyberbullying. Unfortunately, it’s easier to call someone out on social networking sites, shame them online, or tell them to kill themselves via text.
When it comes to teenagers, a dose of understanding is certainly important. So what can parents do at home to help their children? My top two suggestions: communication and consistency. As much as a teen might disagree, setting limits is what she wants most. Children need to know what is expected of them, from a set curfew to expectations for completing school work. But they also need to feel heard. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with what they say, but it may generate a little more cooperation if you listen to them first.
Let’s be honest… teenagers do a lot of dumb things. I’m sure we can all think of a moment or two when we wish we could take back something we did. The important thing to remember is that we learn from these silly mistakes. Every wrong turn is an opportunity to learn. Too often we assume that children know what they are supposed to do, just as we assume that they know how to use their textbooks to study. But if no one shows them the way, how can they know? This is where communication comes in. Instead of asking why they did something, try “What was the reason behind that decision?” It removes the blame tone that teens tend to hear and opens up space to learn what’s going through their minds. This gives you a chance to hear if there is a gap between what you think they should know and what they really understand. And when you find out they don’t really know something, you have a great opportunity to lead the way and share your own knowledge.
I recently experienced this with my nephew. He started a new job near where I live and asked to stay with me. We quickly learned that he needed guidance on budgeting when he spent an entire paycheck in one week. I assumed they taught him how to balance his income with his expenses, but he was wrong. Although we both had to address his financial concerns during the second week, it resulted in a great discussion and a wonderful learning opportunity. We even had a chance to talk about creating a savings account and money for college. But this wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t taken the time to find out what he was thinking.
Along with communication, parents need consistency. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase, “Say what he wants to say and think about what he says.” The first thing to keep in mind is not to create a reward or consequence that you are not willing to follow through on. If you recognize that your child has been up too late playing video games and you want them to go to sleep, don’t threaten to take away the game system unless they mean it. The moment you don’t move on, he knows you’re just talking and he won’t take you seriously. If her daughter doesn’t complete homework because she spends all her time online and on the phone, what options are available to her? Don’t feel bad about taking your computer and phone with you. Sure there will be a fight initially, but all storms eventually run out of rain. Sure he could give in, but is it the best for his daughter? What lesson do you really want your teen to learn?
Another aspect of consistency is helping your teen create a routine. When should the task be completed? If you leave it to them, many teens will wait until just before bed when they’re too tired to focus. With so much going for your attention, it’s hard to prioritize what’s most important. This is especially true for teens who are involved in sports or other extracurricular activities. When is homework completed if they have band practice at 4 and traveling basketball at 7 pm? We cannot assume that they will know how to handle all of these tasks, especially when we struggle with the same things as adults. Guidance is important, but what if you yourself have a hard time prioritizing tasks? Seek help. Perhaps an aunt or a grandmother could be the prime example in this case. Have your teen make a list of all the things she would like or need to do during the week. Then plan how it will be completed. Sometimes just “seeing” it ugly in front of them helps teens plan.
One final note: parenting is not easy. You know it. And just as your teen makes mistakes, so will you. And that’s fine. But it’s those parents who show they care who have the greatest impact on their children’s lives. Model what you would like to see from your child. Sometimes that means sitting at the kitchen table doing the math while completing homework. Maybe it’s showing your child how he studied for a math test. And when your teenager has a hard time understanding Shakespeare, maybe turn off the TV and read it with him. Ultimately, you as a parent will have the biggest impact on how your child handles the struggles of being a teenager. When tempers flare or grades drop, communication and consistency are key to calming the teen meltdown.