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Parenting Teenagers: The Agony and the Ecstasy

May 9, 2009 | by Emuna Braverman

Mature, childish. Detached, clingy. Selfish, caring. Respect us, scorn us. Stop the insanity! Some practical tips on raising teenagers.

They're like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. They're so mature and so childish. Their conversation is so sophisticated and so incoherent (like whatever). They're so detached. They're so clingy. They're so selfish. They're so giving. They can look so beautiful and so grungy. They respect us. They scorn us. They love us (really they do). They admire us (they just don't realize it).

They're our teenagers.

Teenagers can be wonderful. You can talk with them about anything – belief in God, the pros and cons of capital punishment, the wisdom of our elders (okay, almost anything). But beware, lest you listen inattentively or respond inappropriately. Your heretofore rational child will suddenly stomp out of the room in tears.

And whatever you do, when their friends are over, don't ask them about their families, don't play "your" music too loud, and please don't wear "that" outfit. Don't take it personally. I have a friend whose job it is to dress actors for their photo shoots. Her teenage daughter thinks she has no taste either.

You can laugh with your teenagers who now have an adult sense of humor. But their favorite is to laugh at you. You don't have to work at it; you provide plenty of opportunities.

Teenagers can dress very attractively – like young men and women. Especially if you give them your credit card. They can also dress in, let us say, a very casual fashion. (Is this just a taste thing?!) Also with your credit card.

[Come to think of it I have two very effective parenting tips. Don't get them their own car. And don't get them their own credit card. They won't be able to get too far without you – and a few of your rules.]

A friend of mine, a mother of 11 and a great-grandmother, advised me that whatever your teenagers may say, however they might act, they're watching you. They're still learning from your example.

So how do we parent our teenagers?

1. Stay calm.

When you need to be firm, stay calm. If you must repeat your position over and over again, stay calm. Don't get pulled into their hysteria. This is simple but effective, if you can do it. Their emotional moments don't last long, but if you respond in kind you will provoke a harsh reaction and get into deeper trouble. Let it pass. This is where all that TM training of your sixties past is helpful. When they say, "I want to stay out past midnight," just repeat your mantra over and over in a quiet voice: "I understand you're frustrated but the answer is no." Or if the line is: "All the other mothers let!" try: "I'm sorry but I love you very much and I can't allow that."

Don't take anything they say too seriously or personally. They are temporarily insane.

2. Don't take anything they say too seriously or personally.

They are temporarily insane. Don't turn in into a power struggle. Do whatever it takes – bite your tongue, count to 10 (100!), leave the room, use your Lamaze breathing techniques (this is where they really come in handy!) – but don't engage on this level. Teenagers are experts at manipulation. They know exactly which button to push. If you're wealthy, they push the "capitalist exploitation" button. If you're religious they sound the "I don't believe in all these restrictions" theme. Don't address the issue unless it is presented at a calm, thoughtful time. If it is, then chances are their questions are serious. If it isn't, they're probably just trying to provoke you. Lose your temper, get into an argument and mission accomplished.

3. Avoid criticism as much as possible.

Pick your battles (for battles they will be) very carefully. Maybe you don't like their outfit (maybe?!). Unless it violates a crucial principle (and I don't mean not wearing white in the winter!), let it be. Maybe you don't like their philosophy. If it's not dangerous, respect their point of view (and pray they'll grow out of it). And try very hard not to embarrass them in front of their friends. Rebuke is always best in private. (We've made some calls to our daughter's cell phone that we've lived to regret!!) The more you can let go the better. Parenting is a constant test of our willpower and patience. Take pleasure in your character growth!

4. Give praise.

Be lavish with praise when appropriate. Notice their good behavior. As with all children, sometimes you have to struggle to find it. However small, make sure you comment. You may not be keeping score, but they are. Everyone wants appreciation. And although they don't show it, your teenager needs your support now more than ever.

5. Accept the ness of your children.

King Solomon said, "Educate your child according to his ways." Appreciate them for who they are. This is a common and constant challenge. Raising children is not an opportunity to relive your own life or to make up for lost opportunities. Nor will your children always fit the mold you had in mind. Maybe you want your son to take over the business but he's more artistically focused. Maybe you want your daughter to be a high-powered lawyer and she's always been fascinated by psychology. Don' t push them to embrace your vision. They won't and you'll just end up alienating and frustrating them. If you succeed here, you'll probably win the war.

6. Pray.

Don't underestimate your need for Divine intervention. It's just too big a job to do alone.

7. Keep laughing.

It is essential to have a sense of humor. Our Torah teaches us that "through joy and humor can we make the transition from smallness to greatness."

8. Enjoy, and be available for, the good times.

Those late night talks (as your eyelids are drooping), the sitting on your lap (as you feel smothered), the shared pleasure in their younger siblings (except when asked to babysit), the dinner table discussions (the ones you can hear over the clatter of plates and the shouting out of test scores!)...These are all precious moments and important pieces of relationship. And take a moment to treasure the glimpses of the wonderful adults you're helping them become.


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