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Teenagers: Handle With Care

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Yerachmiel Milstein

A parents' survival guide to the terrible teens.

So what is it about some teenagers exactly that make them so extraordinarily exasperating?

Why do they give their parents such a hard time over… everything? What can't they keep their rooms tidy, their demeanors pleasant; their shirts tucked into their pants? Why are they so obstinate, so loud and yet so closed-mouthed? Why do they use foul language and express themselves so crudely? Why do so many fall prey to drug abuse and self-destructive social entanglements? Why are they so lazy, but have more than enough energy to be defiant and angry? And into what chasm did that sweet kid of just a few, short years ago disappear?

Children arrive into the world quite helpless. They cannot do much of anything for themselves other than communicate their comfort or pain through cooing and crying; sometimes both at once. We must feed them, change them, bathe them, occupy them, educate them and comfort them. We learn to control them and even their environments to make their experiences in the world safe and -- hopefully-- pleasurable.

With the passage of time, parents and their children continue on in their relationship as the nurturing and the nurtured, respectively, with minor adaptive changes reflecting the larger physical size and commensurate increases in dexterity and intelligence on the part of the rapidly developing and growing child. Play time begins to give way to homework; learning to use a fork and a spoon to riding a bike; freckles to pimples and so on.

By the time the pre-teen years are upon them we have pretty much figured out how to take really good care of all of their needs. In the end, children masterfully use wonderful educational tools like trial and error, order and chaos, smiles and scowls and other less pleasant methods to educate us to be effective in handling them. And just when we seem to have it all down pat, everything changes.

It's called independence. And it's a crucial part of our development as human beings. It allows the next amazing phase of human growth and self actualization to occur. It prepares the nurtured to become nurturers in kind. It causes young pre-teens to begin to exercise control over their own lives and seemingly to draw away from us, their doting, controlling and woefully unprepared for teen-hood parents. Even though this process is as old as humanity itself, it comes as a shocking surprise and a most painful experience to most parents who simply have become set in their child rearing ways and do not have the tools to reexamine and readjust their parenting roles.

It certainly begins subtly enough with children refusing to acquiesce to our tastes in food, our experience in what's "good for them," our sense of fashion and our very philosophy of life. The ways in which they make their disagreements known can be quite varied and may range from the subtle to the stingingly not-so-subtle. By the way, we're talking good kids here: kids who are working hard at school, popular with their classmates and polite to everyone else. And for some teenagers and their parents this relatively low-grade disagreeability is how it's going to be for the next four, five or six years. But other families are going to experience a precipitous deterioration which, if left unchecked, will lead to a complete breakdown in the parent/child relationship and may lead life threatening, self destructive behavior on the part of the child in his or her attempt to escape the pain or experience the perception of control.

Breaking the Mold

Whether the stereotype is accurate or not, Jews as parents are known to be extraordinarily involved in the raising of their offspring. Certainly we are depicted in the popular media as being just a little too aggressive at Little League games, a bit too defensive at PTA meetings and overall we probably are too protective of our kids. And that over-protectiveness is read by our budding adult children as being treated "like a baby." It conflicts with the independence "program" that is being run in our teenagers' central processing units at full throttle and through which they tend to see and interpret their ongoing relationships with their parents.

Think of typically defiant teen behavior. Curfew violations, smoking, inappropriate dating, criminal involvements and traffic violations are all "big" behaviors on the part of little people who are trying to play ball in the big leagues. It's not really so different from a four-year-old trying on her mother's high heeled shoes, dragging around her immense purse and pretending to go shopping. It's just that these escapades are a lot safer -- and certainly look a whole lot cuter -- when the antics are harmlessly performed by a toddler.

If we could begin to wean our teens from their dependence upon us in a wholesome way, they might not look for their independence in all the wrong places.

If we could begin to wean our teens from their dependence upon us in a wholesome way, we would be addressing their need for adult behavior safely and they might not get carried away be looking for their independence in all the wrong places.

For example, 12 and 13-year-olds generally have the intelligence and ability to travel locally by utilizing public transportation or arranging to go to a ball game or a Bar Mitzvah with a friend's parent. Yet, being in the habit of driving our children everywhere they need to go, we might reflexively balk at their suggestion to make their own arrangements. Instead, we might embrace the child's idea of traveling solo after we carefully review the specific plan and help him/her to adjust it if needed and then make sure to duly note and compliment the child's handling of his budding independence and wonderful initiative.

Parents who may stubbornly deny their child's first tentative steps -- all with good reason, of course -- to begin to exercise a small but important amount of control of his or her own life, may inadvertently be broadcasting a message of no-confidence in the pre-teens' capabilities and may thereby be setting the stage for a conflict in which a far more desperate to be in control youngster will escalate the battle to a far less benign playing field to express his or her quickly growing need for independence.

A good general rule to parents of pre-teen boys and girls to follow is to stop saying no automatically out of habit in response to the child's practical requests, but to first silently say, "Why not?" And after carefully considering the answer to that question, it behooves us to see whether the child's query might in fact be a powerful opportunity to build his confidence as a rapidly maturing young adult.

This article is from a forthcoming book.

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