The words “adolescent” and “rebellion” often are paired like peanut better and jelly or tea and honey — minus the sweetness.
Like the toddler years, sometimes called “the first adolescence,” the tween and teen years are a rush of cognitive, emotional and physical development. Starting as early as age 9, children develop the abstract thinking skills that allow them to question long-held values and ideas and prompt them to take risks and try new things, sometimes leaving parents groaning and shaking their heads.
As a new generation of parents raise their children into adolescence, experts suggest remembering when you felt “born to run.”
Trying on new personas is part of growing up, explains Michael J. Bradley, EdD, a Bucks County, PA psychologist and author, most recently of When Things Get Crazy with Your Teen (McGraw-Hill, $22.95).
“Teen rebellion is a real questionable concept,” says Dr. Bradley. “It’s not so much rebellion as individuation.” So if your son goes Goth or punk pink, realize that he is sorting out who he is as an individual, working to establish an identity that is separate from parents and family. “He’s growing up, and will soon decide that most of your values really do make sense, if you keep your cool,” says Bradley.
Adolescents are “no longer following our prescription for their lives,” he adds. “It’s not really the rebellion, but our reaction to it that can turn it into a revolution.” Take a look back at your own tween and teen years, he suggests.
“Before you open your old mouth to yell, open your young brain to recall what hair, clothes, and music meant to you as an adolescent. In every generation of adolescence, the one universal truth is that we always find music that our parents hate. Have that perspective,” says Dr. Bradley.
Keep the Lines Open
The first time you see your daughter’s newly florescent hair is not the time to offer pearls of parenting wisdom, says Dr. Bradley. “Don’t pull it apart or mock it,” he says. “Once we start to jump on what kids say and knock it down, they’ll stop talking.”
He suggests using any tactic necessary to keep tweens and teens talking, including small bribes such as extra computer time for taking a walk with Mom or Dad. Dr. Bradley and his wife agreed to let their son go to the heavy metal OzzFest, as long as one of them went with him. Given the choice of going with Mom or not going at all, their son chose Mom and she wore earplugs.
Spending time with your child and simply being around can keep the lines of communication open, says Miriam Stern, director of Meridian Counseling Services in Cherry Hill, NJ. “When they are ready to talk to you, if you’re around, they have more chances to do that,” she says.
Family dinners present a good opportunity to communicate, says Margot Waitz, DO, Section Chief of Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine at Christiana Care Health System. “You take advantage of a moment. The opportunity to talk is great. It’s a checking-in and a time to make the teen aware that you are there and that you care,” she says.
“Patience is probably the word I preach the most to parents of toddlers and teens,” says Maryanne Bourque, RN, community education coordinator at the Alfred I. DuPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, DE. Whether it’s black nail polish or extreme hairstyles, “don’t sweat the small stuff. Hair’s very fixable, and so is nail polish, and so are stupid-looking clothes,” she advises.
Instead, Bourque recommends that parents use positive reinforcement to maintain their expectations and family rules. If curfew is at 10pm and your child consistently meets it and keeps her grades up, consider extending the curfew a bit. In matters of discipline, Bourque explains that expecting responsibility and enforcing consequences work much better than an authoritarian approach — which “will automatically set up a combative relationship that doesn’t have to be,” she says.
Experts suggest that parents give tweens and teens some space, within reason. “Rather than ‘where are you going, who are you with,’ the message should be about staying in contact and their knowing what the expectations and the boundaries are,” says Stern. “I think parents sometimes look at boundaries as something that might be a little more optional, but kids need boundaries as much as other basic needs like food and shelter.”
When Should You Worry?
Clear warning signs of serious trouble, experts say, are extreme weight gain or loss, drastic changes in personality, sleep disturbances, skipping school, failing grades, talking or even joking about suicide, run-ins with the law or signs of drugs, alcohol or tobacco use. For support, experts recommend primary care doctors, teachers and guidance counselors, community programs and mental health professionals specializing in adolescents.
Kids who are prone to develop problems usually start with alcohol, cigarettes or marijuana, says Stern. In addition to substance abuse, be aware of other changes that may affect how your adolescent feels about herself, such as questions about sexual orientation, bullying or poor performance at school.
“These are definitely reasons to get them help, to have them assessed,” says Stern. “Sometimes adolescents need the chance to learn the reasoning skills to negotiate and resolve conflict.”
Parents need to be the voice of reason when reasoning has gone out the window, says Dr. Waitz. Encourage your children to “be good to themselves, so that their behaviors are something that they can be proud of and not regret,” particularly when they are confronted with decisions about drugs and alcohol, she says.
Your adolescent is still the child you’ve always loved and cared for. “All those things you’ve taught your child for the past 13 years will kick in,” Borque says. “‘Adolescent rebellion’ is a misnomer. There’s not as much of a rebellion as you may think. The vast majority of teens and parents get through it just fine.”
Jennifer Baldino Bonett is a local freelance writer.