Individuality and independence are the hallmarks of successful adulthood. The road from dependence to individualization can be a painful one (witness the gray hairs on the parents of teenagers) but it's nevertheless a crucial journey to take. So when dealing with the challenges (opportunities?) of adolescent children, we need to first take a deep breath and then remember that they are doing their job.
With this in mind, I humbly offer some tools for dealing with this trying phase. (It's like Lamaze -- you either use the tools or scream!)
1. The acting out is NOT personal (even though the words may sound like it is). Our adolescent children are terrified. They know they need to leave but they are ambivalent about it. They want the security and the freedom. They want independence and reassurance. They are like toddlers, leaving the room and then running back to make sure you are there. Only they're frequently not as cute.
In their confusion, and assisted by their hormonal upheaval, their fear manifests itself as defiance or hysteria. We need to remember that inside they are scared, small children. And that their blow-ups are really not directed as us.
It is a big mistake to engage in a power struggle, to make the issue personal compelling our adolescents to assert themselves, whatever the cost. It's a no-win situation. The wise parent just lets it go (and then runs into the other room for a little primal scream therapy).
2. Be their ally. During this tumultuous time, our teenagers need to know that we believe in them, that we are on their side. Despite their external bravado, they feel very insecure and uncertain. It is crucial that they understand that we support them and their choices (within reason) and that they can always turn to us in need.
(A small caveat: Even with the most understanding of parents, some adolescents prefer to confide in an adult outside the family that they feel close to. We shouldn't feel jealous or resentful or concerned; we should just be glad they have found someone responsible and trustworthy to talk to)
3. Educate each child according to his need. We need to appreciate and encourage our children's individuality. We are not creating replications of ourselves; we couldn't if we tried, and why would we want to? We need to focus on what's best for this particular child, what suits them and their unique needs -- and then do our best to ignore societal pressures (or nudging from their siblings).
At this point in their lives, our teenager's assertion of individuality sometimes involves clashing with our values and tastes. We need to be patient. This is not the end point. I have heard countless stories of situations where the child who was most rejecting of their parents ending living a life most similar to theirs. Parenting adolescents requires thinking long-run, not short-term.
4. Pull close with the right hand and push away with the left. This principle, which suggests that love and compassion take strong precedence over discipline, is true at every stage of a child's life, but no time more so than adolescence. The practical realities certainly force conforming to this idea.
For one thing, our teenage children are often bigger than us (than me anyway) which limits the type of discipline available. For another, we don't want to provoke a fight needlessly (have you noticed a theme?). We need to use the few disciplinary tools we do have (credit cards, access to the car etc.) wisely and sparingly. Most issues are not worth the struggle. If we limit our opposition to a few crucial situations, we are more likely to get a respectful hearing.
When we know that our children may disobey our orders (yes it's true) once they leave the house, it is better to issue advice and not commands: "I don't think it's a good idea to go there and here's why..." "That behavior makes me uncomfortable and here's why..." This allows our teenagers to save face by making the choice themselves and also avoids a power struggle or the need for harsh discipline if they make the "wrong" choice. (This is, needless to say, very general advice and each specific situation needs to be evaluated on an individual basis)
5. Don't get between an adolescent and his or her friends. I can't overemphasize the importance of peers to a teenager. The psychologist Ron Taffel calls them "The Second Family" in his book by that title, and they may, at times, be more emotionally important than the first one. If you try to separate your adolescent child from his friends you will lose the battle and increase the distance between the two of you. Instead, bring them into your home. Make them feel comfortable. Get to know them. You might be pleasantly surprised by what you find.
6. Although teenagers like to experiment, they don't want their parents to. They want us to stay centered, to stay where we are so that no matter how far they roam, they will always know where to find us. Our teenagers don't want us to hang out with them or listen to their music (they'll throw that CD out fast enough). They want us to represent stability, safety in the raging storm. We are their rock and their security and they are counting on us to be parents (not friends).
7. Mother/daughter and father/son struggle more. Duh. In order to prevent this classic confrontation, try to avoid being lured into a confrontation with your same sex child and, where possible, have the opposite gender parent do the (infrequent) disciplining. It's a lot less threatening where the identification is not so strong.
Adolescence is challenging for parents and children. Both sides are struggling and confused. They feel such love and such frustration. Both sides are growing and adjusting. And then adjusting some more. It's too easy to lose sight of the love and caring in the midst of the hostile behavior. It's all too common to walk around with a constant sense of anxiety and possibly anger, with a lot of negative emotion and no productive outlet. As with everything in life, the Almighty is our most powerful ally and prayer our most powerful tool. A little racquetball doesn't hurt either.