By Mooney Niu, Mental Health Counselor
Adolescence is often a trying time for your teenager and your family. Not only is your child experiencing significant physical and psychological changes, but you and your spouse may also be dealing with your own physical and emotional challenges as you enter this new phase of family life. Stress is often the greatest in such transitional periods.
Here are some issues experienced by most teenagers and their families as well as some tips on how best to approach them.
1. Ambivalence toward relationships.
Adolescents may experience conflicting needs in their social life. On the one hand, they want and need to become autonomous. On the other, they may need emotional support from parents and therefore would benefit from secure parent-child relationships during this time. These seemingly contradictory needs can be confusing, and it is easy for both adults and teens to either under or overreact, resulting in a vicious circle of parent-child miscommunication.
Keep an eye on any abrupt changes in the social life of your teen. If he or she goes from extrovert to introvert in a pronounced manner, this may be a sign that there is a need for emotional support. Conversely, if a formerly introverted teen become social to the point of disregarding academic or domestic responsibilities, this can be a sign that social pressure at school is taking on an overwhelming significance. In the event of a jarring and sudden extroversion, parental attention ought to be paid to the peer group from whom the teen is trying to gain acceptance.
2. Forming an identity.
Adolescents start to look for an identity separate from that of their parents, a process known as individuation. Although teens strive to have a life of their own, they may experience immense pressure by peers and society to conform to certain roles. Those roles related to gender and sexuality weigh particularly heavily, as do those related to local culture: for example, football in Texas, or grades in China. These sorts of identity dilemmas are less relevant in the early childhood years and often return to the background in adulthood. It is the teen years where maximum pressure to conform runs up against still-forming identities, creating a minefield of dilemmas.
It should be kept in mind that the milieu of your children will never be the same as your own, and not only because they are spending formative years living in China. Think of the changes in hairstyles, fashions, musical tastes, and various social mores that have changed in your own lifetime. Think of how bizarre some of this seemed to your own parents. Then remember that culture is continually evolving. The younger generation’s lack of continuity with our own experience is not a sign they are in danger.
3. Influence of technology.
The ubiquity of social media has transformed youth culture. The darker side of childhood is no longer left back at the campus: nowadays a troublesome classmate can bother another student from several neighborhoods away well into the evening. Don’t be afraid to bring school administrators in to help handle any bullying. There is also a new pressure to maintain a cyber-self that appears confident, funny, attractive, and “cool”. These image-management challenges can feed the worst aspects of youthful insecurity. Teenagers nowadays need parents who can help them distance their egos from the superficiality of social media.
Video games of course pose another challenge. While harmless or even helpful in small doses, excessive gaming can be a sign that a young person is withdrawing from the world in ways harmful to their development. What does too much gaming look like? The general rule is that more than a couple hours a night, on a regular basis, is too much gaming. Occasionally even healthy teens go overboard, but a pattern of excess coupled with other signs of withdrawal and distraction are signs that things have ventured into addiction.
Tips for Addressing Issues (and Staying Sane!)
1. Keep strong and flexible boundaries.
Maintain a level of trust and open communication. Often a teen will fear sharing essential information with a parent because they fear the reaction. While there are some inevitable barriers to complete openness, it’s important to keep the channels flowing as much as possible. You don’t want to overreact and create an environment where you child is afraid to keep you in the loop. Here are some tips for not letting things get frosty:
- The establishment of clear curfews. This creates a means for tracking changes in behavior, and allows for a concrete way to discuss problems before they become more severe.
- Admit your relative impotence in controlling your child’s personality. If the behavior isn’t dangerous, then let it be.
- Listen to your child!
2. Have an open discussion on stereotypes and societal expectations.
Encourage your children to read the news, recommend to them books that helped form your own worldview, and do what you can to help them understand the culture they are living in. What’s essential is that you teach them how and what you think, how and what society thinks, encourage them to form their own “how and what,” and then welcome them into a dialogue based on calm, mutual respect, and rationality.
3. Use technology as a tool for communication.
Often the anonymity of cyberspace can allow teens to work out problems in a non-threatening environment. It may also help them learn to communicate thoughtfully and openly. It’s important to be aware that a deep attachment to phones and laptops is not in and of itself a sign of trouble. For example, if a teen is reading on their kindle or programming on their laptop or painting on their iPad, these are all hobbies that in other decades would have just corresponded to analog equivalents. The main indicator to watch out for is whether the relationship with tech is affecting schoolwork, personal relationships, and the general ability to focus.
4. Make it clear that access to technology is a privilege.
Your child’s access to the internet should be monitored (within reason) and you should convey the message that this is a privilege not a right, and that one is able to live without the internet, just as many of us did when we were children. Without keeping track of every little thing your child is doing online, it’s important to have some sense of their habits and to help them establish boundaries with potential trouble spots on the web.
Ultimate Goal: To Develop Teen Resilience
It’s essential to think of adolescence as an experimental phase where children test boundaries as they surface into adulthood and learn to manage their autonomy. Stability and calm are the foundation of a successful teen’s household. When you lose your cool or behave capriciously, you will only provide an excuse for your child to exacerbate their bad behavior. It is much more difficult to justify rebellion against a benevolent and predictable authority figure. Practice forgiveness, encourage prudence and self-control, but most of all, when they occasionally fail, encourage them to get back up again and keep trying.
If you feel your child is having more serious issues or just needs to talk, it may be worth pursuing additional help. Contact ELG to find out what resources are available in our community.