Family Circle Column, ‘The Teen Years’
Featured article, September 26, 1989
“Where have you been?” you ask calmly, reasonably.
“What did you do?”
“With whom?” Your tone is light, you’re simply curious.
“The guys.” His voice is sullen
Be calm, you tell yourself. This slightly unkempt 12-year-old in the artistically ripped jeans is still your little boy. Wasn’t it just a week or so ago that the two of you were cleaning the hamster cage and he asked you how to go about being “just friends” with a girl? I like her O.K.,” he had confided, “but I don’t want to go out with her or anything.”
You had repressed a smile. “Go out with!” He still thought roller-skating with a bunch of friends was a big deal. He hadn’t really been talking about dating … your little boy … had he? “But you said you’d be home at 10. It’s past 11.” “I guess I lost track.” He has gone beyond sullen. Silence.
Your temperature begins to rise. “So where were you?” As hard as you try to stay calm, there’s an edge to your voice.
“Not O.K.! Where? Doing what? Who were your with? Why didn’t you call to say you’d be late?”
“What’s the matter—don’t you trust me?”
“Of course I trust you …”
“Then get off my back!” His door slams.
Everyone says adolescence is tough. What’s toughest perhaps, is that its onset can be so unexpected, so abrupt. And that a parent can feel not just unwanted and left out, baffled and frightened, but actually, unnecessary. The truth is you’re still absolutely crucial to your teenagers. As children enter adolescence, they need you as much as they did when they were infants. A toddler needs to take those all-important steps away from a parent, to explore, to experiment and to say “no.” And then she comes running back to you and holds on for dear life, a phenomenon that has been called “refueling.”
In much the same way, your teenage son or daughter tests the waters of adulthood in a very gradual move toward independence and self-reliance. Teenagers become concerned with their place in the community of their peers. Total nonconformists as far as the adult world is concerned, they strive to be as alike as possible.
Biology is the major factor in a child’s life at this time. In the United States, the average age of a girl’s first menstrual period is 12½ to 13 years; boys enter puberty between 9½ and 13½. Sexual maturation involves the growth of pubic hair, the development of breasts in girls, and enlargement of the genitals in boys.
A boy’s voice deepens, and he may have emissions of seminal fluid while asleep—which may be embarrassing to him or even frightening. Boys and girls start to experience sexual feelings. Parents and children often have difficulty discussing sex with each other. Adolescence can be an upsetting time, with kids feeling insecure, their bodies seemingly out of control, and parents feeling shut out. And there’s no denying that the teenage years are, for some, a perilous phase: Witness the alarming increase in teenage drug abuse and suicide suicide. Parents have legitimate concerns: What’s normal; what’s not?
Kim, a divorced elementary-school teacher, was at the end of her rope with her 14-year-old daughter, Janie. “All of a sudden it’s as if I’m invisible!” Kim explained. “She hardly talks to me, never tells me any of her special secrets now. She’s out of the house at every opportunity. When she finally comes home, she goes straight to her room and closes the door.”
Kim worries the worse is ahead. “She’s becoming more difficult to control,” she admitted. “The other weekend we were supposed to go to a family get-together. ‘No,’ Janie said calmly. Just ‘No, I don’t feel like it.’ And when I told her she had to, she exploded. ‘You can’t make me!’ she shrieked. ‘I don’t have to! I hate you!’ I started to cry, but she just slammed into her room.”
Kim tries to talk to Janie about the situation, and about how bad it made her feel. “She says nothing is wrong—that she’s just too busy to talk. She’s got a million excuses.” About the only occasions Janie expressed any interest in her mother were when Kim went to the doctor for a chest cold and another time when she had a date. “Janie was worried about my cough—she wanted to know what the doctor said—and that she asked questions about my evening out. But after I’d answered, she clammed up. I got the usual the usual silent treatment.”
At times Janie still acts like a little girl. She sleeps with a stuffed moose named Mookie she’s had since she was a baby. She’s doing well in school, has friends, plays sports and seems to be interested certain boys. She listens to loud music and talks on the phone. “She’s basically a good kid,” Kim admitted. “I don’t think she’s depressed. Maybe there’s something wrong with me. I just feel … abandoned. It’s as if she’s redefined our relationship. I don’t know what’s going on with her.”
What’s going on, of course, is normal growth and development, and it’s up to Kim to see her daughter in a new light, to broaden the base of their relationship rather than to narrow it, limiting it to rules and demands. Though her apparent “abandonment” by Janie is very painful to Kim, she’s not really being abandoned at all. Janie is not turning away from her family as she is turning toward her own self and affirming her desire to grow up. A child can do this when she feels love and respect from the important adults in her life. Janie still needs to feel childlike at times—to get “refueling,” teenage style.
Survival Strategies – What should you do when your teenager changes radically?
- First, recognize the behavior as part of an important and normal stage of adolescent development. It is likely you have done nothing wrong;
- Try not to see this stage in negative terms; don’t take it personally;
- Let your teenager know you understand her need for privacy;
- Show an interest in adolescent activities and try not to make value judgements—as long as your child is not self-destructivive.
Most teenagers navigate through adolescence without serious problems, but some do experience difficulties that require your immediate and concerned involvement. Be Alert for:
- Changing academic performance Teenagers in trouble can’t concentrate, so their grades may plummet or fluctuate wildly. When kids are depressed, they lack the clarity of mind to study. And if they’ve lost motivation, they won’t want to study.
- Persistent low mood Mood swings are a normal part of adolescence, but watch out for the clinically depressed child who never seems to be having fun—who can’t enjoy anything.
- Secretive behavior Kids with something to hide—a drug habit or police trouble—are usually poor liars. If you know your child, you’ll know the difference about hiding an innocent fact and keeping serious secrets.
- A change in social behavior Teenagers generally consider their friendships of utmost importance. Depressed teenagers often prefer to be alone and make up excuses for dropping out of school clubs or breaking off longstanding friendships.
- The other side of this coin is the child who develops a whole new set of friends, perhaps choosing kids in similar distress.
- Increased hostility Normal adolescents may raise their voices. But they are not physically abusive with themselves or others. Never condone or minimize violence—a serious symptom of trouble.