Adolescence: Tips for Teen and Their Parents

I have an 11-year-old daughter, the oldest of two, who will start middle school next year. I’m scared… Frankly, I think I’m more scared than she is. So often, parents remember middle or high school as a time of social and emotional turmoil. It wasn’t until I began working as a counselor that I realized middle and high school aren’t that bad for everybody. In fact, a lot of people enjoy it and get along quite well. So what are we so worried about? For one thing, kids have changed. It’s like somebody pushed the fast forward button on physical development, and the changes that we parents started seeing at the end of middle school have already begun by the time our kids are getting out of elementary school. Ditto for high school. For another thing, parents’ memories aren’t really that good. We remember bits and pieces of middle and high school – some things we seem to remember like it was yesterday. But at the end of the day, adolescence is ancient history. Too much has happened between then and now for us to really understand what you kids are going through. The thing that makes this so tough is that we feel like we’re supposed to have the answers. We’ve been through it, so we should understand. And to make it worse, our kids are thinking the same thing! Mom, Dad, why don’t you get it?!! Well, I don’t have any magic answers, but I do have some tips for kids and for parents that can make life a little easier while we’re all busy figuring out what works, where we’re going, and what it’s going to look like when we get there.

#1 Hang in There!

What I mean is, don’t give up on each other. Parents are not going to have all the answers, and we’re not going to get everything right. Still, we need each other. Adolescents are testing boundaries and experimenting with independence, as they should be. Given the choice, an adolescent will usually hang out with friends before spending “quality time” with Mom and Dad. But don’t get fooled, Parents; they still need to know you’re there. And in spite of their quickly developing bodies and minds, an adolescent is still a child who needs guidance, boundaries, time together, and unconditional love. For those of you who are true experts on being an adolescent (yes, I’m speaking to you teens and preteens), I ask you for a second chance, and a third, and a fourth… Just as you are going through adolescence for the first time, we are parenting you as an adolescent for the first time. I promise, in spite of all our fumbles, we mean well.

#2 Schedule

During adolescence, people are faced with more choices and more responsibilities. In middle school, students are given the opportunity to choose classes and afterschool activities. In high school, planning for the future begins in earnest, and many people begin to pursue regular jobs outside of school. In the context of this article, scheduling means putting on paper the things that you need to do and identifying a time when you can get each thing done. Writing things down makes them concrete and can turn a list of to-dos that once seemed overwhelming into something that feels quite manageable. Scheduling reduces anxiety by providing consistency and predictability. It also provides immediate feedback, because when we have a list of things to do and we get them done, we have the pleasure of crossing those things off the list! If you look back at your schedule at the end of the day and something has gone unfinished, just jot it down on tomorrow’s schedule and put it out of your mind. When you make a schedule, remember to include time to relax and time for fun. Life is too short for all work and no play! Hint: index cards work great for daily schedules – they fit in your pocket or purse and can be thrown out at the end of each day.

#3 Organize

A place for everything, and everything in its place. This one’s pretty straight forward. Staying organized reduces confusion and overstimulation. Take the time to get your personal space organized and check yourself periodically, maybe once a week, to be sure you’re keeping it up. Parents, choose your battles! An organizational system works if a person knows where to find the things they need when they need them. What works for you might not work for your child, and vice versa. Help your child find the system that works for them.

#4 Praise

Compliments and positive self talk support positive self image and healthy self esteem. So many of our conflicts stem from insecurity. We are hypersensitive to criticism because we’re not totally confident in ourselves to begin with. When we praise ourselves and others, we create motivation for good choices and we see an increase in productive behavior. Offering praise helps others to feel good about themselves and puts us in a better mood. Giving ourselves a pat on the back for a job well done works the same way. Seek out opportunities for praise. Challenge yourself to offer significantly more praise than criticism.

#5 Reward

I’m talking tangible rewards here, people. Although frustration, impulsivity, and lack of confidence sometimes get in the way, adolescents are generally very self-motivated. However, even the most internally motivated people like a little extra bonus now and then. Parents: surprise your children with a little something here and there when they meet your expectations, or offer a reward as an extra incentive for a particularly difficult task. Teens (and preteens): create realistic and challenging goals for yourself, then set up ways to reward yourself when you meet your goals. Talk to your parents and friends to get creative ideas and make sure you’re not pushing yourself too hard.

#6 Consequences

In the same way that praise and rewards make good behavior more attractive, consequences make poor choices less attractive. Consequences should be clear and immediate. If the consequences of a given action are too far removed from the behavior itself, the consequences lose power. Choices are based on the relative benefits of two or more options. The closer we are mentally, physically, and emotionally to one option, the more attractive that option may seem. It’s the old problem of instant gratification, also known as the P.I.G. Parents often look at a physically mature, strong willed child and allow themselves to think that this person is ready to start facing adult challenges and decisions on their own. Don’t be fooled! Children need more freedom and responsibility as they grow, but they also need the security of a parent who knows how to say no and mean it. There are two great ways that parents can use consequences to decrease a child’s unwanted behaviors: a) allow children to face the natural consequences of their actions, and b) create consequences where none exist. Children will test their boundaries. Parents: we need to lovingly demonstrate that if our children push far enough, they will hit a support wall that’s not going to give way under pressure. Teens/Preteens: Acknowledge the consequences of your choices. If your choice didn’t get you the results you wanted, consider alternative decisions and solutions.

#7 Forgive Yourself

Okay, so you got some guidelines that might help make life a little easier, at least for awhile. No, the system’s not perfect. I figure it must be okay to make mistakes, because if human beings were not supposed to make mistakes, then I guess we would never make them! At the end of the day, what really matters is that you’re doing your best. I’m not a perfect parent, but if I try to be a better parent tomorrow than I was today, doesn’t that count for something?

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