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What to do when your kids shock you

August 14, 1997

By KAREN MASTERSON

Staff Writer

How alarmed should parents be by their kid's shocking behavior?

Chill out mom and dad, counselors and academics say. Adolescents need to test the world. Often this means searching for an identity decidedly separate from their parents.

In other words, it's perfectly normal for young teenagers to act abnormally.

Asking kids not to change during their teenage years is like asking trees not to lose leaves in the fall, according to Kevin Harney, a counselor with Catholic Charities in Hagerstown and a teacher at Waynesboro Area Middle School.

"Very normal kids act out. Parents should expect it just like they expected the terrible twos," Harney said. The behavior is a part of adolescent growth spurts, sexual identity and the psychological adjustment necessary to deal with impending adulthood, experts said.

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Even when it comes to casual experimentation with alcohol and marijuana, kids need to find their way. Harney said the extent of the experimentation depends on the kid, but dangerous drug use often occurs among young people who have problems at home or feel left out and neglected.

Two friends who look the same in dress and attitude can experiment with drugs and have very different reactions, he said.

One kid might seek out the drug again to fill holes in his life while the other kid likes his life and is uncomfortable with the altered state of being high, Harney said.

Distance from parents

Family therapists agree that there are very few exceptions to the golden rule of adolescence: to get distance from parents. And they agree that it manifests itself differently, depending on the kid. Parents need to adjust accordingly.

Dr. Mendel Abrams, a family therapist in Hyattsville, Md., said beginning at age 13, parents are no longer the role model. Peers are. He said anything parents do that fails to reflect the psyche of the teenage scene ends up looking silly.

Parents need to let go of the child they once nurtured, he said, and learn to relate differently with the independence of their growing young adult.

"This is a big problem for parents, especially mothers," Abrams said.

But experts say the adjustment is essential if parents want to help kids through the tumultuous early teens.

Dr. Doris Snow, a professor of family therapy at Catholic University's master's program in social work, said this generation of adolescents is particularly difficult because parents work. Consequently, kids spend less time with adults and more with peers, making the peer culture a larger part of growing up.

Snow said this isn't necessarily bad. But it does require parents to understand the culture, accept the parts they can and negotiate with kids on ways of eliminating unacceptable behavior.

For example, Snow said if kids are wearing enormously baggy pants, down past their bottoms, getting mad only will create more distance. Instead, parents should recognize the pants as part of a peer group dress code and an integral part of their kid's changing identity.

Snow said it's all right to be shocked by clothes, surly attitudes, bad language and even defiance. But she warned that emotional outbursts and threats of punishment usually are counterproductive.

"Parents get into trouble when the hierarchy between parent and child is switched," said Geoffry Greif, associate dean of University of Maryland's School of Social Work.

Greif, who also runs a parent support group in Baltimore, instructs parents to spend structured time with their kids cooking, going out to eat, playing games and shopping. He said don't yell at them or berate their lifestyle, but use the time together to try to understand that lifestyle.

He said it's all right to be shocked by certain behavior, but do it in a way that doesn't get personal.

"Don't be impassive, express unhappiness. But separate feelings about the activity from feelings about the child. Say, `What you did was stupid. I'm surprised because you're a smart kid.' Don't say, `You're stupid,' " Greif said.

And if all else fails, experts agree that counseling for parents and teenagers can be productive in helping each side understand where the other is coming from.

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