Strike a balance

December 05, 2003|by ANDREA ROWLAND

Your 15-year-old wants to work at the movie theater. You think the responsibility will be too much for a kid who can't even keep his bedroom clean. An argument erupts.

The adolescent years can be a time of conflict between teenagers and their parents as roles within the household change. Teens seek greater autonomy as they make the transition between childhood and adulthood; parents try to strike a balance between managing their children's lives and letting teens make their own decisions - and learn from their mistakes, experts say.

During adolescence, teens are looking for a different kind of support from their family, according to contributors to Bard College's Adolescence: Change and Continuity Web site at Teens seek parental acceptance of their individuality, support for decisions they make on their own, and active understanding rather than nurturance and protection.


"Sometimes, part of what the parent perceives as pushing boundaries is the teen's way of saying, 'I'm my own person,'" says Ginger O'Connell, a parent, registered nurse and counseling psychologist with Blue Ridge Community and Counseling Services in Martinsburg, W.Va. "Some parents think they're going to get through the adolescent years without conflict - and it's not going to happen."

In some cases, parents "still want to treat their kids like they're 5 years old," says Theron Bunnell, behavior specialist for Antietam Academy in Hagerstown. Parents also might expect their teenage children to behave like responsible adults - which they aren't, says Linda Donovan, a licensed clinical social worker in Hagerstown.

"Let kids be teenagers. Just roll with it," says Donovan, whose two sons are 16 and 23. "In those teenage years, you focus on health and safety - that's where you have to toe the line."

While parents should help teens make smart decisions about issues that could affect their health or safety - such as driving, having sex, drinking alcohol or doing drugs, they should relinquish decision-making control over many other aspects of the teen's life so their children can learn the valuable lesson of natural consequences, experts say.

"It's important to try to let children develop their own sense of doing things the right way and the wrong way," Bunnell says.

Modeling positive behaviors, letting teens know all topics are open to discussion, acknowledging that questioning authority is a natural part of adolescents' development, and making expectations clear are among the best bets for raising responsible adults, Donovan and O'Connell say.

Clearly communicating the house rules, and allowing discussion of those rules to take place, also will likely reduce parent-child conflict. Parents won't have to make rules as they go along, and teens won't feel as if they're constantly being told what to do, because family members will have worked together to establish mutually agreeable standards, according to the Adolescence: Change and Continuity Web site.

While it's important for parents to realize that testing parental boundaries is normal behavior for teens, it also is important for teens to realize that not all behaviors will be tolerated, O'Connell says.

Parents should seek professional help for serious behavioral problems, and respond with consistent consequences at home for such infractions as name-calling, hitting, deceiving parents about important issues, or regularly breaking curfew, O'Connell says. Open and honest communication is key for helping teens understand that there are consequences for negative kinds of behavior - such as the erosion of trust that results from dishonesty.

"Show your disappointment," Donovan says. "Say, 'It really hurts me that you don't feel like you can be honest with me ... If I can't trust you on the little things, then how can I trust you on the big things coming up?'"

Chris Farley, family intervention specialist with the Institute for Family Centered Services in Hagerstown, emphasizes the importance of immediate consequences which fit the rule-breaking. It's not effective for a parent, for example, to take a teen's car keys two weeks after the teen missed curfew, Farley says.

Donovan and O'Connell advise parents to avoid overuse of punishment, which can build resentment. Punitive discipline can also prompt manipulation, as teens try to get around the punishment, they say.

Parents also should avoid:

- taking teens' negative behaviors too personally.

- letting themselves get angry. "Once the child has you angry, you're off and running," O'Connell says.

- yelling. "Being loud doesn't make it better," she says.

- name-calling.

- demanding more responsible behavior.

"Kids learn by modeling, by being in a family of responsible adults," Donovan says. "You don't have to pound it into kids. The more you pound, the less you'll get what you want."

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