Adolescent Problems: Tips For Parenting Difficult Teens

Adolescent problems: parents often question what is normal in adolescent behavior. Tips are provided for coping with problem behaviors and signs are described for abnormal reactions.

Most parents understand that adolescence defines a new era in the evolution of the family. Parents expect occasional mood swings, defiance of rules as well as the gravitation away from the family toward peers. However, parents grow concerned when certain behaviors seem more intense or frequent than what they see in their friends' children. How to determine what is 'normal' behavior and how to facilitate equilibrium in the household are subjects of this article.

An understanding of the purpose of adolescence is necessary for the definition of 'normalcy.' In essence, the teen era is the mirror image of toddlerhood. Developmental tasks require that the toddler use concrete objects to enable the expanding synapses of the brain to form abstract concepts. For instance, with much repeated exposure to letters and blocks, a child eventually is able to make sense of the symbols for '3' or 'B.' The frequency of repetitions of the alphabet and counting can rile even the most patient of parents. However, the goal is to facilitate the building of compartments for symbols in the toddler's brain. A child who is denied this exposure for extended periods of time, loses the ability to symbolize, and thus, harms the capacity for future learning.

Conversely, developmental tasks demand that an adolescent render abstract ideas concrete. This youth wishes to make ideas such as love, politics, money, fashion, etc. as personal to them as possible. Parents are asked to take on a different role. For example, in the toddler years a parent who desires to encourage new learning brings the outside world to the child. To illustrate, a caterpillar climbing into a cocoon becomes an automatic lesson in science and its purpose for transforming the caterpilar into a butterfly.

In adolescence, the parent prepares the child for venturing into the outside world. For the first time, the youth is encouraged to get a job beyond regular household chores, to bond with friends and a date, and to develop a relationship with money.

Some teens fly into this new phase with abandon. They flock to friends, politely (or not) requesting that parents either walk 100 paces behind or sit in a separate row for the purposes of preventing embarassment at the possibility of association with the adult. Parents of these children find it difficult reigning in the appropriate boundaries. The adolescent in this category sees no reason for curfews or for concerns regarding his/her whereabouts.

A mistake that a parent could make for this youth is to approach the enthusiasm with disdain. Instead, a parent would be wise to provide reasoning that a teen could interpret. Using the metaphor of a bank, the parent can speak in terms of the adolescent's words and equate them with deposits and withdrawals. In other words, the honoring of a verbal commitment can be likened to a deposit toward future privileges. In comparison, a deposit of money in a bank suggests to the institution that future check writing to withdraw money from the account is a possibility. However, failure to comply with a previously understood rule can be likened to a witdrawal. Too many withdrawals and suddenly the account is overdrawn. An overdrawn account in this case means that others (peers, parents and teachers) can no longer rely on the adolescent's verbal agreement, since trust in the youth has eroded. His/her word is bankrupt.

How can a parent tell when the behaviors of withdrawals are extreme and a sign that something is wrong? Research is showing that a key factor in noting pathology in this type of youth is boredom. How an adolescent behaves when boredom is an issue for him/her is paramount to understanding if what they are experiencing in the child is more than an adolescent stage. For instance, youths who engage in high risk behaviors as a consequence to boredom are youths who are showing greater difficulty adjusting to the pressures of adolescence. Behaviors such as stealing, partaking of drugs and alcohol, driving without a licence, physical fighting and engaging in indiscriminant sex are all behaviors that demonstrate the need for serious concern.

Parents who have a child who demonstrates the behaviors listed above should refer the youth to a licensed counselor or a psychologist who can further evaluate and make appropriate recommendations.

Other parents have very different concerns. In their cases, the adolescent appears to have little connection to peers or psrents. The youth rarely verbalizes or demands attention. He/she hides in the bedroom or remains transfixed in front of the television, computer or Discman.

Often, parents complain that this type of youth has many ideas, fears and dreams but all of them go unarticulated. When confronted or encouraged to speak, the youth further withdraws and isolates.

Once again, a look at toddlerhood can help the parent who has a reticent adolescent. In the toddler stage, a child engages in a task called 'parallel play' before he/she can venture into mutually exchanged discourse. In this task, the child sits beside a peer and plays with a toy, puzzle or game. Adults laugh when they see both children, as no actual dialogue or sharing of play exists. However, much work is accomplished at this stage. For example, a child in parallel play is learning safe boundaries as well as who he/she is in relationship to a toy or game. After enough understanding of these tasks, a child can then learn to seek outward toward peers.

Likewise, a parent with an isolating teen would do well to engage in parallel play with the adolescent. In other words, sit down in front of the T.V. with the youth. Find a moment when the adolescent is engaged and parallel a task with him/her. For example, if the youth is sitting at the kitchen table buried in a homework assignment, then sit beside him/her and write bills. Make statements rather than ask questions, as questioning implies mutual exchange. Adults are often surprised by how easily this technique works. The rationale for the technique is that the adult is proving to be a nonthreatening bystander. it is the establishment of a safety zone that affords the adolescent room to share thoughts and feelings. With enough repeated exposure toward parallel activity, an adolescent will one day initiate conversation with the parent and siblings.

If this technique proves in vain, it may be a sign that the adolescent is suffering from depression. A licensed counselor or psychologist can further evaluate and make recommendations.

In conclusion, remember that adolescence brings many gifts to the family. At this stage, a parent can begin to see the eventual product of all of his/her effort. An adolescent shows concern for self as well as others in the family and begins to see the potential for a place in the community at large.

However, sometimes an adolescent has problems that are beyond what the parent can offer in terms of assistance. An inability to cope with boredom in a positive way and an inability to articulate thoughts and feelings are two major signs that outside help is needed. With outside assistance and intervention, any parent can learn to enjoy the adolescent stage.

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