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Yikes! Adolescence

QUESTION: Help! (I'm sure you've heard this many times) :) I have a 13-year-old teenage son whom of course is going through the "WHO AM I and WHAT AM I". My son has a terrible time in facing his chores or homework. When I arrived home last evening around 9:00pm he was just beginning his homework. The dishes had not been put in the dishwasher, he had a water fight with the teenage neighbor and left his wet clothes lying on his bedroom floor. Now, was I wrong to get upset? At this point I put him on restriction. He then tells me I'm not being fair. What should I do? I'm only trying to teach responsibility.

ANSWER: Maintaining your perspective is crucial to raising teenagers. Since your son is on the honor roll, he is not disrespecting his education. Your problem does not reflect immorality but rather a struggle for autonomy and control. His adolescence has upset your former order in the household. Clearly, some guidelines need to be established, but being overly critical will lead to greater disharmony. And a mutual lack of respect can lead to a rupture in your relationship at a period when maintaining connection is vital to the immediate years ahead of you!

You are also witnessing the natural disorganization that comes with hormonal upheaval. Remember that physical changes are careening internally, causing excitement to erupt in your son's life. And this eruption is creating a certain loss of control over your life that you are not accustomed to! Time is an important measure of independence. We all want to be in charge of the way we spend our time and making choices is essential to our sense that we have some "control" in our lives.

Adolescence requires a major shift from parents. Try changing gears from a parental authority figure that dictates rules to a friendly authority that sets a framework for your teenager to experiment with making independent choices. Your son is at the beginning of his adolescence. He needs contact and a commitment with you that promotes his sense of autonomy in making decisions. Start with choices around his own scheduling of study, chores and socializing. Establishing independent decision-making is necessary for self-direction. It is good news that your son is not only academically, but socially involved. Your difficulties are with his choices in timing and creating an atmosphere which couples his responsibilities to the family with his growing independence.

It is also important to consider that he may need more parental guidance, but in a different form than when he was younger. If he has alot of independence in the form of being home alone or without parental contact during the day, his behavior may reflect a loneliness based on a need for more meaningful connection and discussions of such things as "fairness". By making room for discussions of ideas about "fairness" and other philosophical issues, rules can be established, and autonomy can take the form of passionate discourse. Allow yourself to be influenced by his feelings and needs and show him that you do respect his right to express himself and be understood. Even though you may not completely agree or entirely understand him! At least he will feel your effort to treat him as an equal, soliciting his ideas and opinions.

At this age, his natural outlet for not having enough parental connection might be to maximize his freedom. This could include experimenting with his schedule independently and choosing to ignore household rules. His need for parental contact in a new form may be eclipsed by his obvious motivation to "belong" to his peer group. But do not be fooled! Though he is vulnerable to his needs for a peer group, he also needs your guidance to set up a different kind of connecting with you that satisfies his needs for greater autonomy, but honors his need to still depend on you. Tricky, huh?

Perhaps you would be wise to consider relenting on the timing of his study schedule, and simply establish appropriate house "rules". Let him know that he does have privileges of an adult that are earned by his taking part in the daily functioning of the family (chores). Be specific about his phone being a result of his contributions. Do not dictate the times of his chores. Instead find ways to allow for him to make choices within certain parameters. For example, dishes need to be done by 8 PM. He can do them earlier, however if they are not done by that time, he will not be allowed the privilege of phone conversation until he has finished them. The chore becomes tied to his responsibilities rather than to punishment doled out by a parent.

Changing gears in this way, allows your teenager to reflect on his choices and gain mastery of his schedule. But do not misunderstand my message. There will be a period of flux and change in your household. You will need to tolerate not only pointing out and structuring the opportunity for decision-making. But you will also have to develop some tolerance for his choices as he experiments with different times, and (as if that is not enough change for you, the parent) react neutrally to his initial cries of "injustice" when he suffers the inevitable consequences you have described to him.

When the cry of "injustice" does echo, simply reiterate that it is his choice to do the dishes by a certain time in exchange for the adult privilege of talking on the phone. Maintain a matter-of-fact tone and your stance that it is not a punishment but a consequence of his choice of scheduling. Be sure to reinstate his adult privileges as soon as his dishes are done without delay. This will ultimately give him a sense that he can indeed have control!

Creating an atmosphere in which discussions can take place may limit the amount of "acting out" behavior if such conduct is an expression of his need to separate from you. He can remain connected by talking with you and separate by expressing a different opinion. Talk to him about his experience of his day. Consider with him what might be the best time for his studies. What does he think? Is it best to socialize after school after having classroom schedules all day? Would he do better to focus on homework after dinner in the evenings? Engage him in a discussion that includes his views, even if you do not agree with them. Realize that he is separating from you, and this may be upsetting to you. But seek contact with him that communicates respect and belief in his ability to make choices about his own schedule.

He may need your help with organizing strategies, particularly when he enters high school, at which time there will be greater impetus for new organization to succeed in a more complex environment. But for now, if he is in junior high school ( or middle school), he needs discussions and guidance which gradually leaves more choices to him. Expect him to try some outlandish things (including staying up too late), but trust he will create an appropriate balance when he experiences the consequences of sleep deprivation that follows.

Spend time with him doing some quality activity you can both enjoy together if at all possible. And even though you become angry or annoyed with this phase of his development, maintain the activities which bring you some time together. Even having dinner together can serve this function of sharing valuable time and letting him know that you want to be with him.

It is at this time that we as parents must show our children what we want them to value by doing it. It is very tempting to reflect annoyance, criticality and a true lack of respect for your teenager. (Afterall aren't they acting like "idiots"?) Instead, try treating them with increased respect. Take the attitude that they will respond to you with greater consideration, as you relate to their needs in a positive and curious manner, rather than a deprecating one.

And remember to use humor as your best ally in letting go of some of the control you enjoyed when your children were more "obedient" and well-behaved. You are in for a few years of ruckus in the household, but this is the price of sharing your life with a teenager. Sometimes I have found it useful to (almost) pretend that my teenager was two years old, but with a bigger body!

All teasing aside, there is some resemblance between the two periods of childhood. Both represent periods of development in which conflict between independence and dependence prevails. And though your adolescent appears to want only his freedom, he also has significant needs for guidance into what it means to be an adult. Consider him a "beginning adult".

Consider also that you may gain spiritually, from experiencing some humility during this period. Your ability to react with neutrality instead of supreme indignance will most probably prove satisfying to you in the end. It will also help you bridge the "gap" with discussions and activities that keep you connected. I often think of Martin Luther King's words, "The measure of a man (woman) is not when things are going well, but when they are not..."

Adolescence challenges our growth as parents to develop into that which we preach. I found this to be a period in which I had to learn increased patience and tolerance for modeling the very behavior I wanted to imbue in my own children. Perhaps you will find some personal jewel beneath all the hard work. Afterall, diamonds are formed when carbon molecules are crystallized under pressure!


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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