QUESTION: My wife and I have been married for 15 years. We have two boys, aged 14 and 11. We both have been extremely tolerant of almost all the needs and desires of our kids and now it has come back to haunt us. Our 14 year old spends at least six hours a day on the phone with his girlfriend and spends several hours a day with her. His lack of interaction with us leaves us feeling suspicious and frustrated. Neither myself or my wife have invoked much in the way of limits or consequences. I just removed the phone from his room and insisted that he go outside to try to get a life. Please help -- I just need some guidance on how to get back on track as a parent.
ANSWER: Your children and you are going through some changes. Be compassionate to yourself because you are losing the earlier years of closeness as a parent to younger children, especially since you stayed at home with them during that time. Your children, too are developing their own separate identities, which is the task of adolescence.
Adolescence itself is a transformational stage in any family. And many parents hit their own mid-life transitions at this same time. No wonder you are feeling alienated and tossed aside. But do not take it personally. It does not mean that you have done it all wrong in the past. It is simply a time to reassess your roles as parents in your children's lives. What do they need from you now? What do they no longer need from you? Becoming teenagers is wrought with the incredible complication of hormonal change. Their young bodies are steeped in hormones causing physical changes that could be overwhelming by themselves alone, not to mention the considerable psychological adjustments that are taking place. It is a period of intense self absorption and selfishness. Some psychologists jokingly refer to this developmental stage as "healthy narcissism."
Adolescence is a time when the search for identity becomes a more separate and independent endeavor. The need for parental attachment does not disappear, it merely changes. Adolescents are seeking out the company of peers, and doing the hard work of trying to find a place for themselves in the world, socially and eventually economically. These are big pressures, and they are intuitively aware of the upcoming future prospect of having to survive on their own away from the family. This is both terribly exciting and enormously frightening on a subliminal level, to parents and children alike! But do not let your fears for his future well-being cloud your view of him. Often parents project negative images of their children based upon their fears of the transition that lies ahead, without taking into account that the teenager is still in development for this launching. Teenagers are "beginning adults" in a manner of speaking, and your role to them becomes more one of guidance than protection. This means that you are in transition in developing new skills and parameters to guide them on their journey.
You have raised them and enjoyed a primarily unambivalent attachment to them in their younger years. Perhaps you are feeling a bit rejected by them. But be careful you do not retaliate or punish them for their development. It is their job to grow away from you. And if you have done your job well, they will do so.
Their growing independence does not mean, however, that they do not need you! They simply need you in a different way. Continue to develop your relationships with your sons. Take them out individually to spend time together. Perhaps playing basketball or some other activity can provide a touchstone through the teenage years for connection and sharing their lives in a new way. Work to forge a new kind of relationship instead of throwing in the towel or overreacting in a rejecting or demeaning way. If you are concerned about your son's direction or how he is spending his time, tell him so. But be careful not to do it in a destructive way that shames or infantilizes rather than opens up opportunity for your guidance and suggestions. Telling him to "get a life" communicates your frustration and lack of belief in him without offering any guidance. It is a put-down. Taking his phone away does not address the problem. It is infantalizing rather than limit setting, and reduces him to a child's position, rather than helping him learn the requirements of a "beginning adult" in the family.
Instead, seek to involve yourself in one of the activities your son enjoys. Learn more about him, what makes him tick. Become interested in really grasping the man he is becoming. He needs your help, not your criticism at this time. Begin to see your relationship to your son as a period in which he needs to learn how to become a man. You can help him with this. Consider that you are apprenticing him to manhood, now. He needs you to help him grow into the unique man that only he can become. Search yourself for obstacles that might be in the way of your relating to your son, based on your own relationship to your father. Did you get the relationship with your father that you needed when you were a teenager? Did he help you find your own answers through your teen years? Or did he just tell you what to do? Did you share activities that gave you ongoing contact with your Dad on your terms as a developing young man? Did he assist you towards manhood and leaving home by guiding you, but not overshadowing your growing need for independence?
This is a critical period of continued availability and nurturance, and setting limits, guidelines and conditions that help your son continue to develop into manhood. If you have not needed to set many limits up until this time, you are fortunate. You enjoyed a harmonious relationship with your children. But, today is a different story. Their development calls for a new approach. Perhaps you could benefit from reflecting on how and what limits are appropriate at this point in your children's lives, rather than questioning your childrearing.
Remember, too that relating to your son is also crucial. Share your concerns about priorities in life. Develop discussions between yourself and your teenager. Solicit his opinions and his thinking about such things. This is how you will influence him at this time, not by telling him how he should be, but encouraging him to develop self reflection, morals and values of his own. Being the parent of a teenager requires different skills than being a parent of a younger child. Seek to develop these skills, connect to your son and continue to parent! These conversations will prove precious as he will find them valuable resources to refer back to when he experiences himself out of balance in his life. Remember that it is your son's job to challenge you at this point in his development. Accept this, and do not shove your ideas down his throat, just describe how and why you believe a certain way. And trust him to evaluate it.
I can't count the times through my own son's adolescence that he vehemently pronounced his very opposite view from myself on a subject, only to come to similar conclusions himself one to two months later! But this kind of behavior, I learned, was key to his growth. He absorbed the information of my experience (though denying it at the time) which he later processed with his own experience to come up with an independent answer (which just happened to be the suggestion I had made! Don't think for a minute that you do not have a profound effect on your teenager. You, as a parent, have been and continue to be the most significant influence in your son's life. It is his job to make you feel that you are no longer significant. But do not believe it! He will consider what you say, but in his own time and with independent reflection of his life experience. And so, one of the most important skills to develop as a parent of a teenager is the ability to discuss! These discussions should have room for diverse opinions, ideas and be open hearted and honest without being devaluing of your teenagers thoughts and feelings. Share your own ideas, opinions and why you see things a certain way. But remember, as your children grow, you do not maintain the same level of control you once had. They need to fly on their own, and you must help guide their beginning glides without believing that you can control their flight. But you will influence their direction if you encourage dialogue over agreement. Books such as Hiam Ginott's, "Between Parent and Teenager" or Robert and Nancy Kolodny's "How to Survive your Adolescent's Adolescence" can help facilitate discussions with your wife about adjusting to the current changes and creating your new parental identities together.
Your son will make mistakes. Let them know that you trust him to make decisions in his best interest. If you have concerns, let them know, but place it in context of their learning how to balance priorities and learn from consequences. Perhaps you remember teaching your boys how to ride a bike. If you used training wheels, they had to come off at some point, resulting in some inevitable falls in order to acquire independent balancing skills. You trusted they would be able to learn that, even though they fell. You held a picture of their inevitable success in achieving that balance. You believed in them to succeed!
Maintain a healthy picture of your sons, despite the difficulties. If you feel there is more need for accountability to you, discuss it with your wife. Consider what should be expected of these young men at this age and come up with a plan of implementation. Teenagers need to know that they are part of a family with certain required responsibilities to it, despite their self-engrossment. This does not look the same as when they were younger, however. It takes on a more adult status and expectation. Adolescents want their freedom, but they still need your care. Establish areas of responsibility (household chores, cooking one dinner per week). For example, when my son reached driving age he agreed to weekly grocery shopping for the family. This combined his newfound freedom to drive with a new, more adult responsibility to the family. In this way, adolescents learn that freedom is also grounded in responsibility and discipline. And being loved and cared for in relationships is a two way street.
Talk with your wife about your feelings about your boys growing older. How has your relationship changed? Are you grieving the closeness of your past relationship with them as younger boys? Perhaps you are missing them. Your wife can be your partner in sharing these feelings, particularly if you were a stay at home Dad. You may be experiencing a preview of the "empty nest" syndrome. And if you have just re-entered the work force, there are many changes of your own that may be clouding your parental role.
Do not berate yourself with self doubt. Trust that you have done a good job raising your sons. And realize that the appreciation for your fatherhood must come from your wife. She is your co-parent. Do not expect it to come from your children at this time. They will have plenty of appreciation for you when they mature into adulthood. But for now their job is a selfish one which includes preoccupation with themselves and separating from you. Your job is to remain connected in a new and different way to both your sons and offer guidance in the form of established structure for responsibility and accountability that will build respect into your changing relationships.
Adolescence is a transformative time for all relationships in the family. More energy is returned to the marriage, as children separate. Forging a deeper bond of appreciation for your spouse can be rewarding, as you endeavor to adjust to the needs of your teenagers. Enjoy the changes that can come with living with "beginning adults" who can contribute in more adult ways to family responsibilities. And who eventually will let you back into their hearts more openly. Tolerating your teenagers needs for privacy without going away will reap the reward of closeness in a couple of years when they feel more secure in who they are. And from my personal experience the welcome back in is well worth the trouble.
Who ever said that anything that is worth waiting
for was easy? When the butterfly finally emerges from its dark cocoon,
lightness returns. The experience of the transformation is felt by
all. Perhaps this kind of shared experience is what "being family"
is all about!
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.
Copyright 1996-2003. Gayle Peterson All rights reserved.