Perhaps no developmental stage is more infamous than adolescence. Rarely will parents raising teenagers report smooth sailing. The parenting journey typically tends to be a bumpy ride, with particular turbulence during the teenage years. This, however, is not without good reason. Teens are achieving critical developmental milestones: balancing independence and connection with family members, balancing outside expectations with ideas around identity, and balancing academic pressures with the growing importance of peer interactions. As you may have noticed, the key feature? Balance.
Teens are caught in a dance of seemingly competing interests. They may want to gain more independence while also craving ongoing support from their parents. They may struggle with perceptions of who they feel they should be and who they actually feel themselves to be. This dance is critical to their identities as a young adults and can lead to varying outcomes.
Parents, too, can get caught in the dance. Do we set stricter limits to prevent our teens from running into trouble? Do we allow them total freedom so that they can develop their own identities? How do we even set limits when teens can simply chose to not listen to us?
These are questions that most parents of teens have asked themselves. None of these questions have absolute answers. Just as teens are seeking balance, parents also must seek a balance, or more nuanced answers to these questions.
Leaning too far into limit setting, or establishing too much structure, will create significant tension between the parent and the teen and not allow for some of the freedom that is needed in adolescent development. Falling too far into no limits and too much flexibility will leave a teen without sufficient structure and guidance on the path to adulthood. Additionally, it is true that an adolescent cannot be forced to do anything. They cannot be put in time out, they cannot be forced to go to school, and they cannot be forced to listen. Any parents who finds themselves in power struggles with teenagers will inevitably lose.
It is for this reason that I do not utilize bullet points or clear cut steps for handling difficulties that arise in adolescence. There is no formulaic answer for handling difficult behaviors, such as staying out late or talking back. There is, however, a general approach, or an art, to working with your teens that tends to be helpful: finding balance, or compromise.
While reading this, you may wonder why you should be compromising with your teen. After all, he or she is your child and they should simply listen. They should stop dating, do all of their homework, not have an attitude, and go to bed early. Unfortunately, most parents of teens will also acknowledge that these are unrealistic expectations and will not just simply "happen."
Learning to compromise is an essential task. It involves negotiating with your teen so that both parties, both you and your teen, feel as if they have some control. For example, if a teenager continuously goes to bed at 2 AM and parents would like for their child to go to bed before 10 PM, what would be a time that parents and teens could settle for? Maybe the teen will attempt to go to bed at 12 AM. This may not be ideal. However, both parents and teens are learning to work together towards acceptable terms.
I often give parents and teens a note pad during sessions where they write down what they would like to ask of their family members. Teens sometimes ask for an opportunity to come home later on the weekends, while parents will sometimes ask for their child to come home earlier on the weekends. Parents and teens will then share what they wrote down and then negotiate towards a more acceptable situation. Teens and parents are quite literally encouraged to be on the same page regarding expectations. This same technique can be done at home, particularly when purely verbal discussions lead to further arguments and resentment.
Being a teen is no easy task. Parenting a teen is also no easy task. Finding a happy median between what you want and what your teen wants can be challenging and, yet, rewarding. This approach involves less struggle. The game of tug of war generally involves one winner. Of course, parents may have some "non negotiable" items; however, for the most part, compromise can be found in most areas. Balancing structure and flexibility is the key to a strong parent-teen relationship.
Audrey Zwick, LCSW is a clinical social worker and child therapist that specializes in fostering social skills and coping skills in young children. Currently located in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
Disclaimer: The content on this website is for general informational or educational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional services. Visiting this website or contacting Audrey Zwick, LCSW by email or telephone does not constitute or establish a professional or therapeutic relationship.
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