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Five tactics to tame a terrible teenager

In another excerpt from her book "Laying Down the Law," Dr. Ruth Peters offers tips to deal with a fast-changing adolescent.

Today in "Weekend Parenting" we continue a series of excerpts from “Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting to Keep Your Kids on Track, Out of Trouble, and (Pretty Much) Under Control,” the most recent book by “Today” show contributor Dr. Ruth Peters.

I have a confession to make. Having written several parenting books focusing upon discipline and academic achievement, I’ve earned somewhat of an “Attila the Hun” reputation — not only with the public but at home with my husband and two kids as well. Even for me, with my Ph.D., counseling practice, several parenting books under my belt, and this stern image, I sometimes find it hard to do what is right for my own kids.

I have to admit that my Achilles heel is guilt — just manipulate me into believing that I’ve hurt your feelings, snubbed you in some way, cheated you, or been unfair, and you’ll find that you own me. So even though I’m well trained to out-manipulate the manipulator, the guilt trap has been known to sneak up on me, and boy, can I get suckered in.

As an example, let me tell you about my son, Chris. One day when he was 17, Chris was in the computer room instant-messaging some friends on the Internet. Picture this: I was minding my own business when he came to me and asked if he could “snow cap” his hair. To the uninitiated in teen hair fashion, this means bleaching just the tips of the hair. As an athlete, Chris had always worn his hair short, never seeming to even notice if it was combed, so his request really came out of left field.

Being the guilt-prone, introspective psychologist-Mom that I am, I couldn’t just take this as an impulsive, random request — I had to analyze it closely and from every angle. I wondered whether he was thinking that he would fit in better with the guys if his hair was more in style, or whether he was concerned about his looks or attracting girls as the beginning of the new school year approached. From 0 to 60 in about 15 seconds flat, I had turned his simple request into a search for self, belonging, and meaning. And who am I to overlook such a profound moment in his life?

Okay, I thought, lots of my teenage clients have bleached hair (or worse) — and since Chris has always been rather conservative, I opened to the idea. “What the heck, it will grow out quickly if you don’t like it, but check with Dad first” was my answer. What transpired next was truly amazing, and I hope that you will keep it in mind when dealing with your own children.

I watched as he rather gingerly approached my husband. “Dad, can I snow cap my hair?” My husband’s response was quick, unanalyzed, and to the point: “Chris, don’t be an ass. You don’t have to do that just because some of the other guys have and they may think that it’s cool. You look fine the way you are.” Short, simple, honest, and to the point. A real guy type of answer, but it worked! Chris just shrugged, said “Okay,” and began watching a ballgame on TV with his father. Go figure!

Now I don’t think that responding to my daughter in this way would have worked so well or even worked at all. She’s much too sensitive and would have probably spent the rest of the day analyzing why her father would have called her such a nasty name. In fact, I’ve known many teen girls in my practice who have reacted to similar parental retorts either violently (slamming a door or knocking over a chair), with verbal abuse (“Who’s really the ass here?”), or too literally (“Dad really doesn’t respect me. He thinks that I’m a jerk. I wish that I could just disappear!”).

I later questioned Chris about how he felt when my husband had called him an “ass” and he looked at me as if I was nuts. “Dad just didn’t want me to do something stupid, that’s all he meant by it. Why make a big deal out of it?” Sure, my husband could have used more refined language to get his point across, but, you know, the kid really got the message! But in my attempt to understand, rationalize, and be sensitive to teen peer pressure, I was missing the point. A 17-year-old boy raised in our home with our values — good student, athlete, employee, and soon-to-be college student — didn’t need to go around dyeing his hair or giving in to the social pressure to look odd just to fit in. This was a reminder for me — a warning that I needed to continue to be alert to how important it is for parents to take stands on values and to consistently let our kids know where the limits are.

I offer this rather embarrassing scenario as an example of how parents tend to fall into the trap of overanalyzing just about everything that our kids say or do. The snow-capping request turned out to be an impulsive question — Chris probably wouldn’t have done it even if his father had allowed him. But what is important is that my husband’s response reassured me how boundaries are so necessary, how much limit setting is needed, and how well it is accepted if you don’t dance around it with your children.

Terrible Teen Transformations
Kids can be tough to deal with, and even tougher to raise. And this is especially true of adolescents. They generally enter into this era as human beings — giddy, rambunctious, talkative, and interested in just about everything. And then something happens — it’s insidious and you can’t quite put your finger on it, as it doesn’t happen overnight. But slowly (usually) your best bud, the little boy or girl who loved to be tucked in and tickled may recoil from your touch (especially in public), starts to share her deepest thoughts with her best friend (rather than you), and becomes obsessed with weight, clothing, or popularity. Your son may drop out of soccer or softball, quit the youth group, and declare that the video arcade is his Mecca. As she begins to menstruate, your daughter’s moods may take the entire family for a ride as she reaches unheard of highs when the phone rings but barely survives an evening just sitting home with the folks. And so you ask yourself, “What have I done to deserve this?” Well, you either gave birth to or adopted the kid and most likely that’s about it.

Most teens face unbelievable pressure on a daily basis — in fact, adolescence is often a culture of cruelty.

Katie, a 14-year-old who was seeing me for depression, related how she would leave for school every morning dressed in a Mom-approved outfit but would change into a skimpy halter top and tight jean shorts as soon as she arrived at school. She felt guilty going against her mother’s standards but couldn’t face the ridicule that she believed would ensue if her outfit didn’t fit the girl fashion code. She really was angry at having to do this, but instead of turning the anger outward, it spread within, leading to the depressive symptoms of appetite suppression and sleeplessness.

Michael dealt with peer pressure in a different way. Sixteen and convinced that whatever he had to say would be either laughed at or ignored, he spent his junior year in high school eating lunch in the library every day. Being prone to denial, Michael would kid himself into thinking that he was the one rejecting others and that getting his homework completed in school was more important than hanging with the guys in the cafeteria.

Thirteen-year-old Marcella, after having been dumped by her boyfriend of three months, literally took things into her own hands when she felt that she could no longer tolerate the loneliness and humiliation. She started cutting on her thighs and stomach, places she felt were safe from her parents’ inquisitive eyes. Marcella explained, as do so many cutters, that “At least I feel something. It doesn’t really hurt. At least I can feel again.”

Katie, Michael, and Marcella are not that unusual. Certainly not every adolescent changes clothes just to fit in, or is frightened to eat in the lunchroom for fear of being rejected, or uses self-abuse to fight depression or to gain control over emotions, but many do. Too many. The 9- or 10-year-old who would “tell” on cruel friends now, at 14, may feel that nobody would listen, so he handles it himself (perhaps by holding the feelings inside). The lucky ones may remember and rely on solid advice from their parents or have an astute friend or teacher who intervenes. But many teens do not feel that they have resources to turn to, even if their parents are willing to be involved and, if given the chance, could be very helpful. It’s as if the trusting child has turned into a teen who is not sure of herself or her parents’ intentions and motives.

I hear about this metamorphosis almost daily in my office — distraught parents wondering where their little kid went and how this odd stranger has returned in his place. It’s the opposite of the moth turning into a butterfly, in a behavioral and emotional sense. But it is normal — most teens evolve through this stage intact, and do emerge as that beautiful butterfly again as they enter adulthood. But it’s tough as a parent to have the maturity and patience to deal with the adolescent in an effective manner. It takes parental savvy, communication, asking others for help, and continually working with your kid even if she rebuffs you. And most of all it takes guts. You must develop a family code of ethics and values to stand by, not only to serve as a guide for your son, but as a reminder to his parents where the boundaries are (remember Chris and his snow capping? Thank goodness my husband didn’t stray from what we stood for).

Living the Law
The adolescent years are a time of extremes — some of your child’s greatest memories as well as difficulties will occur between the ages of 13 and 18. This is a time of intense change — physical and emotional, as well as social. So the normal ups and downs experienced by grade-schoolers are magnified ten-fold when your kid hits middle and high school.

What’s a parent to do? Lots — there are five main areas of parental involvement that can ease your child’s transition through this phase and help her to navigate adolescent culture with more success. Let’s take a look at these tactics.

Have clear expectations. Teens, even more so than their younger counterparts, need to know what is expected of them — both at school as well as on the homefront. Guidelines, limit setting, and clear, fair rules go a long way in terms of letting your child know how far to push the envelope, what she can get away with, what behaviors are appropriate or inappropriate, and when to go along with the program even if they don’t especially want to. Most adolescents are less than thrilled with completing their homework, and they’d much rather watch MTV than plow through their math problems. And that’s where you, the parent, come in. If your child knows that there’s no TV until homework is completed or the kitchen is cleaned, she’ll comply, especially if there is a consequence attached to the requested behavior. Allowances, privileges, bedtime, and electricity (using anything that plugs into the wall or needs batteries with the exception of lights, blow dryers, and alarm clocks) are excellent consequences that will definitely motivate your kid to get moving. Also, limits and guidelines make a child feel secure — they know what is expected of them each day and understand what positive things will occur if they respond appropriately, and what negative consequences will happen if they choose not to comply. Security and permanence are especially important to your kid during the teen years, as just about everything else seems to be in a state of flux.

Keep your adolescent involved in activities. A bored teen is often an unhappy teen. Kids this age thrive on activity — both mental and physical. Those who sit around tend to watch too much TV, eat too much, perhaps spend too much time on suspect Internet chat lines, and often become depressed. Teens are still children, and some of the main jobs of childhood are to learn how to be cooperative with others, to have fun, to expend energy and to just goof off. Sadly, though, many adolescents feel the social pressure to resist play, even though in their hearts that is what they yearn for. Playing catch and flag football are not only fun but relieve stress after a long day at school. Play is the stuff of childhood, yet teens often succumb to their friends’ notions that anything less than living on the phone or shopping at the mall is politically incorrect. If this is your child, encourage her to get to know the neighborhood kids again and to dust off the bike or inline skates and engage in some real activity. If possible, sign your kid up for a sport team where he’ll learn new skills, make friends, increase his self-concept based on his athletic accomplishments, and expend energy in an acceptable fashion. Involved kids are often too busy to get into trouble, to fool around with cigarettes or drugs, or to become depressed. Also, check out the youth group at your place of worship, the school’s chess club or debate team, or local theater groups. Your child will be busier, happier, and more involved, and even though getting your kid to these activities may run you a bit ragged, it sure beats childhood depression or substance abuse!

Teach your teen compassion. Some of the most important needs of children this age are to feel significant, valued, and important. The lucky ones may get these needs met if they are popular with peers, know how to successfully work a crowd, or are the teacher’s pet. Most other teens, though, need to work at being significant, and a sure bet is to involve them in an activity that helps others. There’s no better way to feel important or needed than to help someone less fortunate than you. Volunteering at a local soup kitchen, daycare center, nursing home or animal shelter helps your child to value the positive things in her own life and will help her to develop a compassion for others not so fortunate. I’ve noticed time and again that kids who volunteer and help others are much less likely to tease, bully, or harass others. Compassion is not innate — it is learned through experience with a variety of life situations. It’s also not a bad idea if you’re involved in the activity — leading by example works well and you’ll probably feel better for the volunteer time spent with your child.

Encourage dialogue and communication. Whether your teen admits it or not, you are the most important person in his life. Although he may respond with grunts rather than with words, your kid is depending upon you to be there for him — not only to give him a ride to the ballfield or to the movies but also to talk to and listen to his concerns. This does not mean that he necessarily wants your advice or will use it; he may just desire your listening ear. If he needs your suggestions, he’ll let you know, especially if you’ve proven yourself to be a good listener, nonjudgmental, and capable of not interrupting him! One of the biggest gripes that I hear from adolescents is that their folks are so anxious to fix the problem that they just don’t take the time to let the kid fully explain the situation — Mom or Dad have already interrupted and Junior shuts down, waiting for the same ol’ lecture. If this sounds familiar, try to break the pattern by going for nightly walks when your child can talk if he wants to or the two of you can just be together. Some of the best communicating I’ve done with my kids has been of the silent variety — just spending time together walking the dog or taking a leisurely bike ride. Being your teen’s confidant is not only a responsibility but an honor not to be taken lightly. Also, consider the alternative — if he can’t share his concerns with you and depends solely upon his peers for advice, that can be really scary!

Allow and encourage reasonable independence. By adolescence, kids are ready to make many of their own decisions, with and without your guidance. Choices regarding clothing style, friends, study schedule (as long as there is one!), music, and how leisure time is spent are areas that should be within your child’s discretion, at least initially. If your son displays good judgment in terms of friend selection, that’s great — but if not, you may need to discuss just what it is about his buds that gives you the creeps. If your daughter’s clothing choices stay within the school dress code guidelines and you’re not too embarrassed to be seen in public with her, then let her call the shots. If it gets too weird, you may need to step in and set up some family guidelines, especially in terms of clothing she is allowed to wear when she’s with you or other family members.

Music selection is another dicey area, often leading to conflicts between parents and adolescents. I’ve witnessed kids who can listen to the nastiest stuff and it doesn’t affect their personality or morals. I’ve also seen teens of the more gullible variety who literally become the music that they listen to. These chameleon kids are usually searching for an identity and can easily slip into the persona of the group, whether that’s rock, punk, or goth. If this is your child, it would be safer to pick another area in which to allow and encourage independence, while keeping tabs on concerts attended and CDs purchased.

It’s appropriate, and healthy, to give your kids the control to make certain choices as they mature. Wise selections lead to good self-esteem as kids realize, “I can call the shots and not only am I happy with my selection of friends, but Mom and Dad respect my decisions.” Inappropriate choices are actually teachable moments — the child learns firsthand that hanging out with sketchy kids can lead to restrictions or legal problems and perhaps in the future special thought should be given to who is included in his close circle of friends. Some teens have to learn the hard way about independence and decision-making, but often these are the most effective and long-lasting of lessons learned.

Try the above tips and let him be a kid again. They’ll help you and your teen make it through one of the toughest phases of childhood. Give your kid permission to be a child again and to engage in activities that are just pure fun and not a mimicry of the teens she sees on TV, at school, or on magazine covers.

NEXT WEEK: Stand up for school and learning

Dr. Peters is a clinical psychologist and regular contributor to “Today.” For more information you can visit her Web site at . Copyright ©2005 by Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific psychological or medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand the lives and health of themselves and their children. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist.