How do I better understand my teenager?

It is commonly said that adolescence begins in biology and ends in culture. The transition into adolescence (or teenage) is marked by the dramatic changes of puberty, while the transition from teenage to adulthood involves changes like the completion of education, entry into the working world and marriage. Included in the tasks of this life-stage are developing an identity, differentiating from the family while still staying connected and fitting into a peer group.

All of which is very nice to know but not much comfort to a parent weathering the storms of teenage moods. Between the “When I was your age…” and the “You just don’t understand me…”s, most parents (and youngsters) lose all sense of perspective and humour, often turning the situation into a grim daily battle of wills.

The sources of stress for the present generation of adolescents (a group roughly falling between the ages of 13 and 19) are far more diverse and complex (e.g. peer-pressure, drug abuse, isolation, adolescent sex and pregnancy, etc.) than that of previous generations. The parents, moreover, have not been exposed to most of these stressors to be able to understand and support their children in resolving them. Today’s teenagers are also different from their parents in that, increasingly, they seem to rely more on their peers for support and guidance rather than on their elders. This could be due to several factors such as the growth of nuclear families, often with both parents working, influence of Western media and others.

Asha (name changed) at the age of 16 suddenly changed from an angel to a mystery for her parents. She was in a prestigious school and seemed to be behaving in a way calculated to get her thrown out – cutting classes, failing tests, being rude to teachers. Her parents were loving and lenient but she accused them of not caring. When they tried to be strict, she ranted about being policed. They were at a loss to understand her, and sought professional help as a last ditch attempt to placate the school authorities and prevent her expulsion.

It turned out that Asha was caught between her family’s values and those of her peers at school. She was a good student but that only got her called names like ‘nerd’ and ‘geek’ in class. When she was respectful to her elders, her classmates mocked her as the ‘teacher’s pet’. Once she started cutting classes and the rest, she became one of the ‘in’ crowd. But now she had to deal with her parents’ bewilderment and disappointment. She couldn’t explain to them why marks and good reports were just not enough to make up for sitting alone every day at lunchtime and being the odd one out in all activities.

All parents know the anguish and excitement they feel when their toddler first takes an unsupported step. What most of us don’t realise is that a teenager is also doing just that – taking his/her first steps into adult society. Teenagers are also learning what is acceptable and when, learning which people are like them and which ones to stay away from, what interests them and what is only put on to seem cool to friends and so on. Each decision becomes so agonizing for them because they fear being different or being just like everyone else. They need to simultaneously figure themselves out and figure out where they stand among their friends.

Basically, adolescence is an age of experimentation. Teenagers try on attitudes as often as clothes, trying to figure out whether a particular opinion ‘fits’ or not. Music, clothes, outings, and the choice of friends are actually areas where your child is trying to define himself/herself. This might explain why any criticism is taken as a personal insult or an attempt to put him/her down. Some changes may seem bizarre to you (like having a shaved head or a pierced eyebrow) but that doesn’t mean they have lost their minds or that you’ve failed as a parent.

Ultimately, the reasons for why things are the way they are and not the way they used to be don’t matter. What matters is being able to communicate to each other across this gap, to make a bridge rather than dig deeper into your side of the hill. And that’s where parents find themselves at a dead end, because most often, the more they try to reach out, the more their teenagers withdraw and shut themselves away. This is often because of the manner in which they communicate. The old parent-child communication style doesn’t work with teenagers, and most parents don’t know how else to get them to listen.What we, as parents, need to understand and accept is that familial communication is NOT one-way, from parents to adolescents. As much as you may have knowledge of the world and wish to impart it to the youngster so that s/he doesn’t face heartaches, your child is now an individual who needs to learn at least some (if not all) of these lessons on her/his own. That doesn’t mean you can’t be there for them when they fall but please don’t point out that you told them this would happen (even if you did). All we, as parents, can do is be there for them.

Achieving that balance between knowing where your son/daughter is at 3 a.m. and being a walking timetable for them is not easy. Not for you, nor for them. But it can be done, with patience and love and respect for the individuals that they are in the process of becoming.Sometimes it’s hard to get through, and you may fear for your teenager’s safety or innocence. It often helps to talk it over with a professional, who can be objective and yet involved with you and your adolescent son/daughter. There will be no final answer to the never-ending debate. But there will be a way to keep the door open and to keep you all sharing the important things, like Asha and her parents found out.

TalkItOver provides professional counselling and psychological services for individuals and families. A lot of parents and teenagers have found that it helps them to talk over issues with a concerned third party, either alone or as a family. If you or someone you know is having difficulty with a teenage child, you can contact us for more information and help.

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About Gayatri Swaminathan

Gayatri Swaminathan is a clinical psychologist with 7 years of practical experience in the field. She has worked as a trauma counsellor, a qualitative market researcher, lecturer and private practioner. She has an M. Phil in Clinical Psychology and M.A. in Applied Psychology from Delhi University and B.A. (Psychology, Sociology, English Literature) from Bangalore University. She is trained primarily in the cognitive-behavioural approach, but also incorporates other schools of therapy and techniques as and when needed. She works with individual adults, couples, children and adolescents and their families.