Parenting adolescents

A parent of my acquaintance told me very poignantly ‘It is very difficult for any human being to completely understand another human being. I think I know my kids and understand the individuals they are becoming, but sometimes I think I don’t understand them at all!’ Many parents go through a period where they are completely befuddled by their children. No matter how hard they try to understand their children, the most common criticism their child aims at them is ‘You don’t understand me at all’. It might not always be from the lack of trying. This gap in communication between a parent and child is often most pronounced when the child is in the stage of adolescence. Parenting teenagers is certainly no easy task and good parenting is also not an innate ability. Parenting skills are perfected through experience. This article aims to address some of the most common challenges that Indian parents face while raising adolescents (children between the ages of 12-18 yrs approx) or ‘teenagers’.

Ours is a country in which academic success is prized highly. All of us would want to say our child scored first in his/her class, topped all the exams and got into the most prestigious college or job. The emphasis on academic achievement is something which is often a source of great conflict between Indian parents and  their children.

Sanjana,  a 40 yr old mother, said “ I don’t know why my son is not doing better in PUC. I know he is capable of so much more. He can top his class if he wanted to but all he is concerned about is going out with his friends!” Sanjana was genuinely distraught because she felt her son was doing himself an injustice by not giving 100% to his studies. She only wanted the best for him. Looking at this situation carefully, we realize that there is one the crucial difference between Sanjana and her son- their priorities. Sanjana believes that an individual has to excel academically to succeed in the world. Her pain is increased by the fact that her son is capable of academic success but does not use his capacities to the fullest.

However, her son is in a very different place at this time. He is 17 yrs old and is still trying to figure out where he fits into the world. He is asking himself questions about what kind of a person he is, what he likes and dislikes, where he belongs and so on. It is essential for him to be able to find answers to these questions in order to realize what his priorities are and what he wants to do with his life. Only then might he view the world similarly to Sanjana.  Also, it might not be realistic for parents who are much older than their children to expect their children to have the same priorities and understanding of the world that they do without the experience that they have derived that understanding from. If adolescents are not given the opportunity and the freedom to explore different options at this age, they might find it hard to be independent, self-sufficient people in later life.

It is natural for parents to want to protect their children from hardships. Even when children are in their late teens or 20s, some parents will continue to take care of all their needs -keep their books in order, help them with their studies, drive them wherever they need to go, not give them financial responsibility etc. In effect, what this does is to make these individuals still depend on their parents to keep their lives running smoothly. Suddenly, when such children are thrust into adulthood with their own jobs, families and responsibilities, they might feel at a loss. They don’t know how to handle such a burden because they were never taught to look after themselves. This can lead to stress, anxiety and low self-confidence.

All adolescents or teenagers go through a conflict between autonomy vs dependence. A part of them wants to be independent and look after themselves while the other part fears that they are not capable of doing so and still need their family to do it for them. At this stage, if parents recognize and encourage the growing sense of independence in their children rather than being threatened by it, their children will grow to have confidence in their abilities. Parents often find it hard to encourage their child’s growing independence because they feel like they are no longer needed. As a reaction to that feeling, some might tend to hold on to them even harder. Such feelings are perfectly natural and part of the process of launching a child out into the world. When children leave home, parents experience what is called the ‘empty nest syndrome’ because the main focus of their lives up to that point-their children-no longer require their complete attention. This is a stage of major adjustment for the parents as well as they will have to learn to refocus on themselves, their marital relationship and their vocational pursuits.

Another common cause of friction between parents and adolescents is about the adolescent’s social life-the amount of time they spend with their friends outside of their homes. Parents often cannot understand why their child has suddenly started spending so much time with his/her friends, either on the phone talking to them, texting them or meeting with them. Parents might feel that their child’s time, which could be used more fruitfully on studies or other important tasks, is being wasted on frivolous pastimes. One way of understanding why your child behaves in such a way is to become aware that adolescence is a time when being part of a peer group becomes vitally important to the child. Often their confidence in themselves comes from how many friends they have and whether people like them or not. The opinion of their peer group, at this stage, might be more important to them than the opinions of their family members. Therefore, in order to be accepted into a peer group, adolescents will engage in different activities that their peers engage in. If they are not able to do so, they feel lonely, isolated and left out.

Reckless use of money can make many parents lose patience with their children. The adolescent has a constant need for more clothes, accessories and other items which parents might not be able to afford. Adolescents might not always be able to understand the consequences their actions are having on others. The desire to fit in and be accepted makes them want to dress like everyone else, have the same cars or bikes, go out shopping or eat out at the same places as their friends do. Also, when parents have developed a pattern of indulging their children, even when they cannot afford to, children will tend to constantly make unrealistic demands on their parents expecting them to be fulfilled. We cannot give our children everything they ask for throughout their childhood and suddenly expect them to behave differently when they grow older. Teaching children about financial responsibility is a task which can be started at any age, maybe beginning with a piggy bank and later, perhaps, by opening a small savings account for the adolescent’s pocket money and letting him /her manage the money in the account himself/herself.

Lastly, many parents and children will fight about small things like TV viewing time, what clothes the child is wearing etc and sometimes about the different values they hold. Adolescence is a time when an individual is discovering his/her own identity. Therefore, it is also a time when adolescents question their parents’ values and try to develop their own unique value systems. During this process, they might often criticize their parents’ views and support completely opposite views on various issues. While this can definitely be upsetting to parents, it might help to view this behavior in context- it is a part of growing up and becoming your own person. Adolescents can hold very idealistic opinions on many topics-love, marriage, career, friendships etc. They see the world as black and while with no room for grey. They might not appreciate the necessity to compromise on certain things. This is yet another stage in the moral development of an individual and their opinions and views at this stage are not set in stone. Research has found that although adolescents experiment with many value systems, they often end up finally accepting and following the core values that their parents followed. However, to reach such conclusions, they need the time to explore and decide for themselves what is good or bad, right or wrong and in between.

If you can relate to these struggles as a parent raising a teenager or have questions about parenting skills, experiencing the issues raised in this article and wanting help, you can contact us at TalkItOver for more information and professional counselling.

Talk It Over

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About Sarayu Chandrashekar

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Sarayu Chandrashekar is a qualified Marriage and Family Therapist (MFT). She has an M.S in Marriage and Family Therapy from Purdue University, USA, an M.S in Psychological Counselling from Montfort College, and a B.A in Psychology from Christ University, Bangalore. She has worked in a de-addiction centre and a family therapy clinic in the US as well as with the Association for the Mentally Challenged, Bangalore in the past. She has also completed a research study for her MFT degree on Indian couples living in the US and their marital satisfaction. She has nearly 1000 hours of counselling experience. She incorporates a combination of systemic family therapies and cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) in her work. She has a passion for couple and family therapy and group work.