Parenting Teenagers with clinical problems

While school, family and friends are most important during early and late childhood, for teenagers the order is reversed. So friends become the priority, and things like school, studies, even family recede to the background. Few parents are entirely comfortable about this change, and rightly so. In this day and age, there are many things that can put a teenager’s emotional and physical well-being in danger, and very many of these things arise out of peer interactions and the social sphere.

So what are these dragons that wait for our young ones at the gates of adulthood? Teen pregnancies, contracting sexually transmitted diseases through unprotected sex with multiple partners, use and abuse of alcohol and drugs, falling in and out of love, getting into gangs, and being ragged are just a few of the horrors, many of which we were innocent of as teenagers. These are often summarised by psychologists as the ‘unholy triad’ – early sexual experience, substance use and violence.

Today’s adolescents are in a more vulnerable and confusing position than their parents were at that age. Most teenagers, no matter how well brought up and how free the relationship with parents will keep some secrets and will lie about some things at certain times. The trick is to know when to let them be and when parents need to dig deeper. What happens usually is that the parents’ anxiety to make sure their child is safe is stronger than their understanding that the teenager needs space. So you end up getting into petty fights over minor everyday issues, and might never get to know what the larger issues are.

This happens because adolescence is a stage that is totally self-centred, in every sense of the word. Teenagers feel that they are the only ones experiencing this change in emotions and relationships; so telling them that you have been through it as well is disbelieved. They cannot see that other people may have a different opinion about the situation they’re in, and thus lose out on perspective and objectivity. This, more than anything you do or don’t do as parents, contributes to that yawning gap between you and your teenager. This fact would come as a relief to most parents, because we all tend to think that there is an elusive ‘something’ that we can do to make our children more comfortable in these thorny times.

A certain amount of mood swings and behavioural variations are to be expected from teenagers. However, there are certain indicators to look out for: excessive time spent alone (time on the computer or in electronic contact with friends doesn’t count), a drop in enthusiasm for activities that s/he used to love up until recently, bursts of anger without valid reason and a failure to come out of it in the normal course of time (most normal teenage storms should end in 1-2 days), accusations against the family of being unloved or unwanted, disappearance of money or other valuables, lack of information regarding whereabouts or company for long periods of time, truancy from school/college, unexplained bruises or wounds, a reluctance to talk about friends, poor hygiene, and unaccountable disappearance from home. Any combination of these signs could indicate dependency on an unsuitable substance, like drug or alcohol addiction.

Some of these signs are also seen in adolescent depression, which does not follow the same pattern or show the same picture as adult depression. So a teenager may not be noticeably sad or crying or talking about feeling low; instead, he may fly off the handle at the slightest provocation, resort to hurting himself or others, or take abnormal risks in a very casual manner. Parents must especially be sensitive to the sub-text (what they’re feeling) rather than the actual conversation… So your child who is jokingly telling you about how she got ragged by a senior may want more than just a reassuring “Next year you won’t have to face all this”. Adolescent depression is more serious and has more tragic consequences also because it heightens the usual teenage tendency to act first and think later. That is often the reason behind the newspaper articles of adolescent suicide over a failed love affair or bad marks in an exam. In the best of times, children and adolescents (and quite a few adults!) have a hard time thinking of the future – be that next week, next year or next decade. So bad marks suddenly take on an all-consuming position in the present and seem to leave the teen with no option but to get out of life altogether. Research shows that a timely sharing of suicidal thoughts and feelings, even without any further intervention, reduces such thoughts by more than 95%.

Increasing sexual awareness and activity in teenage is another thing that most parents fear and have no control over. This is one problem that can be described as the invisible elephant of family life… everybody knows that sexual urges are experienced once puberty is reached, but very few people are comfortable naming it for what it is – a natural biological urge. The morality, the advisability of sexual relations can only be discussed with children if this elephant is named and accepted by the parents. As long as we keep tiptoeing around the beast and making vague rules about “Don’t get too close to girls”, “Wear something else, you’re a big girl now”, we can’t communicate anything. More importantly, we don’t allow the teenager to talk to us about sex. So their views on sex are determined by half-baked knowledge, peer pressure and fantasies, rather than the need to be protected against sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies. But not talking about sex doesn’t mean that they won’t be doing it, which is something most parents overlook.

The last, and possibly most terrifying of the terrible triad is violence – it may be in the form of ragging rituals that humiliate, physical violence as a part of ‘gangs’, or abuse within a romantic relationship. Sadly, violence is used by many teens as a means of resolving not just conflict but also as a way of establishing their identity or gaining respect among peers. This is a troublesome trend that is contributed to by a lack of communication between the generations, and shocked or extreme reactions from parents only serve to drive the teens further away.

Being there for your child – at whatever age he or she may be – is the first and possibly only rule in parenting. Much as we would love to, we can’t really wrap them in cotton wool and hide them till they’re adults. We can’t prevent them from making mistakes and hurting themselves simply by warning them of what lies ahead, either. Our wish and need to impart lessons we have learnt the hard way may be what pushes the teenager away. So when you see your teen is troubled over something, don’t jump in with the advice and the ‘I told you so’s. Instead, be available for them as a sounding board, as a guinea pig for their ideas, as a shock absorber in times of need. Your emotional reactions, especially if the situation is extreme, can of course not be denied or suppressed. But maybe they can be controlled, so that communication does not break down. Remember, the most powerful lesson they can learn from you is by seeing the way you respond to stress: not what you say but how you say it and what you do.

Of course, there will be times when you feel out of your depth and may require support and guidance for yourself. Also, in order to be able to deal with the situation in the best possible way, you may need some support and a space where your family as a whole can heal. TalkItOver can help you with the assessment of these disorders and with their interventions.

Talk It Over

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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.