Between Parent and Teenager
By Dr. Haim G. Ginott
May be copied for noncommercial, educational purposes
Chapter 1 – Rebellion and response
Many teenagers have an inner radar that detects what irritates their parents. If we value neatness our teenagers may be sloppy, her room messy, her clothes repulsive, and her hair unkempt and stringy. If we insist on good manners, he may interrupt conversations, use profanity, and belch in company. If we enjoy language that has grace and nuance, he may speak slang. If we treasure peace, he may quarrel with our neighbors, tease their dogs, and bully their children. If we like good literature, she may fill our home with comic books. If we stress physical activity, he may refuse to exercise. If we are concerned about health, she may wear summer clothes in freezing weather. If we are worried about air pollution and lung cancer, he may smoke like a chimney. If we prize good marks and academic standards, she may sink to the bottom of his class.
Bewildered, parents respond with a predictable sequence of desperate measures. First, we get tough. When this fails, we switch to kindness. When no results follow, we try reasoning. When gentle persuasion falls on deaf ears, we resort to ridicule and rebuke. Then we return to threats and punishment. This is the modus operandi of a mutual frustration society.
What can parents do to stay sane and to survive with honor? A famous oriental proverb advises relaxation in face of the inevitable.
A time of turmoil
Adolescence can be a time of turmoil and turbulence, of stress and storm. Though it is estimated that only 5% of children who were trouble-free children will become trouble come teens, it is normal for all teens to test limits and seek autonomy. Resistance against authority and rebellion against convention are to be expected and tolerated for the sake of learning and growth.
Our children's adolescence can be a difficult time for parents. It is not easy to watch a pleasant child turn into an unruly adolescent. It is especially hard to tolerate the appearance or reappearance of annoying mannerisms. It is worrisome to see a youngster lying in bed, staring into space, and twisting a piece of string for hours on end. It is bewildering to watch shifting moods, or listen to never-ending complaints. Suddenly, nothing suits their taste. The house is crummy, the car is junky, and we are old-fashioned.
Life can become a series of daily irritations. Old battles are revived. She fights getting up in the morning, and fights going to bed at night. He is behind in his studies and in his bathing. She is full of contradictions. His language is crude, but he is too shy to change clothes in the locker room. She talks about love, but a hug from mother will send her running for her life. He will quarrel and quibble and ignore our words. But he will be genuinely surprised if we feel hurt by his antics.
Our consolation (or perhaps only half a consolation) is that there is a method to the madness. His behavior fits his developmental phase. The purpose of adolescents is to establish their own identities. Adolescence is a period of curative madness, in which every teenager has to remake his or her sense of self. They must free themselves from childhood ties with parents, establish new identifications with peers, and find their own identities.
Some teenagers are preoccupied with unanswerable questions. They are obsessed with the fragility of life and the inevitability of death. The following excerpt from a letter by a sixteen-year-old girl is an example:
The more I read about life's splendor, the more I see its tragedy: The fleetingness of time, the ugliness of age, the certainty of death. The inevitable is always on my mind. Time is my slow executioner. When I see large crowds at a beach, or a ball game, I think to myself: “Who among them is going to die first, and who last?” How many of them will be dead next year? Five years from now? Ten years from now? I feel like crying out: “How can you enjoy life when you know death is around the corner?”
Many teenagers are tormented by terrors they deem private and personal. They do not know that their anxieties and doubts are universal. This insight is hard to convey. Each teenager must attain it on his or her own. It takes time and wisdom to realize that the personal parallels the universal, and what pains one person pains all humanity.
A search for identity
The search for a personal identity is the life task of a teenager. When each looks in the mirror, the pressing question is: “Who am I?” He is not sure what he wants to be, but he knows what he does not want to be. She is afraid of being a nobody, an imitation of an image, a chip off the old block. He becomes disobedient and rebellious, not so much to defy his parents but in order to experience identity and autonomy. The contrariness can be extreme. For instance, before buying a suit one teenager asked the salesman: “If my parents like this dress, can I exchange it for another one?”
A teen's task is tremendous, and the time is short. Too much is happening at once. There are somatic spurts, psychic urges, social clumsiness, and painful self-consciousness. No room is ever quite large enough for an adolescent. She doesn't mean to bump into the hostess, drop her plate, or spill the drink. She just does. His feet slide from under him, and his hands create havoc.
Mass media tactlessly dramatize awkwardness for the adolescent. Television magnifies his pimples; radio call attention to his bad breath; and magazines want him to be deodorantly safe. They tell him what best friends would not: to sweeten his breath; to straighten her teeth; to wash away his dandruff; to shorten her nose; to elevate his height; to add weight or lose flab; to build muscles and correct postures. With such friendly advice many a teenager feels defective.
While teenagers can not acknowledge it, they need our help. But, to be effective, our aid must be subtle and sophisticated.
Guidelines to help
Accept the restlessness and discontents of adolescence.
Adolescence will not be a perpetually happy time. It is a time for uncertainty, self-doubt, and struggle. This is the age of cosmic yearnings and private passions, of social concern and personal agony. It is the age of inconsistency and ambivalence.
It is not helpful to ask a teenager, “What's the matter with you? Why can't you sit still? What has suddenly gotten into you?” These are unanswerable questions. Even if he knew, he could not say: “Look Mom, I am torn by conflicting emotions. I am engulfed by irrational urges. I am burning with unfamiliar desires.”
Says Brian, age sixteen:
“I'm always frustrated. I'm in love and there's no girl. I'm overcharged and there's no outlet. I look for a chance to act, to flex my muscles, to feel my strength. I can't talk about it with my parents. I want to learn the bitter from the sweet by tasting, not by talking. I hunger for experience; they feed me explanations.”
Seventeen-year-old Barbara dramatically vents the agonies of her age:
“Every day I ask myself why I am not the person I would like to be. My relationship with myself is a very unhappy one. I am temperamental, a person of many moods. I pretend, so people cannot discern it. This is what I hate most about my life. I always act not like my true self. All I really want of life is to have someone who can accept me as I am.
A teenager's need is urgent and pressing. But like hunger and pain, it is easier experienced than put in words. Parents can help by tolerating his restlessness, respecting his loneliness, and accepting the discontent. They can best help by not prying.
Don't minimize their feeling of unique struggle.
Teenagers do not want instant understanding. When troubled by conflicts, they feel unique. Their emotions seem new, personal, private. No one else ever felt just so. They are insulted when told, “I know exactly how you feel. At your age I too felt the same.” It distresses them to be seen as transparent, naïve, and simple when they feel complex, mysterious, and inscrutable. To sense when a teenager needs understanding and when misunderstanding is a difficult and delicate task. The sad truth is that no matter how wise we are we cannot know fully how they feel. And we cannot be right for any length of time in our teenager's eyes.
Differentiate between acceptance and approval.
Teenagers rebel in a thousand ways. Our response must differentiate between tolerance and sanction, between acceptance and approval. We tolerate much, but sanction little. A physician does not reject a patient because he bleeds. Though unpleasant, such behavior is tolerated; it is neither encouraged nor welcomed. It is merely accepted. Similarly, a parent can tolerate unlikable behavior without sanctioning it.
Wise parents know that fighting a teenager, like fighting a riptide, is inviting doom. When caught in a crosscurrent expert swimmers stop struggling. They know that they cannot fight their way to shore. They float and let the tide carry them, until they find a firm footing. Likewise, parents of teenagers must flow with life, alert to opportunities for safe contact.
Don't imitate his language and conduct.
Children are childish, adults must be adultish. Teenagers deliberately adopt a style of life that is different from ours. When we imitate their style, we only force them into further opposition.
Says Mrs. A: “I discovered this week that I have been doing something right. My daughter had a long talk with me about mothers and daughters. She told me that her best friend Holly was very unhappy because her mother competes with her ‘in figure and fashion.' My daughter then gave me a nice compliment. She said: “Mother's should be fashion conscious only to a point. For instance, you dress well, Mom. You look like a mother and act like a mother, and talk like a mother.'”
Don't collect thorns.
Parents are often tempted to impose their standards and methods on their children. Some parents make a career of correcting their children. They look for unpleasant facts about their teenager's conduct, and track down small defects in their character. For their own good, so they believe, they need to be reminded of their deficiencies. Such honesty eventually kills communication between parent and teenager. No one benefits from flaws flung in his or her face. It is too threatening for a teenager to cope with the naked reality of personal faults. Calling attention to them is like shining a harsh spotlight on them. Eyes will shut instantly and instinctively. It is not helpful to dwell on character flaws. When forced to admit such faults publicly, a teenager may no longer want to correct them privately. In situations in which flaws become apparent, our immediate task is to help them cope with present crises. Our long-term task is to provide them with relationships and experiences that correct character and build personality. Our main purpose is to tempt them to live up to their human potential. This purpose is better implemented quietly than proclaimed loudly.
Don't step on corns.
Every teenager has some imperfections about which he is especially sensitive. The world usually takes notice of them, to tease and ridicule. If a teenager is small she will be called “shorty,” “shrimp,” or “runt.” If he is thin and tall, he is a “string bean,” “stretch,” or “bean pole.” If she is fat, she will be named “fatso,” “chubby,” or “blimp.” If he is weak, he may be called “sissie,” “mama's boy,” or “chicken.” Young teenagers suffer deeply from such nicknames, even when they pretend indifference. It is best that parents not tease their teenager, even in jest. Insult cuts deeper and lasts longer when it comes from a parent. The damage may be permanent.
Parents should avoid treating a teenager like a child. Parents often like to remind their teenager how little he was just a few years ago. They tell “cute” incidents of the past: How he used to be afraid of the dark or how he wet his pants at a birthday party.
Teenagers hate to be reminded of their babyhood. They want to put distance between themselves and childhood. They want to be considered grown-ups. Parents should support this desire. In presence of our teenager, we should refrain from reminiscing about his infancy or showing off his photos taken in the nude at the age of one. Our whole way of relating – our praise, criticism, reward, or discipline – should be geared to a young adult, not a young child.
Don't invite dependence.
In adolescence, dependency creates hostility. Parents who foster dependence invite unavoidable resentment. Teenagers crave independence. The more self-capable we make them feel, the less hostile they are toward us. A wise parent sympathetically watches the drama of growth, but resists the desire to intervene too often. Out of concern and respect, whenever possible, parents allow their teenagers to make their own choices and to use their own powers. Their language is deliberately sprinkled with statements that encourage independence:
“The choice is yours.”
“You decide about that.”
“If you want to.”
“It's your decision.”
“Whatever you choose is fine with me.”
A parental “yes” is gratifying to a small child. But teenagers need voice and choice in matters that affect their lives.
The following is an example of a respectful response:
Mrs. A: My sixteen-year-old daughter told me how she was planning to work out her problems with a boy friend. She wanted to know what I thought of her plan. I said, “What you have proposed makes sense to me.” My daughter seemed satisfied. In a considerate voice she said: “Thank you, Mother.”
Don't hurry to correct facts.
Teenagers often respond to corrections with obstinacy. They become
unreachable and unteachable, determined not to be influenced by anyone or forced into anything.
As one teenager said: “There is a certain satisfaction in being in the wrong that a goody-goody will never know.”
Another teenager said: “I now my father is right. But I do wish he didn't rub my nose in it.”
And a teenager in therapy related: “My father is a natural born improver. It hurts him to see me do things my own way. He always has a batter way – his own. I dislike my father's advice. I am determined to make my own mistakes.”
A bitter-tongued parent cannot teach respect for facts. Truth for its own sake can be a deadly weapon in family relations. Truth without compassion can destroy love. Some parents try too hard to prove exactly how, where, and why they have been right. This approach will bring bitterness and disappointment. When attitudes are hostile, facts are unconvincing.
Don't violate their privacy.
Teenagers need privacy; it allows them to have a life of their own. By providing privacy, we demonstrate respect. Some parents pry too much. They read their teenagers' mail and listen in on their telephone calls. Such violations may cause resentment. Teenagers feel cheated and enraged. In their eyes, invasion of privacy is a dishonorable offense. As one girl said: “I am going to sue my mother for malpractice of parenthood.” She unlocked my desk and read my diary.”
One sixteen-year-old boy complained: “My mother has no respect for me. She invades my privacy and violates my civil rights. She comes into my room and rearranges my drawers. She can't stand disorder, she says. I wish she'd tidy up her own room and leave mine alone. I deliberately mess up my desk as soon as she cleans it up. But mother never learns.”
Some teenagers complain that their parents participate too eagerly in their social life.
Respect for privacy requires distance which parents find hard to maintain. They want closeness and fraternization. For all their good will, they intrude and invade. Such familiarity does not breed mutual esteem. For respect to flourish, parents and teenagers must keep some distance. They can “Stand together yet not too near together.” Respect encompasses an awareness of our teenager as a distinct and unique individual, a person apart from us. In the last analysis, neither parent nor teenager “belongs” to the other. Each belongs to himself or herself.
Avoid clichés and preaching.
Says fifteen-year-old May: “I can't talk to my mother. She becomes over concerned. Instead of helping me, she starts suffering. Her eyes fill with tears and her face says: ‘Oh, poor thing. It hurts me more than it hurts you.' How would you like to be helped by a doctor who is so sympathetic that he faints at the sight of blood? That's my mother.”
To be helpful, we need to learn empathy – an ability to respond genuinely to our child's moods and feelings without being infected by them. We need to help our teenager with his anger, fear, and confusion, without ourselves becoming angry, fearful, and confused.
The phrase, “When I was your age” brings instant deafness to teenagers. They defend themselves against our moralistic monologues by not listening. They do not want to hear how good we were, and how bad they are by comparison. Even if they hear us, they do not believe that we were so hard-working, sensible, smart, thrifty, and well behaved. In fact, they have difficulty imagining that we were ever young.
Don't talk in chapters.
Says Barry, age seventeen: “My mother does not converse, she lectures. She turns the simplest idea into a complex inquiry. I ask a short question, she gives me a long answer. I avoid her. Her speeches take too much of my time. I wish she talked in sentences and paragraphs, not in chapters.”
Says Bess, age sixteen: “My father is sensitive to temperature but not to temperament. He is totally unaware of emotions and moods. He does not read between the lines, and cannot sense words unsaid. He can talk at length without ever becoming aware that he is losing his audience. He does not see obvious signs of boredom. He never notices that he has lost an argument. He merely thinks he has failed to make his position clear. He talks but does not communicate.”
Don't label them.
Parents often treat teenagers as though they were deaf. They talk about them in their presence, as though they were objects. They evaluate their past, and predict their future. Thus, they create self-fulfilling prophecies: “Alfie was born a sour puss. He is a natural pessimist. Always was and always will be.
Claire is neither here nor there. She is a dreamer. She takes after her Aunt Emily, the poet. She lives in a world of her own.”
Such labeling is dangerous. Children tend to live down to the problems prophesied by their parents.
Don't use reverse psychology.
Teenagers often complain that their parents drive them crazy. Says Beth, age fifteen, “My mother knows how to get my goat. She tries to motivate me by exaggerating me. When she wants me to behave, she says: ‘You'll never do that right.' When she wants me to clean my room, she adds: ‘I am wasting my breath on you. You just don't care.'”
A parent should not use reverse psychology on teenagers. It is a dishonest approach that leads to spiteful behavior and relations.
Don't send teens on guilt trips.
Teenagers suffer greatly from parental messages that are confused and contradictory.
Mother said to Molly, age fifteen: “Sure, you may go to the dance. You'll have a good time. Of course, you know me. I never sleep when you go out. I'll wait up for you.” Mother's statement put her daughter in an impossible situation. Molly is damned if she goes to the dance, and damned if she does not. Mother's double message resulted in confusion and distress. To avoid conflict, a parent's statement should carry one message: A clear prohibition, a gracious permission, or an open choice.
When Brenda, age fourteen, asked permission to go to a party her mother answered: “I have to think about it. I'll give you a definite answer tomorrow morning.” Mother thought over the request and made inquiries about the party, and then gave her permission graciously. She said: “It seems like a lovely party. You may attend it if you want to.” Mother helped Brenda choose the right dress and sent her off to the party excited and happy.
Many parents fear that their teenager will never mature. They loudly lament his future fate while prodding him to grow up.
“You'll never be able to hold a job unless you learn to get up on time.”
“No one will want to hire you unless you learn to spell. You're practically illiterate.”
“With such handwriting you won't even be able to cash your unemployment checks.”
We cannot prepare our teenagers for the future. We can only help them deal with the present. There can be no real preparation for the most soul shaking experiences a teenager may have to live through: being jilted by a beloved; being betrayed by a friend; being snubbed by peers; being mistreated by a teacher; being shaken by the death of a relative or of a friend.
It makes no sense to speculate about such eventualities. It is unkind to tell a boy in love, “Look, sometimes love cools off. Your girl may jilt you. Better be prepared.” Or, “Don't depend so much on one friend. He may let you down. You should have more friends, just in case.” Or, “You love your dog too much. What if he should die? He can't live forever. Start getting used to the idea.”
Teenagers must make their way in life facing each crisis as it is encountered. Our silent love is their main support. Advice will be rejected. Reasoning will be resented. Even mild warnings will be taken as personal affront.
Secure in their parents' affection and respect teenagers must venture on their journey alone. Concerned adults serve best when with confidence they stand and wait. As one seventeen-year-old girl put it: “As I think back… you didn't seem to do a thing but be there. And yet a harbor doesn't do anything, either, except to stand there quietly with arms always outstretched waiting for the travelers to come home.”