by Genevieve Anderson
It was standing room only at the Drew School on February 3 – well, balcony room to be precise – with an unprecedented turn-out of men. The theme of the evening, “Being the Rare Adult Teens Listen To”, had clearly touched a nerve with many Bay Area parents, brought an expert counsellor into his element, and inspired a host of anxious questions. The overflowing auditorium revealed a universal concern: how do you make sure your child still hears your advice and adopts your values when the influence of peers, contemporary culture, even other parents drowns out the sound of your voice? And often this cacophony of outside noise is in direct conflict with your views, making your opinions irrelevant in the eyes of your child.
In 1954, teenagers spent five times more time with adults than with peers; by 2004, this statistic had completely reversed. Why exactly is it so difficult for parents to play a positive role in their teen’s life? Jeff Leiken, the speaker, related four factors.
1) Biology, the easiest to understand and most timeless, dictates the evolutionary necessity for a young person to separate gradually from her parents and hone her ‘survival’ skills to adapt to the wider, more threatening world.
2) Conflicting values from pop culture and thus your teen’s peer group are constantly bombarding your child with messages that appeal and sell, not protect or enrich. This is particularly true with regard to drugs and sex, where attitudes will always seem to parents to lean dangerously toward the casual side.
3) Academic pressure and the sheer volume of work that kids must handle today means that schoolwork has overtaken family life, usually straining parent-child relationships and a teen’s ability to make room for parental words of wisdom.
4) The sense of a bleak future ahead (terrorism, Mideast war, climate change etc.) for most teens only adds to the stress they feel and thus the resistance to positive, lasting values from adults.
So, how to be that rare adult teens listen to? Leiken prescribes some key remedies for the insufficient influence we have in our child’s life.
Recognize the benchmarks of development and adjust accordingly.
When our kids were little we could admire their obvious achievements with crawling, potty training, or riding a bike. Now it’s harder to see those nebulous moments when our teen acquires maturity around a certain issue or activity. How do we know when our kid is ready to tackle a major assignment alone, ride a bus alone, go to a party or on a trip with friends? When a threshold has been passed and our teen has shown some good judgement, parents should acknowledge it and adapt their rules to recognize the child’s increased responsibility. Leiken has very astutely identified those parents who are too busy or too fixated on the negatives to notice when these benchmarks are reached.
Make consequences real.
Kids make mistakes, sometimes big ones, but if they don’t experience consequences and feel real ownership of their error, they will not grow into resilient, responsible adults. According to Leiken, the consequences should optimize the learning potential of the mistake, not only punish or, worse, mitigate the fallout. And parents must follow through.
Be sophisticated in your advice.
Teens just won’t respond to cliches (“you know, when I was your age”), generalizations (“boys can be difficult”), or lectures (“I told you so”) – they will simply tune out. Communicate with teens in a way that respects their intelligence, is sensitive to the demands of their contemporary world, and is solutions-oriented. But make sure the practical advice you give is not too prescriptive: rather than say “here is what you do”, ask “what do you want as an outcome?”.
Don’t assume all is fine.
Leiken believes too many parents rely on the traditional trophies of teen life – good grades, friends, extracurriculars – as affirmation that everything is going well with their child. We also too often accept their withdrawal as normal adolescent behavior, when it can be a sign of trouble. Don’t assume and don’t back off – rather, trust your instincts when something has changed, even simple communication, and stay close.
Leiken’s presentation provoked some engaging questions from the parents, and a couple of surprising answers. In response to a common concern with privacy, Leiken stunned the audience by stating that instantly trusting a teenager was just plain stupid. Teens must earn your trust as well as their privacy – they have no right to it, particularly when their well-being or safety is at stake. So, if you want to check your child’s text messages, feel free. And if your child is begging for your trust and some privacy, set targets and make it a hard-won goal.
The last pieces of advice of the evening were equally refreshing. In reaction to a number of parental questions and anecdotes relating to adolescent herd mentality (when your teen tells you “everyone does it and everyone’s parents allow it”), Leiken urged the audience to stick to their guns. If you have a principle that bucks the trend – and don’t always believe that it does – be uncompromising. If you are consistently black-and-white about your values, your child will understand later and eventually come to appreciate it. And if you need reassurance that your values are valid, find your allies; there are bound to be other parents who share your views and will team up with you to reinforce a rule or help look after your group of teens. When a 15-year-old inadvertently caused a destructive party at a friend’s house, the consequence was not a grounding but probation: her mother promised to monitor her whereabouts more closely until she could prove more responsible. Almost a year later, the probation was relaxed when the girl began to show real growth in this area.