When my children were in their mid- to late teens, I looked at them, listened to them and sometimes reacted to them as if they were some type of illegal alien dropped into my life from some other planet, whose primary purpose was to eternally harass my existence and deplete my pocketbook. Sometimes I was frightened by what they seemed to be turning into. Sometimes I was proud of those sudden flashes of maturity, appreciativeness and good judgment they displayed. Most of the time, I was aware that I was on the adult side of that generation gap that existed some 25 short years earlier.
Not a lot has changed on the adolescent side. Adolescents are still rebellious, challenging adult values, experimenting with new roles, feeling able to change the world and playing with decisions and choices that may set the course for the rest of their lives.
Life for teenagers today however, is not like it was when we were teenagers. Now we know that sexual behavior can lead to pregnancy and illness. Now we know that poor grades can shut out opportunities for a college career or a better job. Now we know drinking alcohol and driving can maim us for the rest of our lives or kill us (or somebody else) immediately. Now we know that there are always, always, always consequences directly linked to our choices. Now we know that the trick is to learn to anticipate which consequences result from what choices.
Stay connected: What can parents do to help stay connected to our young adult offspring? Here are some suggestions for bridge construction across the gap.
1. Keep the lines of communication open between you and the teenager. Listen to them. Listen to what is said and what is unsaid. At this point in their lives, listening is more important than talking to them. Listen with an open mind and an open heart. What they have to say is important. The process of saying it to a listening adult is crucial.
2. Assert your own values without attacking their newly developing ones. For example, let them know how you think and believe about the uses of alcohol, but don't preach, dictate or demand they conform to your beliefs. Set a consistent example for what you value and give permission for them to develop their own "philosophy of life."
3. Reward your teenager with increased freedom whenever they display personal and interpersonal responsibility. If they demonstrate responsible use of money, consider and respect their ideas on how money is to be spent.
4. Learn to expect friction and defiance. Teenagers operate on what is called "fluid intelligence." It enables them to support even the most irrational idea or argument. Adults usually function on "static intelligence," or knowledge accumulated over past years of experience. Defiance is often necessary for the teenager in order to free himself from the felt dependencies he no longer needs to "make it" on his own in the world.
5. Save your heavy ammunition for important conflicts. Don't punish or impose restrictions for insignificant or helpless causes (e.g. missing a curfew by 10 minutes or wearing clothes or hair styles that seem awful to you). If you fire all your big guns on small issues, you will have no fire power about the more significant offenses like wrecking the family car.
Rather than seeing our teenagers as aliens, we need to accept them as young colleagues. Perhaps we can allow ourselves to enter their world and learn from it. After all, kids provide spontaneity and hope for the future. They offer their idealism and enthusiasm, without which the process of change and growth would come to a virtual standstill. Adventure in their world may be exhilarating even if we usually stand on our own side of the future and only occasionally cross over the connecting bridge.
Lloyd J. Thomas, Ph.D., has more than 30 years of experience as a life coach and licensed psychologist. He is available for coaching in any area. Initial coaching sessions are free. Contact him at (970) 568-0173
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