To say that teenagers are tough to understand is a truism, but even knowing that the torment is shared by every parent doesn’t make it any easier. Even the most normal teenagers are irritable, sleep a lot, feel self-conscious, keep to themselves, and are sometimes depressed as they respond to the changes they are undergoing — physically, emotionally, sexually, intellectually, and socially. Parents are trying to adjust their stance toward their children and remain supportive, yet still influence them to move in constructive directions.

Valerie Rawls, a residential therapist at the Carrier Clinic, sees the difficulties between parents and teens as biologically determined. The kids are trying to understand the changes they are going through, she says, and “they are mourning the loss of being a child and being taken care of.” At the same time, “we are biologically pre-wired to pull away from our parents.” And, of course, as the kid pulls away, the parents pull the reins tighter, and in response the kid pulls that much harder.

The result is at best frustration on both sides. At worst, mental health issues can emerge if a teenager has trouble negotiating the multi-layered changes of adolescence. Dangers lurk on every dimension. On a physical level, kids can lose confidence if they either develop more or less rapidly than their peers. Intellectually, if they start having academic issues as the work gets harder, they may start acting out behaviorally. If teens are not meeting their social needs with a peer group and support outside the family, they start feeling like they are not lovable or likable, which conflicts with their need to be independent from their families.

For working parents, the teenage years can be especially difficult, as it becomes so difficult to monitor what the kids are doing and with whom they are hanging out after school.

Yet all parents have at least two things going for them. First of all, says Rawls, “parents are experts on their own kids.” They know what their normal reactions are to stress and can judge when their actions fall outside that realm. Second, parents have already laid the groundwork for their teens throughout childhood, trying to instill self worth and to model appropriate behaviors and good decision-making skills. These are strengths that their children always have with them, even while involved with a peer group that the parent may deem inappropriate.

Rawls gives a talk, “Help! I have a Teenager!,” on Thursday, November 2, at 7 p.m. at the North Brunswick Public Library. This presentation is part of the Carrier Clinic’s Community Education Program. For more information, call Heather Steel at 908-281-1513.

Rawls is an expert on adolescents, with both a strong academic background and experience in a variety of settings. When she began her college career at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, she was a quiet and shy person who didn’t really know what she was good at — except for school. Then she developed a relationship with a professor who thought she would be good at human services or social work and urged her to take an intro course. She did, and fell in love with the field.

In college she thoroughly enjoyed an internship in an inner-city community center that provided kids with activities and after-school projects. After graduating in 1998 with a degree in human services, she worked in Pennsylvania as a behavioral assistant for Therapeutic Support Services and then as a school-based juvenile probation officer. She then enrolled at Barry University in Miami, Florida, graduating in 2003 with a master’s degree in social work. She is now a licensed clinician.

In Florida she worked in a correctional facility for teenage boys who had exhibited violent behavior, including murder and repeat drug offenses. “It was a punitive environment,” she says, “and I got to see a spectrum of the worst behaviors.” Then she moved to a residential program for teenage boys who were sex offenders and two years ago she took a job as a residential therapist at the Carrier Clinic, where she works with boys. “I like to work with boys who are more challenging,” she says. “I have a special place for them in my heart — I’m not sure why.” Her long-term goal is to have a private practice and work with teenagers.

From her work with teens, Rawls has a number of suggestions for parents:

Prepare kids in advance for issues that may arise during adolescence. Rawls suggests that parents begin to speak with their 10 to 13-year-old kids about situations they may encounter and help them weigh different potential consequences.

For example, talk to your child about what would happen if he were at the mall and his friends suggested stealing a T-shirt. Discuss what would happen if he were caught, whether such behavior might lead to more dangerous actions in the future, and even how it would affect his feelings about himself — even if he were not caught. This practice in decision-making is critical as kids come under more intense peer-group pressure.

Provide opportunities to build on strengths. “Teenagers who feel they have skills or qualities that adults notice, thrive more,” says Rawls. One approach is to get kids involved in extracurricular activities that play to their strengths. Another approach is for parents to build a positive experience as a consequence of inappropriate behavior. For example, as a consequence of breaking curfew, a child may be assigned to cook a meal for the family — a responsible behavior that both redresses the irresponsible choice and makes the children feel good about themselves.

Using what she calls a “strength-based perspective,” Rawls suggests that if your child does something inappropriate, you provide consequences that draw upon their skills. She gives the example of a teen in-patient who is a gifted photographer, but has trouble academically and socially. He might be appointed as the unit photographer, with the freedom to walk around and snap whatever moves him and post the pictures in the lounge, as long as he behaves appropriately. If he gets into trouble, though, he will be asked to take pictures that represent what he is feeling and will have to write a paper about them.

Set clear expectations. As teens try to achieve greater independence, they are moving on what Rawls calls the “control to empowerment spectrum.” This means that children’s behavior will determine how much control they will have over their lives. To negotiate this spectrum safely, parents must set clear expectations for behavior in discussions with their children. But to have those kinds of conversations, parents need to catch their children when they are not already irritable.

Rawls suggests setting up a monthly “special time” to do something fun with your teen, and while things are calm, gently bringing up some issue. The parent might say, “We’ve argued a lot about your curfew. I want to talk with you and come to an agreement together.” If the teen is mature enough, the discussion can be relatively even-handed. A less mature teen may need clear direction, and the parent might have to say, “Here is my plan, but I’m willing to make changes.”

Make sure that parents present a unified message. “Teenagers have skill at splitting parents apart,” says Rawls, “so they need to be on the same page about what their plan of action will be.” Although the child won’t always be receptive, the parents need to be able to support each other.

Pay attention to warning signs. Changes in personality and behavior often indicate that problems are brewing. Here are some behaviors to watch out for: children who have always been happy and outgoing now isolating him themselves in a room, becoming more irritable, and arguing more frequently; children changing their clothing, dress, hairstyle, or friends; children showing increased secrecy about what they are doing, with whom, and where; children staying out late or running away; children whose frequent outbursts of anger escalate into punching walls or breaking things; children reported by teachers to be unable to concentrate in class or whose grades are dropping.

Get help when you need it. A working parent may need extra support from a family member or a friend who might check in with a teen in the afternoon after school.

Parents also may be able to find a mentor or “big brother/big sister” for their child through the county department of health and human services, or can get referrals for professional help, if they need it. The parents can also look for a parenting support group to get ideas on how to use verbal rather than physical interventions with their children.

But if children become aggressive and out of control and present a danger to themselves or others, then parents may need to call the police or DYFS or a probation officer. In the end, parents can’t make a child change and for the good of the household they may have to involve an outside agency. “It makes a difference when you have someone else to share authority with,” says Rawls.

“Parents are looking for behaviors that can change things instantly,” says Rawls, “but a child may not make those changes, and parents need to know when things are escalating out of control.” But if parents use Rawl’s advice and develop a plan of attack, they have a chance at success.

As Rawls says, “an effective parent is a parent with a plan; if you are on a basketball or football team, prior to game, you sit in the locker room and plan with the coach.” Parents need to move from optimism to pragmatism and get the help they need as soon as they need it.

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