The adolescent collapse

Tantrums? Yelling and yelling for homework? Total lack of interest in school? So many changes are happening in the life of a teenager, such as changes in friendships, dating problems, and “horrible teachers.” When things are so uncertain and changing, what can you do to stay calm at home?

For more than a decade, I have experienced the daily treatment of teenagers. As a teacher, I would see her negative side coming into my classroom tired, angry, crying, and sometimes ready to fight. Teachers expect a student to focus primarily on education, but this is not always the case. On many occasions, I would experience mini episodes of a juicy talk show or reality show. However, while every teenager is different, there are some common themes that come up when crises occur. Boys generally appear to respond by disassociating or avoiding school responsibilities, while girls may lash out verbally and emotionally.

One of the most common conversations I have had with parents of teenage children has to do with a lack of interest in school. Your focus may be on sports, girls, or video games. When we meet as a group, parents just don’t understand why their child is not completing homework or studying for tests. What can we do? How can we get it back on track? When you ask the young person what is going on, the most common response I get is “I don’t know.” And when pressured for a behavioral reason, we often hear, “Okay, whatever. I said I would.”

Girls are a little different. When they walk through the front door of the school, many girls seem to transform into social butterflies. The connections and bonds they develop with other classmates are more important than classroom activities. They often misbehave by dressing inappropriately, prompting school personnel to ask them to change. This often leads to additional behavior problems, as peer perception is more important than creating a friendly learning environment. Girls often have a revolving door of friendships. At the beginning of the year, I always tell them to never share their locker combinations because the people who are your friends this week will probably be your enemies next week. It is a weekly occurrence to see girls crying in the hallway or in class due to a problem with a classmate. When grades start to drop and parents request a conference, the meetings can be intense. Often the answer is emotional. On several occasions I have had to remind girls to speak respectfully to parents, as girls tend to lash out.

No parent wants to hear “I hate you.” However, for parents with teenage girls, there is a great chance that you will experience this at some point. It’s as if parents have never experienced the stresses of school, dating, or life. “You do not get it!” And in some respects, teenage girls may be right. There are so many new pressures being put on teens these days. While there has always been the stress of “status” or being accepted into a certain group, children now face new types of bullying, such as cyberbullying. Unfortunately, it’s easier to call someone on social media sites, embarrass them online, or tell them to kill themselves via text message.

When it comes to teens, a dose of understanding is certainly important. So what can parents do at home to help their children? My top two suggestions: communication and consistency. As much as a teenager may disagree, setting limits is what they want the most. Children need to know what is expected of them from a set curfew to expectations for completing school work. But they also need to feel like they have been heard. This does not mean that you have to agree with what they say, but it can generate a little more cooperation if you listen to them first.

Let’s be honest … teenagers do a lot of silly things. I’m sure we can all think of a time or two when we wish we could take back something we did. The important thing to remember is that we learn from these silly mistakes. Every wrong turn is an opportunity to learn. Too often we assume that children know what they are supposed to do, just as we assume that they know how to use their textbooks to study. But if no one shows them the way, how can they know? This is where communication comes in. Instead of asking why they did something, try what as in “What was the reason for that decision?” It eliminates the tone of guilt that adolescents tend to listen to and opens space to learn what is going through their minds. This gives you a chance to hear if there is a gap between what you think they should know and what they really understand. And when you find out that they really don’t know something, you have a great opportunity to lead the way and share your own knowledge.

I recently experienced this with my nephew. He started a new job near where I live and asked to stay with me. We quickly learned that he needed guidance on how to budget when he was spending a full paycheck in a week. He had assumed that he had been taught to balance his income with his expenses, but he was wrong. While we both had to address their financial concerns during the second week, this led to a great discussion and a wonderful learning opportunity. We even had a chance to talk about creating a college money and savings account. But this wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t taken the time to figure out what he was thinking.

Along with communication, parents need consistency. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase “Say what you want to say and say what you say.” The first thing to keep in mind is not to create a reward or consequence that you are not willing to sustain. If you recognize that your child is waking up too late playing video games and you want them to fall asleep, don’t threaten to take away the game system unless they mean it. The moment he does not comply, he knows that everyone is talking and that he should not take them seriously. If your daughter is not completing homework because she spends all her time online and on the phone, what options are available to her? Don’t feel bad about taking your computer and phone with you. Sure there will be a fight initially, but all storms will eventually run out of rain. Sure you could give in, but is it the best for your daughter? What lesson do you really want your teen to learn?

Another aspect of consistency is helping your child create a routine. When should tasks be completed? Left to them, many teens will wait until just before bed when they are too tired to focus. With so many things catching your eye, it’s hard to prioritize what’s most important. This is especially true for teens who participate in sports or other extracurricular activities. When is homework complete if they have band practice at 4 and roaming basketball at 7 pm? We cannot assume that they will know how to handle all of these tasks, especially when we struggle with the same things as adults. Guidance is important, but what if you have a hard time prioritizing tasks yourself? Seek help. Perhaps an aunt or grandmother could be the main example in this case. Ask your teen to make a list of all the things she would like or should do during the week. Then plan how it will be completed. Sometimes just “seeing” it in front of them helps teens plan.

One final note: parenting is not easy. You know it. And just as your teen makes mistakes, so will you. And that’s fine. But it is those parents who show that they care who have the greatest impact on their children’s lives. Model what you would like to see of your child. Sometimes that means sitting at the kitchen table balancing the bills while she completes the task. Perhaps you are showing your child how he managed to study for a math test. And when your teenager is struggling to understand Shakespeare, maybe turn off the television and read it with him. Ultimately, you, as the parent, will have the greatest impact on how your child handles the difficulties of adolescence. When tempers flare or grades drop, communication and consistency are key to defusing the adolescent crisis.

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