Nothing Cures Adolescence Like a Bowl of Bubble Gum Ice Cream
While on a ‘date’ with me recently, my 12-year old daughter began schooling me on what it’s like to be starting adolescence. We discussed physical changes as well as cognitive and psychosocial growth. We covered adolescents’ need for independence as well as their quest for identity. I noted a healthy tendency to try on new roles and behaviors (within limits) and an occasional tendency towards moodiness and sassiness (to which my daughter gave me a knowing smile). She in turn noted that parents of adolescents are prone to ‘boring lectures’ (this temporarily quieted me down).
We talked about “The Power of the Pimple” (e.g., how one blemish on an adolescent’s face can lead to a week-long absence from school) and covered issues of exaggeration, self-centeredness, and rebellion. As our conversation progressed, the reality of my daughter’s impending adolescence began to hit me. Then, suddenly, she ordered a double scoop of Bubble Gum ice cream for us, and I felt reassured that there remains a good deal of little girl in her.
Contrary to popular perception, research shows that most families navigate the waters of adolescence with few serious problems. In other words, while adolescence can be a period of occasional confusion and choppy waters, most adolescents are not in trouble with the law or failing school or running away from home or otherwise wreaking havoc in their families.
But some are. Parenting the difficult adolescent – who, by the way, is often described as having been a ‘high maintenance’ child all along – is no easy task. These adolescents defy at every turn, refuse to accept responsibility for their actions, and are often found manipulating situations to their advantage.
While being flexible is crucial for parents of adolescents, flexibility with the difficult adolescent can often lead to an almost total loss of parental control. Such an adolescent fails to see the value in any parental authority, and seems to want to live his/her life in a world devoid of limits.
Parents’ responses to the trying circumstances of adolescence will largely be a reflection of their parenting philosophy. In other words, all parents have implicit values upon which their interaction with their children is based, and these values tend to come to the fore during adolescence.
Some parents value the physical safety of their children above all else, which often expresses itself in a laissez-faire approach; others place a priority on respect of authority, which can lead to physical confrontations between parent and child; some value responsibility, leading them to employ techniques often referred to as ‘touch love;’ still others operate primarily on confusion and fear, which often underlies permissive parenting.
Effective navigation of adolescent waters requires that both parents and children accept responsibility for their actions. Parents must accept the fact that the adolescent needs increased space and freedom; the adolescent needs to accept that there is a difference between rights and privileges, meaning there are limits to his/her freedom.
Mark Twain once said: “When I was a boy of fourteen , my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand it. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished he had learned so much in seven years.” Adolescents often feel their parents are ‘out of touch’ (but then again, parenting isn’t exactly a popularity contest), only to later see the wisdom in their parents’ efforts.
Parents and adolescents who learn to employ the twin techniques of negotiation and compromise tend to work the best together. Parents do well to ‘choose their battles’ – to let some issues slide. Adolescents do well to ‘score points’ with their parents via responsible behavior, because this tends to buy them more of the freedom they crave.
I should here state that there are no guarantees in parenting; you can make all the right moves and end up with less than you hoped for with your child. The same holds true for the adolescent; you can do all you can to ‘score points’ with your parents, but this doesn’t guarantee they’ll give you the love, attention, freedom, etc. you seek. Life just isn’t that perfect.
But doing your best to be a flexible parent and a responsible adolescent will create the greatest likelihood for success and peace in the home. A good place to start is over a bowl of Bubble Gum ice cream – it helps chase the sassiness and lecturing away.
Steven M. Gentry, PhD., is a Child & Family Psychologist and the Executive Director of
Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah