Your babies were once cute. Adorable. Yep, you had to change their diapers and wipe their noses, but, in exchange they would say cute, adorable things. And they thought you were a god.
But keep giving food to adorable babies and they become big smelly teenagers. Laying waste to bathrooms. Drama. In many ways more vulnerable than a toddler. Often unlikable. Hamsters have longer attention spans. Hyenas practice more gratitude.
So, what’s normal about the irritating behavior of your adolescent?
Adolescents are painfully self-conscious, which should never be confused with self-aware.
Peers are the Holy Grail, and your child’s perception of peers’ perception of him/her is a big deal. In some cases a matter of life and death. Parents: empathy first, then perspective. The incredulous scolding of “Why should you care what anyone thinks” is a waste of your breath.
Adolescents are shockingly narcissistic, but it’s not what it appears. Narcissism is not a thinking too highly of oneself. Quite the opposite. Narcissism is a desperate clutching after some image of self to mask the relentless threat of self-doubt, inadequacy, insecurity or in some cases self-loathing.
After entering high school, my eldest would refuse to go to the grocery store unless he’d spent 30 minutes showering, preening and picking the right T-shirt. Sometimes I go to the grocery store in my pajamas bottoms and a T-shirt! I love being 59 and irrelevant!
Adolescents are ungrateful, but again, it’s not what you think. They are gathering their power – socially, psychologically – toward the goal of independence. For them, “Thanks for the ride, Mom” is a rehearsal of their dependence. This is developmentally intolerable. So they ask for things with impatient irritation (because they hate having to ask). And then ride in your car like entitled royalty.
Under no circumstances should you give them lectures about “being grateful.” Nope, the next time her/his majesty asks for limo service, just smile and say “no.” And when they say, “Whhhyyyyy?”, say, “Because I really felt used and spit out by you the last time I gave you a lift. Not supermotivated to do you any favors tonight.”
It’s call “interpersonal consequences.” And it works well with adolescents.
In a culture absent rites of passage, adolescents must create antagonism with which to rebel. At least you’ll think of it as rebellion, and so will they. What it is, however, is carefully guarded separateness.
Music is a common ploy. When they listen to gawdawful, melody-less incoherent scream rock, it’s important not to hang with them and make as if to get into it. It’s important to pause at their bedroom door and say, “What in heaven’s name is this crap?” If they roll their eyes and cluck and give you a reproving lecture about how this is the coolest band in the world and you just wouldn’t understand, then you win. You’ve done your parental duty.
Same goes for ugly shock hair.
Adolescents must push on rules and boundaries. The trick is to create a short list of non-negotiables. My list is academics, violence, drugs/alcohol, citizenship and civility, safety –especially driving a car – and tattoos/piercings. So, when they bitch and moan about the R-rated movie I won’t let them see, I secretly thank God and participate willingly in the exhausting argument. See, I want them to rebel about rules and boundaries that don’t have lethal consequences or socially permanent consequences. Like prison. Or death.
I’m saying I expect them to experiment with testing, obfuscation and some outright lying. I expect them to be passive-aggressive and lazy about chores. I expect them to dress goofy and to regularly cop an attitude. Didn’t say I wouldn’t respond appropriately, just that I like it better than rebelling with methamphetamine.
Above all, try not to make it personal. Keep it concrete and direct. From birth to age 12 or 13, teach your values. After that, stop teaching your values. Instead, defend your values (which is another way to teach them.) Consider these two dialogues:
10 year-old: “I’m gonna smoke when I grow up!”
You: “Oh no! Smoking will destroy your health. It’s addictive. You’ll regret it. I’ll be disappointed.” Etc.
That’s teaching your values.
16 year-old: “You can’t keep me from smoking!”
You: “You’re absolutely right, and I would never try. But if you’re gonna smoke, I sure hope you’re good at sneaking around. Because if I catch you smoking, if I hear about you smoking from a trusted source, if I find cigarettes in your room or on your person, if I so much as smell them on you, expect [consequence a, b, c, etc.] Have a nice day.”
That’s defending your values.
(Steven Kalas is a Nevada author, therapist and Episcopal priest. He writes a weekly column for the Sparks Tribune on the art of being human.)