Adolescents are amazing

By Dr. Batya L. Ludman, Psy.D., FT · Published January 7, 2011

Adolescents often get a bad rap. I was having lunch with my teenage daughter and older son yesterday when two of my daughter's schoolmates came over to our table. They spoke to her for a minute and then immediately addressed us. They must have stayed for five to ten minutes and were absolutely chatty and delightful. They asked questions and even waited for a response. As someone who works a lot with teenagers, it was a real pleasure to see them interact with adults as adults and with such maturity. Towards the end of our meal a couple of adult friends came by to say hello as they spotted us sitting in a corner. They stayed for about ten minutes also and engaged my children in conversation for much of that time. Yes, adolescents can be sullen and silent but they can also be a true delight and it was wonderful to see that adults really can enjoy teenagers and vice versa. This is especially true when the adolescent in question is actually your own child!

For years I have said that the moms of many of the adolescents that come into my office seem to have been put through the mill by their children-mostly daughters it would seem. The children they describe do not seem to resemble the sweet kids that enter my office. Were I to see the adolescent without ever having seen his or her parents, I might also begin to wonder what kind of parents they had but truth be told, both parents and kids are great. They often just don't get to appreciate each other until the children are …well if you are lucky, into their twenties! So why is this? I have a few thoughts:

Teenagers often say it the way they see it. If they are upset by something, in a good relationship, they often won't hesitate to tell you. They have no need to spare your feelings (or even be aware that you have feelings) and this in itself may not feel very good. Unless a teenager has a reason to lie, they can be brutally honest. It is hard to say be thankful for this interaction but in a bad relationship they may simply ignore you or have little to do with you unless they have no alternative. Teenagers are in the process of finding themselves. No longer children they are not yet adults either. Often they are not comfortable in their own body and can be highly self critical. They can be equally uncomfortable hearing you tell them the positives you see in them and may have a hard time believing you. While they often only seem to hear the negatives, they do want to hear the positives, so keep trying to convince them but make sure you are sincere as they will spot it in a minute. Adolescents truly need to hear that they are good kids because they often don't realize just how great they really are. Remember also, if you are unhappy with them, it is their behavior you don't like and hopefully not the child. This is a very important distinction. Teenagers can have rapid mood swings. They can be serious one minute and laughing the next. They can park their sadness or be fully immersed and as you find yourself totally upset by something they may have just told you, once they got it off their chest, they may be quite fine. That said, if your child seems depressed, always take this seriously and get professional help if need be. Teenagers may make fun of you and appear to reject anything and everything you stand for. You may not feel like you are number one on your teenager's best friend list or even on it at all. Their friends assume tremendous importance and while they really do value your opinion, they may not rush to tell you as their friends often come first and foremost in their life. Some day as they leave behind the teen years, you may be quite surprised to discover that their values reflect yours more than you would have ever thought. Teenagers need their space yet require consistent but clear limits. Don't for a moment think that they don't need you or a curfew. They absolutely do. That said, if there are established rules, they may hold you to the same standards and are quick to notice when you do something wrong. Don't ask them not to talk on their cell phone for example when they drive and then have them see you doing the same. Your job is to be a consultant and not manage their every move. Sometimes they will make mistakes but this is part of the learning process and unless at risk for harming themselves, it isn't a bad thing to enable them to take that step towards greater independence. With freedom comes responsibility and your job is to understand the delicate balance between the two and pass this important message on to them. Again, you might not like some of their choices but in an open and caring relationship, it is nice for each to hear where the other is coming from. When you actually take the time to sit and listen to them, you may be quite surprised by how much sense they make. You deserve to be treated with respect by your teenager but you must also respect them. Catch your teenager "doing good", be respectful of where they are developmentally and be open to their ideas and you'll definitely create a recipe for success.

The adolescent years may not be easy but you can look back with pride as you see just how transformative they were in creating emotionally healthy and happy adults. Psychology Column