Hands OFF vs. Hands ON
Adolescents react in different ways when confronting social challenges. How they react depends on the circumstances: a teenage girl reacts to the way her secrets are exposed in one way, and a young boy being beaten reacts differently from that. In all cases, it is normal to see a range of emotions that run the gamut from anger to withdrawal when encountering social changes. Here’s how parents can assist their children in dealing with social challenges.
As a social worker, I have helped parents and teenagers work through different emotional and social challenges and noticed that some parents say to me: “Your ideas really make sense. However, you know that kids never listen to their parents anyway. If it came from an outside party like yourself, there would be a much higher chance that he would listen to these ideas. Talking to my son about these issues just causes shouting, yelling and increased conflict.”
Do parents really think that their kids just don’t listen to them? Are parents simply looking to have someone else solve their kid’s problems? Should parents be “hands off” when dealing with the social dilemmas of their teenage children?
While conflict may be part of any family dynamic, research shows that teenagers certainly need and want the guidance of their parents. A desire for independence and the magnitude of friends and relationships does not replace the importance of a strong parent-child relationship. However, parents may take a “hands off” approach and wrongly assume the following: “Julia is not interested in speaking with me. Why should I ‘put my nose’ where it does not belong?”
This perception may not be accurate. Teenagers may need someone else to take the first step and initiate the conversation. A lack of forwardness or initiation by the teenager does not necessarily indicate that they are not interested in a conversation and guidance from parents. I promote the “hands on” approach of shared involvement, and parents may need to initiate.
Consider the example of 15-year-old-Julia, who was an active member of the volleyball and soccer team. She was a straight-A student and always enjoyed having friends over at her home. One day, Julia’s mother gets a call from the school, which goes as follows: “Mrs. Martin, over the past week we have noticed that Julia has missed three days of school. Furthermore, when she is in school, she looks very tired and withdrawn. We also heard that she is now being bullied by her friend Laura.”
Let’s assume that in this particular case, Mrs. Martin has never really gotten involved in Julia’s friendships. Furthermore, just last week, Mrs. Martin was screamed at by Julia for “not minding her own business” when she suggested that a particular friend has become a bad influence on her daughter. Therefore, Mrs. Martin assumes that she has no place entering into a discussion with her daughter about the present circumstances.
Here are a few tips that could be helpful to parents who may be hesitant to discuss things with their teenage children:
Prepare and Plan: Before your conversation, decide what you want to say. Don’t just run into your child’s room and start speaking. Think carefully about what you want to say and what particular language you would like to use to get your message across.
When confronted with a “pushback” (for example: “Leave me alone or mind your own business”), don’t assume that this is the end of the conversation. Maybe your teenager needs some space, but plan on coming back later to revisit the issue.
If there has been some conflict in the past, it is best to acknowledge that conflict. For example,
“I know that we have had our fights in the past. I also know that you usually don’t like when I get involved in your friendships. However, I am getting a little nervous about you. I don’t like seeing you so alone, sad and upset.”
Don’t pretend that you understand the issue—just “say it like it is.”
A comment such as, “I remember what it was like to be your age and have problems with friends” may seem to be a lecture or an invalidation of your child’s particular circumstances. Instead, it makes sense to display genuine concern without assuming that you understand the particular issue. For example, “I have no idea what’s going on, but I am seeing that you are just not acting like yourself.”
Mark Staum, LCSW, is a social worker at The Frisch School in Paramus, NJ. He works with teenagers and parents on issues related to adolescence. Mark is a former therapist at The Center for Applied Psychology in Monsey, NY, and presently maintains a private practice in Teaneck, NJ. Mark has trained at The Ackerman Institute for The Family and has additional training in child and family therapy. To learn more about Mark, please visit his website, www.markstaum.com.
By Mark Staum