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Cracking the Teen Code

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Parenting a teen today is much like doing 65 on the Autobahn -- you try to take things slow and steady, but often have to put the pedal to the metal or risk being blown right off the road.

mom and teen daughter arguing

Vivian Manning-Schaffel: We asked Ellen Rittberg, mom of three and author of the pre-orderable "35 Things Your Teen Won't Tell You So I Will", to shed some light on a few of today's hot teen issues. She was happy to oblige.

Momlogic: What's the biggest issue among parents of teens these days?

Ellen Rittberg: I'd say substance abuse, including alcohol. But unsafe sex is right up there, vying for first place. Think about it. If your teen drinks to excess (and most teens when they drink, drink to excess), chances are better than even he or she will engage in other risky activities, such as having sex and going in a car with someone who also has been drinking.

ML: Your book says all teens lie, but as parents, it's our job to catch them before things spin out of control. Why do all teens lie? Can you offer any tips to help parents in busting them?

Rittberg: There are two reasons teens lie. They lie because they really really want to do something right now or very soon and they know you're not game. Most teens are not good at delayed gratification or hearing the word "no" or hearing a vastly revised plan of what they wanted to do, particularly when they feel certain that some of their friends will be doing those things they so badly want to do.

The second reason they lie is: a lie is easier and faster for them to formulate than any farfetched explanation they might try to pass off as a logical explanation. To catch and bust teens, you need to develop a communication system that rivals the CIA's and the FBI's. Its success consists largely in your ability to monitor their movement. Other parents' vigilance and cooperation are key to the successful implementation of this system.

ML: Most parents of teens swing between the best friend and authoritarian approach. Is there a middle ground in there somewhere?

Rittberg: Great question. Yes, there is a middle ground -- and that's where parents of teens should try to be. As I state in my book, there's a huge difference between being a kind but firm authority figure (which is what a parent should strive to try to be), and trying to be on the same social footing as one's child (which is what a parent shouldn't be). Teens want parents they admire and respect, they just don't always realize it.

Teens don't need parent-friends. Their friends should be their friends -- not you. This is not to say that from time to time a parent can't, when the occasion calls for it, act like an utter goofball for small periods of time in the privacy of their own home with their kids. My children have always enjoyed watching me make of fool of myself when I spontaneously (but not often!) break into my dorky dance steps. I also provide them with ample proof that mom won't be dancing with the stars any time soon.

ML: How can parents bridge the great divide that occurs between them and their teens?

Rittberg: Interesting word choice, "divide," which sounds somewhat military as in the expression, "divide and conquer." As I mention in my book, parenting teens often bears a similarity to waging war, but if things go as planned, there's no gore.

I would argue that the divide is actually a fluid one and it doesn't necessarily have to be big. Communication is key. If you're so fed up with your teen that you don't have much meaningful communication, you are contributing to the increasing size of the divide. Try to understand and share in the things that are important to your teens, whether it is their music, their sports obsessions, anything as long as it's a socially acceptable activity.

When you understand that part of the reason the divide exists is because teen's minds are not adult-like, you're ahead of the game. Then you understand that most teens are not yet equipped to always make good choices. Their judgment is, if not impaired, it's a work-in-process, if you will. And I think the divide also grows wider with parents who are unreasonably rigid with their teens, and which merely exacerbates the condition. This causes their teens see them as the enemy. Give teens some freedom with proper monitoring and safeguards, and lay out the rules and expectations. Applaud them when they're good. Respond appropriately and proportionately when they mess up and don't whatever you do, give up on them. Let them know you love them, but emphasize to them that you can't respect them when they don't act civilly, respectfully or reasonably sensibly.

ML: If you could offer our readers just one pearl of wisdom in building a balanced relationship with their teen, what would it be?

Rittberg: If you can teach your teens that they are part of society which has expectations and that their actions cause consequences, you are on the road to raising a responsible-in-the-making teen. And, I don't know if this is the extra credit pearl, but I'll say it anyway: Hug your teens. They needed to know they are loved.

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3 comments so far | Post a comment now
Leslie Robinson November 28, 2009, 3:32 PM


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ZoĆ« December 7, 2009, 9:14 PM

I don’t think the biggest problem facing parents of teens is substance abuse or unprotected sex. Its lack of communication and respect. And those go both ways. As far as closing the divide, you’re right, communication is key. But parents need to understand that communicating with your teen doesn’t mean “I say something, you agree. And if you don’t, you don’t argue.” Teens are their own person, they have their own opinions. As a child moves into adolecence, they think of themselves as young adults, which they are, and expect everyone around them to start treating them as closer to equal. They like to feel like they are in control of their own lives. That means if you disagree with something they want to do, they can talk about it and find out why. It also means that if they disagree with something you say or want to do, you can talk about it and discuss why. Having open communication with your teen means compromise and discussion. And as well as talking to them about the things going on in their lives… talk about the things going on in yours. Don’t act like their best friend and dish… but rather inform them about dynamics at work with your co-workers, catch them up on the ups and downs of your day. This will make your teen feel valued and respected by you. Teens need to feel respected. As they start to see themselves as closer to your equal, respect becomes everything. Adolescence is the time parents truly learn “you have to give respect to get it.” Teens WILL NOT respect you and/or listen to you if you don’t respect and/or listen to them.

And for the record, not all teens lie. I didn’t lie to my parents. They knew what I did, they knew who I did it with, they knew where I did it, and they knew when I did it. They trusted me. And I didn’t have to lie.

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