Clinical psychologist Monique Cohen explains that behaviours which may be hard
for parents to understand are just a normal part of adolescence.
In my dream, I am sitting on the floor with my daughter happily playing in the midst of little ponies, adventures and tea parties. My daughter’s warm body nestled so close she’s almost sitting on top of me. I wake to stir my daughter from her sleep. I kiss the soft bundle, cocooned in a blanket, on her forehead to be met by a banshee scream of “I know! I know! I’m up! Get out!”.
Yes, my daughter has become a teenager.
Later I knock at the door to be met with “Don’t come in! I’m getting dressed!” Either my daughter has an obsession with frequently changing her clothes or has adopted this cry as a way of stopping her parents interrupting her in her “cave”. In a playful, more open moment she smilingly admits to her cunning plan.
Adolescence is the time where not only hormones play havoc with your child’s emotions and body but so too, do the challenges of adapting to many life changes. Greater academic and peer pressures, needing to be more responsible and live up to inappropriate expectations of media and society that put great stress on teenagers. Messages such as “man up!”, “woman up”, “be skinny”, “don’t be too skinny” and “be cool” are extremely damaging. They are in between a world of child and adult where they often feel that everything is out of their control. Not only has their body become an alien entity of smelliness, bumps, spots and hairiness, but they feel that they have little choices in their life. They have to go to school and study what the school decides they should study and they have to live by the family’s rules and routines. It feels like all responsibility and no control.
Childhood was all about appropriate attachment to parents. Adolescence is now about the passage to appropriate detachment. This means the parent and child need to mutually let go and give the adolescent freedom to develop their own independence and identity. A normal part of this journey for the adolescent is curiosity and accepting challenges and risks. Negative attitudes, active and passive resistance to authority (like parents) and testing limits are normal parts of this process. This can be a difficult and confusing time for parents. What used to work with your child doesn’t anymore. Parents may feel critical and negative towards more difficult adolescent behaviours and anxious about their limit testing behaviours.
Some adolescents struggle more depending on family background, personality and life traumas. The parent’s crucial role is to remain firm in limits and values while not being overly punitive. Adolescence is a mixture of negotiable and non-negotiable rules. Pick your battles! For example, what your child wears for a casual dinner is negotiable but their curfew is not.
Dunking a biscuit successfully into a warm liquid is an art form. It is symbolic of negotiation and seeking “middle ground”. My family knows this as the “biscuit and coffee” philosophy. If the biscuit is dunked too long, it dissolves into a soggy, gritty mess in the bottom of the cup; a bit like the fate of a parent who gives in too often to adolescent demands. However, if not dunked long enough it remains hard and relatively bland and doesn’t absorb the flavour of the coffee. This is symbolic of the parent who is mostly uncompromising and unable to accept and value that their child is developing their own different unique thoughts and desires.
Although having an adolescent in the family can be difficult it can be hugely rewarding. They can be incredible exuberant, creative, playful, idealistic and rebellious with a strong sense of fairness and justice. My thoughts wander to my 13 year old daughter who recently barged into the kitchen excitedly announcing that “doctors in Melbourne were revolting!” It took a while to work it out but she was actually ecstatic that they were defiantly standing up to the Australian Government to help refugee children. I suggested that I thought the word she wanted was “protesting” not “revolting”. We both thought this error was extremely funny and laughed. Adolescents can be, in fact, adorable and hilarious!