Turbulent Teens: Advice for Parents

By: Brad Koffel

If you have a teenager living in your home then you already know how hard it is to have structure, set limits, and try to protect them. This is no different than when they were 5 years old. They've changed much, much faster than you have. They look at you like you have two heads when you try to impose your values, your rules, and your expectations just as you've done their entire life.

Your first goal should be to determine what is "normal" for this adolescent volatility. Over the past 21 years of representing parents of teens who broke the law, I have discovered that most parents don't fully appreciate the normal and expected turbulence. In other words, this is just a funky age bracket. The "perfect" kids in high school will catch up to their abuses in college once they are out of the watchful eyes of mom and dad.

The adolescent world is full of paradoxes. The typical American teen is selfish but dependent, moody while aloof, predictably unpredictable, and surly yet insecure. So, you have to factor that into your assessment of your home life.

In my professional practice and in working with adolescent psychologists, substance abuse counselors, and behavioral therapists, I've come to understand the sudden demarcation in graduating from 8 th grade to high school. In 8 th grade, your teen was one of the oldest in school, completely familiar with his daily routine, and the subtle nuances within each peer group. Now, that teen is met with awesome change: a brand new and much larger school, a lack of understanding of the "rules" of high school (especially the unwritten ones), and the emotional and mental stress associated with being a guppy in a pond full of larger fish. For example, lunch becomes one of the most stressful experiences for a freshman. A daily battle is finding a "safe" group to eat with to avoid eating alone - perhaps the single worst experience for a 14-15 year old.

Picking a peer group to "fit in" is of paramount importance for kids and ultimately parents. Your teen's peer group will steer your teen into or out of harm's way. Freshman year tends to introduce kids to alcohol (and marijuana), an elevated sexual awareness, and increased self-consciousness. This perfect storm will cause even the most humble child to become a self-absorbed teen. This is not a graceful transition for most households. Unfortunately, it is just the beginning.

By sophomore year in high school, the friendships tend to change fast. 15-16 year olds are re-examining their friendships, they are looking for deeper and more meaningful relationships. They will consciously move away from some peers while consciously trying to "fit in" with another set of peers. This creates a new set of problems of seeking an identity. Independence is taking on an entirely new meaning for them while your former parenting methods aren't being updated to match their age.

At home, the 15-16 year old seeks a safe-haven from the stressors at school and the perceived unreasonable expectations at home. This age group needs more personal space; otherwise, they'll just take it rudely (i.e. shutting out the parents). Don't hold it against them if they don't want to talk about their day. They need to decompress just like you do after a long day. According to one expert, "If the conversation seems forced and guilt-driven, it's probably detrimental to your relationship. . . .If the conversation is freely offered, it's valuable to your relationship".

As the parent, assume this responsibility to know the difference. Don't force the former and drop what you are doing to participate in the latter. Help your teen when they get home: "why don't you go relax and we'll talk later if you want". Guilt free hall pass. This is what teens crave and parents do not offer. The flow of information will eventually get easier. Use your best listening skills when they do open up.

Heading into junior year, teens are gaining momentum and are being invited to upper class parties (or hosting their own). The house parties, drinking and driving around with friends, going to fields, closed roads, and parks to drink become more commonplace on weekends. This feeling of independence and freedom can be overwhelming for some teens. It is easy for them to get in over their head like a flash flood in a Texas plain. Out of nowhere, they are drunk and their judgment is impaired for the remaining hours of the night. Fights, sexual assaults, property crimes, and DUI are borne out of this phenomenon.

By junior year, body image awareness is in full blossom. The stressors American teens go through to look a certain way can be very unhealthy and cloud judgment. Girls may not eat well (or purge) while boys take non-approved supplements (or even steroids). Alcohol and drug experimentation and high risk behavior tends to increase. By 17 years old, it is quite normal for teens to reject parental values and not respect authority figures. By junior year, most teens have no hesitation on identifying hypocrisy with their parents, schools, or any other authority figure that they are supposed to respect. Their search for individuality and increased freedom is the reason behind this.

Their insight into their own parents as human beings with shortcomings becomes fodder for arguments. This revelation has a chilling effect on parent - child dynamic. Parents must push through these personal attacks and cogent counter-arguments and remain focused on finishing the last 2 years of raising the teen.

It is generally not advisable for parents to admit their own use of alcohol or drugs because this information will not only surprise the teen, it will make them feel more comfortable in experimenting or using on a regular basis.

By senior year in high school, most teens are quite comfortable at school, the reality sets in that they are almost out of the house and on their own, and they should start to get a handle on who they really are. By the end of twelfth grade, they tend to start to repair the relationships with parents (and other family members) and setting the stage for their "new relationship" with their folks.

Senior year is full of alcohol in most social situations. Driving is no longer a novel pursuit which leads to more reckless driving and inattentiveness. Drinking and driving needs to be met firmly and sternly: "if you are drinking and drive home, you will never see your car again until you graduate. We guarantee it (suggestion: write it down and have your son or daughter sign the "agreement"). However, off them amnesty if they call you for a ride home (i.e. no questions asked) after drinking.

For parents, the question is about setting limits. If you give too much leeway, teens will rush past the implied limits. However, if you push too many restrictions then the teen will rebel. Parents need to understand that lying is part of adolescence. It is temporary but deception is a necessity for most teens to experiment with drugs and alcohol as well as to engage in "fun" high risk behavior.

The problem is that once parents catch their teen lying, the parents do not know where the truth is. Parents begin to question nearly everything their teen is doing, either to their face or behind their back. This nags at the teen and makes the household even more caustic.

The answer is actually pretty straightforward according to many experts. If teens want more independence and personal decision-making then they will need to feel the "natural consequences" for those very decisions. As the parent, it is your duty to enforce the rules of the household upon your teen especially when you know he or she will over-react to the penalty. As you've known since your child was a toddler, kids crave discipline and boundaries. We all do better with boundaries and discipline.

The enforcement side of having a teen is, of course, hard to stomach for many parents. In the short term, it might be easier to let the teen continue to run the house and dictate your mood. But, in the long run this is horrible for their personal development. Accountability, contrition, and personal responsibility are the hallmarks of the most successful adults.

In my professional practice, I have had many parents explicitly or implicitly request that I set the boundaries of their teen for them. Once a teen gets charged with a crime, parents tend to over-analyze the situation. They don't have a good grasp on how superficial or deep the problems are. Parents look to others for help in this situation, whether that is a friend who is a policeman, lawyer, judge, or therapist. But, punishment at home remains the sole province of the parents.

The idea of punishment is (a) deter future conduct; (b) define when trust is restored; and (c) allows the teen to move on and away from the guilt associated with this transgression. It must be fair. It cannot be an emotional response nor arbitrary. It must be naturally related to the transgression. Seek an agreement from your teen that they violated your trust. The "parental unit lecture" is not recommended. A clear and concise statement as to your expectation of them, specifically what they did to violate that expectation, and how you plan to punish them now. Experts agree you must resist that temptation to reduce or eliminate the penalty. You must, for the sake of your teen, stay the course, impose the full penalty, and do not change your mind later.

When I am advising teens and parents, I remind them that 90% of teens that get caught drinking and smoking don't turn into adult addicts. 9 out of 10 of these teens will move up the ladder of life. There is a teen in America right now who is drinking alcohol on the weekend at parties who will be elected President in 2038.

If you have a teen charged with a misdemeanor or felony in the greater Columbus, Ohio area and would like to hire Mr. Koffel, please call (614) 675-4845 (including evenings, weekends, and holidays).