When I first started in the counseling field, the majority of my clients were adolescents. I am referring to the age range between 11 and 19. Depending on a person's developmental age, adolescent problems may even occur into early adulthood. Over the years, adolescent development has become an interest and specialty area of mine. Finding effective interventions has proven to be quite fulfilling at times and challenging at others. The best intervention without a true partnership based on trust and respect is doomed to fall short. The partnership must be supportive, accepting, and fair and in business to tackle the teens concerns and problems. Talking with teens is challenging in part because a delicate balance must be struck between being too accommodating and being perceived as too critical. Teens will not trust someone who is too authoritarian or conversely too easily agrees. It is easy for parents to lose balance as well. Teens cannot tolerate heavy criticism, which is what well meaning parents frequently end up doing in the name of concern. Being supportive while simultaneously teaching personal responsibility is the key, but this is very difficult to achieve and maintain.
I am a parent of teenagers as well as an adolescent specialist, but none of my special counseling powers work at home. I lose them when I walk in the door much like Superman loses his powers around kryptonite. As parents, we have the advantage and disadvantage of having already survived our own adolescence, some of us more intact than others. We remember the way we were but only in the context of our total life experience. We know what we should have done differently and we are aware of all the opportunities that arise when we accepted personal responsibility for our behavior. Our teens don't care what we know ye, but they do care what we think of them.
Putting off gratification until later is contradictory to what being a teenager is all about, right down to the incomplete development of the planning center of their brains. Our sound advice and lecturing is the last thing our teens want to hear. They have no concept of where we are coming from and a completely different reference point. To expect them to look through 40 or 50 year old eyes is delusional.
I know there are teens that are more mature than others. Some are grateful for what their parents provide and they express it readily. I don't see too many of those teens in my office. I typically see a teen and his or her parents locked squarely in a power struggle over freedom and responsibility. The argument has been recycled so many times it has become intolerable. The parents are pushing for them to delay gratification and study hard, get good grades in school, have a respectful attitude toward adults, make and keep good friends, help out around the house and thank them for being good parents. This combination certainly makes sense and will serve the teen well now and in adulthood, but the chance of them emerging out of a conversation about whose right and whose wrong is nil.
In my experience I have found that teens develop the needed values, social skills and habits over time as long as their parents maintain a bond with them. The skills will crystalize and be fully useable around age thirty. This coincides with when the brain reaches its full development. The hardware necessary to function at a high level as an adult is not in place until then. This explains a lot of the impulsive, high risk behavior we often see in teens and young adults.
Simultaneously, they are experiencing hormone driven changes that push them quickly into physical maturity way ahead of their emotional maturity. As parents we are battling many forces that are beyond our control. In order to even have a good chance at getting a captive audience with our teens, we must extend a warm and supportive hand with a firm yet fair grip. It is important for teens to receive both messages. Criticism kills that possibility. When you attack a teens behavior, he doesn't have the mental capacity to be sure you are not attacking his personal worth, so a counterattack is launched. The best approach is to mix 85% listening with 15% talking. Further, ten percent of the talking must convey that you are listening. This means communicating in a way that gets the two of you on the same team quickly. How to Talk So Teens Will Listen and Listen so Teens Will Talk by Faber and Mazlish is an excellent book on this topic.