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The Art of Parenting Adolescents

» Mental Health Library » Disorders & Conditions » Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder » Featured Article

By Gwen Gruber, LCSW

Gwen Gruber, LCSW

I intend to explore some aspects of the parent-adolescent relationship, especially the unique dynamics of an adolescent's striving for independence.

As a parent and a psychotherapist, the parenting of adolescents I would have to say is one of the most difficult jobs I've ever had. At the same time, it is also one of the most rewarding.

Oftentimes, the only thing predictable about adolescents is their unpredictability. It is difficult for adolescents to deal with a turbulent emotional environment because of their new and sometimes raging hormones coupled with peer pressure and the demands of school and parents.

Regardless of where or when you grew up, adolescence is commonly a time filled with doubt and insecurity contrasted with feelings of invincibility. Adolescence is a time of great ambivalence, self-consciousness and heightened sensitivity. It can be traumatic for both the adolescent and the parent. It is difficult to ascertain what to expect from a teenager at any given moment. Often, there is a striking dichotomy of emotions. For instance, within a period of less than an hour, it is not uncommon for an adolescent to show indifference or rage, and within this short period of time, he or she can be tender, loving and compassionate.

When there are rapid shifts in the mood of an adolescent, it is often hard for the adolescent and the parent to understand what is happening. This is because it is sometimes difficult for parents to distinguish between anxiety and/ or depression in their children. Adolescents themselves, have difficulty figuring out what emotions they are feeling. It is not unusual, for adolescents to hide their fears from us. Sometimes an adolescent may have a depressed mood, which could be the result of how their anxiety is affecting them. For instance, if an individual feels immobilized by anxiety, he or she may feel depressed as well. However, once the anxiety is understood and overcome, it becomes clear that the anxiety and not the depression is the main issue. Sometimes the opposite can be true. Also, it is not uncommon for an adolescent to be suffering from more than one emotional issue such as anxiety and depression. Their symptoms may be fleeting or persistent. However, many times this is just a natural progression during tumultuous times.

I think that in our recent decade we have seen and heard much of the "epidemic of bipolar adolescents." It is quite reminiscent of the 80's and early 90's when "Attention Deficit With or Without Hyperactivity," became a household term.

This is not to say that there are not adolescents who are suffering from a bipolar disorder. The problem is that so many of the behaviors that are striking in adolescents are similar to a person suffering from a bipolar disorder.

Oftentimes, I have witnessed a parent describing a rapid shift in their adolescent's moods. Some people will question if the child is "bipolar?" Yet intermittent changes in a child's emotions are an intrinsic part of adolescence.

Recently I went to conference on "The Epidemic of Adolescence and Bipolar Disorders." It was stated that approximately one percent of the population suffers from a bipolar disorder. However, at one clinic, according to the speaker, it was estimated that 15 percent of their adolescent patients were diagnosed with a bipolar disorder. Regardless, I believe that because there are so many factors that the adolescent is wrestling with, we may want to suspend judgment. Natural adolescents' moods, as well as "mood altering drugs and alcohol" can mimic symptoms that are not an intrinsic part of the individual's personality.

Frequently, parents have difficulty understanding their child's response or reaction. For instance, I know of a sweet mild- mannered young man of fifteen who ordinarily has a pleasant demeanor and is polite and respectful of adults. Nevertheless, out of the blue, it seemed he refused to acknowledge his mother's birthday. This hurt his mother, as this was so unusual for this child who was always cheerful and easy going. Eventually, he was able to verbalize that he was getting angry for no reason, or that things that did not previously bother him suddenly did. Once he was able to verbalize this, his mother was able to understand him and able to heal from the hurt she felt.

The hurting and healing that we go through with our children is a process. Adolescents can be the most well: behaved and easygoing children imaginable. Yet, they still may struggle with their new identity and have difficulty expressing themselves to their parents. Parenting is a continual process. In order to move ahead in this process it is important that we communicate with our children. If we do not keep the communication open with our children they can go into a shell, virtually shutting us out.

One way to foster healthy communications is for a parent to listen with an open mind. For most, this is easier said than done, especially if your child chooses to say or do something controversial or to be oppositional and argumentative.

Parents need to create healthy boundaries for both themselves and for their children. Sometimes, with their "newly found identity," children may become more assertive to the point of wanting to be the adult and to be in control. In many instances, there can be power struggles between teens and parents. It is helpful if we are able to diffuse the tension and balance the delicate relationship that may occur. Sometimes we may need to step back and take a deep breath when our teen blatantly believes he or she is right when the facts tell us he or she is wrong. By our sharing antidotes' and experiences with other parents of teens we may find humor and a sense of relief.

However, I believe adolescence is also a very rewarding time. Also, it is a time that can have an influential impact on the adolescent for years to come.

In March of 1983, prior to raising my own adolescents, I wrote: "I have a particular interest working with adolescents because I perceive adolescence as being one of the most turbulent and trying periods of human development a time when individuals need a certain degree of direction and encouragement to help them gain self-knowledge and evaluate their values." Over a quarter of a century later, I still believe that.

As a parent, I find that I can have more empathy when I recall my own adolescence. It is not easy trying to put yourself in your child's shoes when they are angry, raging or blatantly ignoring you.

Until a few years ago, I believed that I had more stresses as an adolescent than my children did. I spent my adolescence in the mid- to -late 1970's in NYC. I was exposed to many diverse issues and there was a great deal of turbulence and peer pressure to say the least.

However, even today in suburban Scottsdale, Arizona there are things that would have been unfathomed 30 years ago. For instance, there is a high incidence of teenage suicides, as well as the impact that it has on the surviving students. There are now "designer drugs," and high frequencies of abuse of methamphetamine, black tar heroin and crack, to mention a few.

There are also many new prescription drugs prescribed to adolescents. Unfortunately, adolescents don't always take medication as prescribed. Consequently, skipping medication or taking it sporadically -- when it is prescribed to be taken everyday -- can contribute to increased depression and suicidal thoughts. It is important that there is an open and ongoing dialogue between parents, their child and the prescribing practitioner. Frequently, parents can't understand why a medication is not working or why their child's symptoms are getting worse. Low and behold, it is because the adolescent is not taking his or her medication.

It is important to continue to create and nurture an open and ongoing dialogue. We don't want to invade our child's privacy. However, often when the adolescent feels that the parent is compassionate and genuinely interested he or she tends to open up and talk to us more.

Margaret Mahler, a pioneer in the development of ego-psychology, coined the term "separation-individuation." This occurs at different stages in the development of an infant and or toddler. It is a time when a toddler begins to gain the capacity to crawl and eventually walk. The young child may vacillate between exercising its newfound independence, or may come running back to its parent.

Mahler, believed that there is a second stage of separation-individuation that occurs in adolescence. During this second stage, there is an oscillating behavior frequently evidenced as a clinging dependency and a need for complete autonomy. The healthy adolescent has an internalized sense of himself/herself and others. Yet he or she must disengage from the more infantile aspects of self. This is the process that we want to nurture.

Sometimes, you can witness this behavioral analogy in action, both in the toddler and in the adolescent. It is marked sometimes with adolescent wanting to be in control of everything but at the same time wanting to be loved and comforted as if he or she were as a small child.

I think that parents should be patient and have a sense of humor when it comes to parenting. Many times it is helpful to give adolescents space and freedom to change their mind. When a parent or another adult asks them if they want to do something, their initial or automatic response maybe "no." Then they will change their minds! As frustrating as that can be, I think if we suspend judgment and give them leeway, as difficult as it may be, we may be able to develop a closer relationship with them.

I also believe that it is important that we talk to our children, especially alerting them when we ourselves feel stressed or in a bad mood. Because of their heightened sensitivity they tend to take things more personally. On a whole, when we are able to create and maintain the fragile alliance with our adolescents it can be a wonderful experience.

About the Author...

Gwen Gruber is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with over 20 years experience. She is presently in private practice in the Phoenix/Scottsdale area in Arizona. Some of her primary specialties are working with adolescents, alcohol and substance abusers and those suffering from eating disorders.

Last Update: 2/13/2009



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