For those of us who fear that all our efforts to raise our children to be bright, polite and responsible have failed miserably, Peter Sheras has a message: Don’t give up.
A clinical psychologist for 30 years and a UVA professor of education, Sheras has spent his career exploring what makes teens tick. He has also weathered the adolescent storms of his own two children, now ages 26 and 29. So he knows, on a raw personal level, just how inadequate adolescents can make parents feel.
“A lot of parents don’t know what to do with the kids when they don’t even know how to program their own VCR or text message, or even help with complicated homework,” Sheras says. “My work is about trying to understand teenagers and help parents work with what creates happy and effective lives for their children in a world that is changing by the minute.”
While experts from Dr. Benjamin Spock to the American Academy of Pediatrics offer advice on parenting young children, few have been so generous in identifying ways to understand and cope with adolescents. Sheras means to remedy that with research that explores the stresses that make sharing the same roof with teens so tempestuous. His 2004 book, I Can’t Believe You Went Through My Stuff!, includes practical advice on teen-sensitive issues ranging from trust to privacy.
“What all this research really says to parents is, ‘Don’t freak out,’” Sheras says. “What you are experiencing, lots of other parents experience, too, so don’t take it personally when your child says, ‘I really hate you, Mom.’”
It’s never easy for moms and dads to maintain equanimity when teenagers insult them, berate them and barge past them to lock themselves in their rooms. But Sheras wants parents to know that, from a developmental standpoint, this is all completely normal. He suggests that parents commiserate with other parents of teens, if only to reassure themselves that they are not alone.
Sheras also suggests that it’s likely that parents are more effective than they think. “I always tell parents, ‘Your children are listening, whether you know it or not,’” he said. Adolescents, however, prefer not to let on that they’ve heard you.
Ultimately, says Sheras, you need to be the parent you want to be—but don’t expect them to thank you.
Why Do They Do That?
- Adolescence is a confusing time for both parent and child. When you’re feeling at wit’s end over your teenager’s behavior, remember:
- An adolescent’s body and brain are in constant turmoil, so their behavior can be erratic and inconsistent and they tend to experiment more.
- Adolescents live in their heads for the first time in their lives, so they can seem unusually withdrawn.
- Their social world is expanding beyond family to include peers, school and the culture at large. Who they are in each context is different and may vary from minute to minute.
- Adolescents confuse understanding with agreement. “They think if they explain something to you adequately, you will agree with them,” Sheras says. “So when parents say, ‘I’m not going to let you do that,’ adolescents almost universally say, ‘You don’t understand.’”
- The teen years are a time when children are developing their own identity. They’re trying to break away from you, and the easiest way for them to do that, according to Sheras, is to choose the opposite of you.
- There is a natural tendency for communication between the generations to break down when kids reach adolescence.
Adjusting as a Parent
Parenting teens can be radically different from parenting younger children, according to Sheras. “We need to change our expectations about what we expect our teenagers to do,” he explains. “We need to create more of a partnership with them, even though they don’t look like they want to be in a partnership with us.”
- Give kids structure, but be fair and consistent. Avoid overreacting or clamping down too hard. Give them some space to work things out for themselves.
- When you make rules, make them with their input, preferably in advance of the offenses. “They want to have a hand in it so they don’t feel like you’re dominating them,” Sheras says.
- Pick your battles wisely. It’s better to go to the mat for something life-threatening like drinking and driving than whether their room is clean.
- Keep the lines of communication open; develop strategies to keep up with what’s going on in your child’s life without interrogating or lecturing.
- Spend time together as a family doing something the kids consider fun.
- Don’t take their criticism personally. Remember, it’s their job as adolescents to break away and establish their own identity.