May 7, 2001
Guest Editorial: It's Not Easy Being 14 . . . 15 . . . 16 . . .
from the American Counseling Association
Have you, as a parent, ever tried talking with your teenager and felt like the two of you were speaking different languages? Unfortunately, it's a common complaint. The good news is that it doesn't mean something is "wrong" with either you or your child.
There are very real reasons why parent-teenager communications are often frustrating or seemingly impossible. Over the next several columns, we'll look at a number of causes, suggest some tactics to improve communication, and offer practical tips on how to recognize real problems requiring additional help.
First, let's look at life from your teen's perspective. Growing up can be difficult. The normal developmental process brings about important and often unsettling biological, psychological and emotional changes during the teen years, many of them in relation to a teen's growing desire to gain independence and responsibility. While communication with parents may have been good up until now, the increasing demands of school, extracurricular activities and working toward a job or college can bring open discussions to a screeching halt.
Teenagers are at a stage of life where they recognize they are becoming more mature and capable of making their own decisions. They want and need more freedom than pre-teens. They also want their parents to trust them. And, as a parent, you want to encourage independence in your child: few of us want our children to stay home forever. However, when parents hesitate out of concern for safety to give responsibility to their teens, it's often misinterpreted as a lack of trust.
It is this type of inevitable conflict which often makes communications between parents and teens strained. Yet teens still have a strong need to communicate with others.
Research shows us that the first person with whom a teenager will talk openly about uncertainties in his or her life is another teen. The second person might be an adult from outside the family. This rarely means that teens dislike or don't trust their parents. Rather, they fear that if they share feelings of uncertainty, parents won't see them as ready for the responsibilities or freedoms they so desperately want. Talking with a parent makes them feel vulnerable. So, teens go to their peers who, by definition, understand their situations, or to an adult with whom they feel safe and who has no "real" authority over them.
Teenagers need their parents' love and respect in order to gain their freedom, so they may present only their strengths or best possible images to their parents. Teens think that if they "mess up" or make mistakes in their parents' eyes, it will only delay their gaining the trust needed to have the freedom and responsibility which come with it. So, teens will rarely bring up their weaknesses or mistakes for discussion with their parents, hoping that being "a good kid" in their parents' minds will speed them through this awkward time.
Consider, then, that the struggles most teenagers face are really just part of the "normal" developmental process, and that changes in your communications with your child are to be expected. This doesn't mean that parents should not continue talking with their teens, nor should they be unconcerned about changes their child is experiencing. In our next column, we will look at parent-teen communication from the parent's viewpoint and look at ways to help close the communications gap.
The Counseling Corner is provided by the American Counseling Association, the nation's largest organization of counseling professionals.