Teens: More Trouble Today Than Ever?

Family Matters

I have three children, ages 9 to 12. If I hear one more time, “Enjoy them now — soon they'll be teen-agers,” I think I'll scream. Are the teen years really all that unpleasant?

If you polled 1,000 parents, I'm sure most of them would tag the teens as the toughest parenting years, whether from personal or others' experience. If you could go back in time 100 years and take the same poll, I bet the numbers would look quite different. There'd be far less parental anxiety about the teen years.

What's different? Isn't 14 years old now the same as 14 years old then? Have kids changed that much in just a few generations?

Yes and no. From a physical standpoint, adolescence is a universal time of dramatic change. Hormones surge, bodies stretch and kids become young adults who want to be more grown-up than they are allowed or able to be.

That reality acknowledged, my impression, becoming stronger the longer I am a psychologist, is that modern-day teen turbulence is more cultural than developmental. Let's again drop back a century. How likely do you think you'd be to hear the average farmer circa 1904 lamenting, “My boy turned 14 last week. He's getting to be more of a teen-ager all the time. I can't get him to help around here as much as he used to and he just wants to hang around with his buddies. I guess I'll just have to ride it out.”

Not a likely scenario. First, “teen-ager” was not a word used at the turn of the last century. It's a recent description of a slice of childhood, complete with its own meaning and personality. Second, that farmer would have likely been overjoyed about his son getting older. He was becoming a young man, stronger and more able to contribute to the family's welfare.

Was it our hypothetical parent's rural lifestyle that caused him to feel as he did about his teen-age son? Wouldn't the “city folk” see it more as we do today? Again, I don't think so. In the past few generations, the lifestyle of the typical child has evolved into a fast-paced go-go, get-get, do-do, have-have. As such, as kids move into adolescence, what they want to try, do and possess spirals upward dramatically. If a parent tries to control the spiral, especially more so than other parents do, the level of teen resistance — or discontent, or surliness — rises with the distance between what the child wants and what the parent wants for him.

This, quite obviously, is a recipe for friction. The more stuff and perks a child sees as an entitlement due him just for growing up, the more “teen-like” he becomes if he doesn't get it.

To better enjoy your kids as the teens come and go, here are a few basic suggestions:

• Give them less materially, sometimes far less, than you are able or their peers get. Character is better shaped by less than more.

• Never use their peers or their peers' parents as a guide to what constitutes “normal” teen social freedom. The average teen with the average parent has too much freedom too early.

• In every decision, ask: “Will this help or hurt my child's moral development?” Err on the safe side. Your child is far too valuable for less.

• Brace yourself for regular resistance and questioning of your ways. To teens, “out of the norm” most often means “wrong,” even when you're out of the norm because you're better than the norm.

So, can you expect to actually enjoy your teens — or will you have to wait until most of adolescence has passed before you can get along with these individuals? Believe it or not, keeping your standards high will not only make for great adults some day but also more pleasant kids along the way.

Dr. Ray Guarendi is a psychologist, author and father of 10. He can be reached at DrRay.com.