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What's Going On with Your Teen?

Understanding the young person you thought you knew

His door was shut, as usual. It was quiet, which wasn't unusual. If he was on the computer, she could hear it—but if he was listening to music, he'd have his earbuds in, and she couldn't. She wasn't sure which one made her feel better because frankly both frightened her a little. It had started as an uneasy feeling about three months earlier. Jake just wasn't acting normal—nothing Tanya could put her finger on, but things just didn't seem right. She'd been putting off really thinking about her worries since then, telling herself over and over again he was entering adolescence and that's just the way it was.

Walking past his room, down the hall to her own, Tanya sloughed off her shoes and dropped her purse on the dresser. It had been a long day at work, and she was glad to be home. She was looking forward to a quiet dinner and some time to relax. Julie was over at a friend's house and would be home in about 30 minutes, just long enough for Tanya to put something together and on the table. It had been a while since she'd made spaghetti. It was Jake's favorite; at least it used to be. She didn't know anymore; it seemed like so many things she thought she knew about him were changing.

She'd heard countless parents moan and joke, sometimes simultaneously, about losing their kids through these teen years. Stories of happy, contented children transforming into surly strangers, eventually emerging from emotional hibernation in their early twenties. Tanya didn't want to wait that long. She could feel Jake slipping into that pattern and had no idea what to do. Was it just a phase? Would he snap out of it? How quiet was too quiet? What did he do in his room for hours at a time? Why would he barely even talk to her anymore?

Tanya didn't want to pry and risk pushing him further away, but her sense of unease was growing. With Julie, she kind of knew what to expect; after all, Tanya had been a teenage girl herself once. With Jake, the whole gender thing came into play, and she felt adrift in strange waters. No kid wanted an overbearing mother interfering in his life—but were her concerns overbearing, or was she just being a worried mom? Tanya wanted to talk to him, to ask him what was going on, but she was afraid of his reaction, afraid of being rejected, so she walked down the hallway, past his room, without saying anything. Perhaps the smell of dinner would coax him out.

Dealing with children in general is not an easy job assignment. Each stage of development has its own challenges, and each parent comes equipped—or not—to handle those phases. Some parents have difficulty with the young infant stage, feeling totally overwhelmed by an inexplicably crying baby who's unable to articulate what's wrong and immune to any sort of verbal reasoning. Other parents cringe at the defiant toddler stage, where eternal vigilance is the price of parenting, as anything that can go wrong seems to with a curious, tottering child. There is something comforting, almost, when children get to school age; they are verbal and easier to figure out. They can be so sweet and endearing, wanting to be with you, and mostly malleable. Then adolescence hits, and all bets are off. What used to work doesn't anymore. Your relationship begins a quantum shift, in agonizing slow motion, excruciatingly drawn out over a period of years. Your kids hitting adolescence is like you hitting a brick wall going forty. At least, that's how the popular wisdom goes. Perhaps you can relate to one mom's observation: "All the early parenting books I read forewarned me of the 'terrible twos,' but nothing prepared me for the 'traumatic teens.'"

Whether or not you particularly remember your own adolescence (and many people try very, very hard not to, for a variety of reasons), there are just some universal characteristics that have become stereotypical for teenagers. The grumpiness, the irritability, the isolation, and the scattershot anger are part and parcel of the adolescent phase. The teen's desire to be with friends and definitely not to be with Mom or Dad can smack a parent full in the face with its sudden appearance, sometimes in the preteen years. Where you once were a source of knowledge and wisdom, now you're clueless and technologically inept. Where once your age gave you cache, now your age is merely aged. Easy kisses become stilted, embarrassing encounters, over promptly with a quick swipe to the mouth or face. Adolescence is the beginning of relationship alteration, an alienation with both sides firmly convinced of the alienness of the other.

Shedding Skin

The nearest comparison I could give to what I remember about being a teen and what I hear from teenagers about adolescence is that of a reptile shedding its skin. When a snake or a lizard sheds its skin, the new, growing skin cells separate from the old, established skin cells, causing a marked change in appearance and producing an irritability that can result in increased snapping and hissing. Of course, reptiles shed their skin relatively quickly, so the analogy doesn't carry too far. Still, I think it's fairly parallel. Your teenager's nascent adult is separating from the confinement of childhood, causing a marked change in appearance and producing an irritability that can result in increased snapping and hissing. I think it's why teens often feel like their skin is crawling and fight against a sensation of being confined, wanting to burst free. And it's why parents often look at their teens as though they're something that just crawled out from under a rock.

Shedding skin is uncomfortable, often disturbing, and absolutely necessary for growth—and it's the same with adolescence. It makes it easier, however, when you know what to look for and what it all means. Teenager adolescent behaviors are stereotypical for a reason—they are fairly consistent across generations. If you haven't noticed many of these already, you will, in varying degrees, depending upon your teen.

  • Moody and irritable—Teens seem to combine the attention span of two-year-olds and the patience level of three-year-olds with the verbal acerbity of the harshest stand-up comic. The same remark from you delivered without incident 83 times can all of a sudden be met with a blast of condemnation and scorn on the 84th rendition.
  • Unpredictable—Teens seem to vacillate between alternate dimensions. In one, they are competent, I-can-do-it-so-don't-help-me near-adults, and in the other they are why-haven't-you-helped-me-sooner children wailing at the top of their lungs. They phase in and out of these dimensions at will, leaving you constantly on edge and wary of which persona you're going to encounter at any given time.
  • Manipulative—Teens are trying out their ability to (a) use logic to get what they want; (b) use repetition to get what they want; (c) use persuasion to get what they want; and (d) use guilt to get what they want. In some ways, they are like highly verbal, moderately sophisticated toddlers, with an eye firmly focused on that shiny toy or piece of candy. Their drive to yell, "Mine!" is as strong, if not more determined, as that toddler's; being older, they're just more inventive about finding the way to get it.
  • Argumentative—Sometimes teens argue just for the sake of arguing. They know before they start that they're probably not going to get what they want, so they settle for second best—a good argument. This allows them to vent off steam, to transfer their own displeasure in life to you, and to test boundaries. In a strange way that you can probably understand, it feels good to your teen, or at least it feels better than being tied up in knots inside. You become a symbolic punching bag for your teen's emotional workout through argument and anger. Your relationship with your teen has been targeted for his or her own adolescent "challenge course," where every boundary that gets challenged is yours.
  • Withdrawn—When teens withdraw, they usually are selective; they withdraw from you but not from their friends. Where you were once Plan A on their list of favorite things, you're now in the T and U category; in other words, way down the list … unless they want something, and then you're back to A status—but only until they've obtained whatever it is they want or have con- ceded temporary defeat.
  • Self-absorbed—Teens think the world revolves around them; they are at the gravitational center of everything that happens to, in, and around them. The family, you, other people, other reasons are peripheral and, thus, not as important. To teens it really is all about them. There is no "the world"; there is only "their world," which is different from yours and which they are sure you couldn't possibly understand.
  • Dramatic—During the teen years, the color gray ceases to exist. Instead, everything that happens is thrust into stark and dramatic black or white. Another way to put this is that the teen years are all about intensity. Feelings and emotions are magnified and modified, not unlike one of those fun-house mirrors where images are bent and warped out of all normal proportions. You look at what's happening and see one image, while your teen is experiencing that same image as something completely different. This is the teen world of extremes, and, as such, it's a much scarier world than yours.
  • Dismissive—In order to disguise the intensity of emotions and feelings twisting around on the inside and outside, teens will often take a global whatever attitude. Barely entering adulthood, they already display a sort of world-weary, seen- it-all, bored demeanor, especially where you as a parent and your rules are concerned.
  • Collectively independent—Teenagers tend to try on identities like outfits, looking for ones that seem to fit or look good to them. The goal appears to be establishing independence, but that independence is deceptive. Seeking independence from you is designed to produce acceptance from the collective group of peers. It's an odd dichotomy of seeking approval from one group by displaying disdain for approval from another.
  • Anxious—Teenagers have a great deal to be anxious about because so much of their essential nature is changing. Their bodies are changing; their goals are changing; their anchor points in life are changing. It's as if the ground beneath them is shifting, and, at any given moment, they have trouble finding their bearings. As much as the idea of being independent and away from you is exhilarating, it's also terrifying. On this roller coaster, they are firmly at the front of the car, even when they'd like nothing more than to crawl into the seat behind you.
  • Powerful—Of all the characteristics of teenagers, this can be one of the most disconcerting. Teenagers are moving from a reality where adults can usually be counted on to be more capable, more competent, and more able. This provides stability and security. They are moving to a reality where they may find themselves in the uncomfortable and often frightening position of power. Teens can be physically larger and stronger than the adults in their lives. In a technologically shifting world, they often find themselves more adept, more intuitive, and savvier than many adults. Being in charge, as teens instinctively know, carries with it both a blessing and a curse. They are attracted to the power but intimidated by the responsibility that comes with it.
  • Exclusively inclusive—Teens act naturally like pack animals, even when loudly proclaiming their fierce independence. Most teens crave a sense of belonging, even if they are unable to find it in the people around them. Because of the way culture has shifted, an inclusive community for teenagers doesn't necessarily need to contain the kids on the block or a group at school. There are online communities and affiliations based upon clothes, music, hairstyles, causes, disaffections, or just about anything else a teen wants to affiliate with. A band of brothers, sisters, or both is only a Google search away.
  • Physically awkward—Teens are still in the process of growing into their bodies, which can put them at odds with that very same body. Physical sexual development can run ahead of a teen being emotionally and cognitively ready to handle those changes. This leaves teens often feeling distinctly out of phase with their morphing bodies and the resulting emotional fallout.
  • Overwhelmed—Teenagers, as the saying goes, have eyes bigger than their stomachs about all sorts of things besides food. This tendency results in some kids with schedules so packed, it's dizzying. There are teens who seem to careen from event to event, propelled by sheer forward momentum. This drive to do can be as much their need to avoid saying no as it is any real desire to say yes. These teens cheat themselves on the important in order to feed the urgent. Getting proper sleep on a nightly basis is exchanged for over-hours-catch-up-whenever-possible on weekends and no-school days. Proper nutrition is jettisoned for anything that is quick and convenient and packs a four-hour punch. They are short tempered, stressed, and at their wits end, all before school starts at seven fifteen in the morning—and the day doesn't get any better from there.
  • Insecure—For all their protestations and loud proclamations to the contrary, teens are simply not as sure of themselves as they insist. Even those who fall into the age-old categories of most attractive, most athletic, most popular, most humorous, most rebellious, or most avant-garde live daily on the knife's edge of horrifying humiliation. The distance from most to least is agonizingly short, at least from a teen's vantage point. Nothing is secure when every day is fraught with worries, fears, and potential disasters waiting around the next corner, the next encounter, the next relationship.

Everything That's Going On

Watching your kid entering into or navigating adolescence can be a real trigger for your own memories, insecurities, angers, and regrets about being a teen yourself. When this happens, your teen's life can become a backdrop upon which you project images from your past onto your child. The problem is, those images belong to you, and only you see them because they aren't really there. If you base how you react upon those self-images, you won't fully know or understand all that's happening with your teen. He may look exactly like you did at that age, but I guarantee you he doesn't feel or experience life exactly like you did. He is unique, and that uniqueness is exactly what's trying to get out during adolescence. If you persist in misinterpreting what you see as merely being a reflection of you, your teen will find himself with no choice but to move further and further from you.

So how do you disengage your own internal feelings and memories of adolescence from what's happening with your teen?

First, you must acknowledge that this process of adolescence is as much a journey of separation for you as it is for your teen. As a parent, your identity as a person can become wrapped up in your child. As your child moves through adolescence into adulthood, that identity is going to change because your relationship is going to change. Now is a good time to start looking, really looking, at your teen as more than just an extension or a projection of yourself. This nascent adult is going to be birthed through adolescence with different viewpoints, perspectives, experiences, talents, preferences, goals, and dreams than yours. If you haven't started already learning to accept, acknowledge, and—absolutely wherever possible—approve of whom this unique person is turning into, you're late, but you have some time to catch up.

Second, be prepared for changes. What was true about your child five years ago may not be, and probably is not, true anymore. She may have wanted nothing more than to become a veterinarian at eight, but at thirteen she's determined to be an artist. You were willing to consider taking out a second mortgage for veterinary school back then because at least she'd be a doctor, but now you're not so enthused about her plans of going off to Arizona when she graduates to study art as part of "just living life." Remember, teens are trying on different personas and imagining different futures. This is normal, so throttle back on freaking out just yet.

Third, you need to start really paying attention. About some things, your teen will let you know early and often. About other things, your teen will be much more secretive. It's time for you to take out a rarely used tool in the parental arsenal—subtlety. You will need to become quietly observant. Really listen to what your teen says or doesn't say. Watch the body language; remember, most communication is nonverbal. Start watching more and lecturing less.

Understanding your teen is a muscular task that requires effort. The true benefits to be gained are what you put into it. You'll be amazed at what it can mean for your relationship with your teenager.

Excerpted with permission from The Stranger in Your House by Gregory L. Jantz. Copyright © 2011 Gregory L. Jantz. The Stranger in Your House is published by David C Cook. Publisher permission required to reproduce in any way. All rights reserved.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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