Are all teenagers horrible?

Chatting with other parents around the time my older son was 11, I became aware that some girls at this age had changed from charming, friendly 8-year-olds into (according to their parents) rude, know-it-all arrogant pre-teens. Boys, I was told, made a similar transition around the time they approached 13.

So I waited. Occasionally I would tell my son, while he was twelve, that I was enjoying his company while I could because he wouldn’t want to speak to me as soon as he turned thirteen. It almost became a family joke.

Are teens horrible?

Although I saw evidence of some teenagers who were indeed rude and arrogant, I saw others who seemed to change very little. I know more than one family – with both daughters and sons – who did not experience any rebelling or unpleasantness during their teenage years. There are teens who remain as polite and caring as they ever were, respecting their parents, happy in their home. Blips in this happy situation are attributed to hormones, or tiredness, or sickness, and are treated with respect and love.

Why is it that some teenagers rebel and fight, others become morose and sullen, and yet some of them seem to mature and develop responsibility, going through the teenage years with few – if any – clashes with their parents?

Personality development

Firstly it’s related to personality. One personality typing system (Myers-Briggs) suggests that children from the age of about six to twelve are mainly developing their most preferred way of relating to the world. At around age twelve, if all goes well, they begin to develop their secondary preference. A child who has been a quiet, logical thinker may suddenly become more outgoing, full of apparently crazy ideas. If his school or home quenches his ideas, or tries to push him back into the mould of being quiet and logical, he may become depressed or lose his self-esteem.

Equally, a child who has been outgoing and practical may start to develop strong inward feelings during the teenage years. These children may become morose, refusing to speak. It’s not that they don’t like their parents, just that they are having to deal with new emotions, and figuring out how to draw on internal strength. Add this to the churning hormones of puberty, plus a newly awakened interest in the opposite sex, and it’s not surprising that many teens suddenly find themselves unable to discuss very much with their parents.

Self-esteem and peer pressure

Secondly, teenage unpleasantness can be related to poor self-esteem and peer pressure. Even if parents are understanding of hormonal and personality changes, schools can be hard and unpleasant places. Usually children move to new and larger schools when they are eleven – suddenly thrust out of the friendly atmosphere of the primary school, where they know everyone and are amongst the oldest, to the harsh environment of secondary school, with hundreds of other people, new schedules, and the feeling of being out of place, struggling as a new student where everyone else knows what’s going on.

Bullying is rife in many secondary schools; not just physical bullying but teasing, or emotional bullying. A student who is already uncomfortable with his changing body, or worried about being ‘different’, or simply struggling to cope with the new school environment, may well decide to fall in with peer pressure and take up anti-social habits, just so that he feels part of a group. Many families opt to educate their children at home for the first couple of years of secondary school; this can be an excellent way of helping your children get through adolescence without the unhelpful effect of a new school at the same time.

Over-restrictive parenting?

Thirdly, teenage unpleasantness can be due to over-restrictive or coercive parenting. It’s easy for parents to forget how fast their teenagers are growing up, and to continue to treat them as children. But teenagers are a modern phenomenon. Twelve-year-olds are no longer small children. They are capable of looking after themselves, of taking responsibility about the house. They should be trusted, and free to make many decisions themselves.

Any house rules should be fully discussed by the whole family, and everybody’s opinions taken into account. We should treat our children and teenagers with respect, not tell them to be quiet and go away. If they want to experiment with new hairstyles or buy their own clothes, they should be able to do so, without having snide comments from the rest of the family. They should be totally responsible for their own bedrooms – not required to keep them clean to their parents’ standard, but able to live in a muddle of clutter, if they choose. They need to learn that there are good reasons for tidiness, not keep on picking up just to please Mother.

Lack of communication

Finally, teenage unpleasantness can be due to lack of successful communication. Ross Campbell in his excellent book ‘How to Really Love Your Teenager’ outlines the ways that parents often fail to let their children and teens know just how much they love them. Either it’s taken for granted, or shown in ways that the children do not understand. Campbell suggests that there are some significant things we can do:

– make sure we give hugs and other physical contact (even just sitting close on the sofa while watching TV)

– maintain eye contact while talking with teens, watching their faces and expressions, smiling

– spend time with them doing what they choose, or working together. Treat them as friends, ask their advice, draw on their gifts and strengths in ways that are flattering without being over-demanding

– listen to their concerns, even if they seem boring or incomprehensible. If your teenager is telling you something that’s important to him, it’s a terrible rejection to tell him to go and talk to someone else, or change the subject. Take him seriously.

Do also remember who is the adult! If your teenager becomes irrationally angry, or sulks, or tells you you’re out of touch or that he loathes his brother… don’t take it personally. Don’t shout and scream back, but give him the freedom to leave the table, or go to read in his room, or go out for a walk so he can cool off. Chances are he’ll return having forgotten about his outburst so long as you have not reacted back.

And if the worst comes to the worst, despite your care and communication, and your teen takes to drugs, or promiscuity, or refuses to speak to you? Then pray for him. Pray for patience. And above all, keep on letting him know that you love him (even if you dislike his behaviour) and will never reject him.

Further reading:

What is discipline?
Understanding temperament
Understanding personality types
Multiple intelligences
Peer socialisation or peer pressure?
Science and the home educated teen
Maths and the home educated teen