Struggling teens (and even those not struggling) tend to project their own personal smoke-screens for various reasons. You may see them behaving with studied indifference to virtually everything. They may prefer not to be seen with the family. They may be withdrawn, petulant, difficult, and downright unpleasant to be around. Because they often look more like adults than children, parents may tend to view them as young adults who are just acting out or being brats. While this can be the case sometimes, there could be much more than that going on.
When a teenager is having trouble in school, when he is fearful or anxious, or even when he is very difficult, you may be seeing a teen who is really struggling. There are a lot of reasons for these not-so-effective coping skills.
First and foremost, the teenage years are a time of profound change in the life of a young person. Take a look at photos of you with your children just a couple of years ago as compared to today. You look pretty much the same. They do not. It’s no wonder that teenagers struggle during this part of their lives. Their bodies, faces and voices seem to be changing almost daily. Some parents claim they see differences if they are out of town for a couple of weeks on business. Can you imagine how challenging it must be to keep up with all those differences from inside that body? (Do you remember?)
Secondly, the coping skills of a teenager are certainly not fully developed. They don’t have a philosophical bent where they can say, “Tomorrow’s another day.” They are convinced that today is all there is. This mind-set also leads them to take chances most adults won’t take. They simply can’t see far ahead to factor in possible consequences of their actions, no matter how rash they may seem. So they tend to trip over many more obstacles than may seem reasonable because they just don’t have the skills to avoid them.
Third, teenagers are masters of disguise. You see a tall, strong, handsome young man. The person living inside that body is nervous, scared, not at all sure what he’s doing, but an absolute genius at hiding this anxiety from you, from his peers, maybe even from himself to some degree. So how do you help a struggling teen? There are several strategies that have promise. First, start communicating early. I don’t mean on your child’s 13th birthday. I mean as early as he has any language skills! There are choices that even a small child may be allowed to make. Making good decisions is not something we are born with. And teenagers can be particularly bad at it.
Teach your children very early what choices are theirs to make and which you will direct. Teach them to weigh consequences. Teach them to discuss issues with you. And teach them to take responsibility for their decisions. If you’ve never done this and find yourself facing down a 15-year-old at the breakfast table, assuming he will come to the table, then you have some work to do. Insist on a conference with some stated goals, such as what the house rules are, what his responsibilities are, and what the consequences are.
As difficult as it may be, keep calm and matter-of-fact. Start with ground-rules, and invite him to add some. (This is a collaboration). Ground rules could be no swearing, no stomping off, no refusing to participate. Explain that you are there to help, that you have noticed some real problems, and that you want to work together to make things better. This is time-consuming, usually exhausting, and does not show immediate results, to be honest with you. It can make you feel like a real failure. But it’s part of your job as a parent. Hang in there. If your teen is struggling, it’s not going to get better next week or next year with no action from you. Get in there and work together to identify the issues and get your teen back on track. You can do it.