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Living With a Teenager

This parents' guide to surviving adolescence offers insights that will be helpful to anyone living with a teenager.

Friends seem to take priority over family.

William remembers the day his son became an adolescent. In earlier years, his son had liked how his father would break into a quiet song while they walked through the aisles of the supermarket. He seemed delighted with his dad's spontaneity as he walked close by, mouthing the words if he knew the tune.

Things changed abruptly on a spring evening when William's son was 13. William started on one of his standard 1960s songs in the condiments aisle. This time his son spun around, reproached him with a stern "Dad!" and then fled toward the other end of the supermarket. In an instant, William had switched from "Cool Dad" to "Dork Dad."

When asked about this incident later that evening, son told father that it was highly embarrassing that father was singing in public. And then came the clincher: What if a friend were to witness this scene?

Surviving your child's adolescence means accepting the inevitable: Your popularity will go down in direct proportion to the rise in popularity of friends; your child's growth spurt and hormone surge will bewilder both of you; and your companionable child will suddenly become a privacy freak.

Other than being gracious about your drop in popularity, what else can you do to survive the early teen years? Here are some pointers.

Keep your perspective. Adolescents are not irritable or uncooperative because they want to hurt you. They are more consistently pleasant with their friends because they fear that their friends will reject them if they are unfriendly and uncooperative. Teens grouse more with their parents because family is a safe place to ventilate adolescent frustrations. It's not personal, it's hormonal, and it will eventually pass.

Keep your cool. The biggest mistake parents make is to allow themselves to become emotionally triggered whenever their teen acts like a teen. If William had yelled at his son for being ashamed of him in the supermarket, an uncomfortable situation would have become a huge fight.

Some teens enjoy seeing their parents get worked up. That's another reason to avoid an emotional meltdown when dealing with kids this age. Keeping your cool is even more important when your daughter comes home with pierced eyelids and a scruffy new boyfriend. Blowing up or giving speeches at this moment accomplishes nothing but raising your blood pressure.

Keep your standards. Some parents give up legitimate rules and expectations in the face of withering debates with their teen. Be willing to reexamine your standards to see if they are reasonable, but hold fast to those you believe are good for your teenager and the family. For example, you might allow your teens to stay out later, but insist that you be informed about their whereabouts at all times. Although teens will lobby for no rules, don't give up your essential standards: Your child will feel abandoned and unloved if you do.

Keep your distance. Don't pursue an adolescent who is reluctant to be open with you. You have the right to expect basic information about where they are and what they're doing, but you cannot make them share what they are feeling or thinking. Inquire respectfully about their thoughts and feelings, and accept whatever they give you without driving them farther away.

Keep yourself ready to listen. Once in a while your teenager will actually want to talk to you. Not at a time you plan for, of course, but when he or she chooses. William's son would signal the moment by coming into his father's study and saying, "How's my dad today?" Dad learned to drop everything because he never knew when that door would open next.

Your teen needs you as much as ever, just in a different way.

Keep your connection rituals. Don't let your kids absent themselves from family dinners, visits to relatives, vacations, and other rituals. Job and school activities will inevitably cut down on these family times, but preserve them as much as possible. Family rituals give teens a sense of being part of a family that values its time together. Even if they act bored or disconnected, they will feel more secure knowing that their family is still a family and that they have a central place in it.

Create new connection rituals. Look for opportunities for one-to-one connection with your teenager. It might be shopping together, going to ball games, or playing chess. When William's daughter resigned from bedtime talks with Dad, they evolved a weekly ritual of going to an ice cream store for a treat and a talk. They did this every week for five years, until she left home. Getting ice cream was the ostensible purpose of the ritual, but both knew it was about the father-daughter connection.

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