For most parents, their children's teenage years are a confusing mixture of childish behavior and startling maturity.
For teenagers, freedom is The Issue. They crave it, and they need it. But parents must decide when and how to give it.
Freedom helps teens feel more powerful and self-confident. But too much freedom can easily backfire, leaving a teen floundering. Although teens might be reluctant to admit it, they still need the stability that parental authority can offer.
Q: What should teens be doing during their free time?
A: "A variety of things," is probably the closest anyone can come to an answer. It's an almost sure sign of trouble when a teenager seems obsessed with doing only one thing, whether it is listening to rock music or doing homework. Well-adjusted teens enjoy a variety of interests and activities, some adult-directed (clubs, scouts), some involving only peers (movies, parties, ball games), and others that are solitary (hobbies, reading).
Q: Should I allow my teenager to do "unproductive" things, such as driving around in a car?
A: "Unproductive" doesn't necessarily mean harmful, but these behaviors should constitute just a minor part of the teen's total activity picture. If you find that aimlessness is the rule for your child, that probably spells boredom, and boredom during the teen years can lead quickly to all kinds of trouble, including drugs. When you see boredom developing in your teenager, guide the youngster into some productive extracurricular activities.
Q: How can I set reasonable curfews?
A: Despite the sometimes relentless pressure you'll feel from your child, it's important to start conservatively and work up from there. For instance, a 14-year-old who consistently abides by a 10:30 p.m. curfew should be rewarded at age 15 with at least a 30-minute extension. About every six months thereafter, sit down with your teen and review the record. If it's good, tack on another 30 minutes. What do you say to the teen who continually misses curfew? Except in extreme cases, a combination of discipline today and reward tomorrow works well: "Over the past six months, we've talked to you numerous times about coming in late. We had planned to extend your curfew until 11:00 by this time, but because you haven't cooperated with 10:30, we're going to keep it there for another two months. If you can stick to the curfew, then we'll talk about extending it." On special occasions, like the prom, curfew can be more flexible. And you should always know where your teens are going and with whom.
Q: When is it OK to let my teen start to date?
A: There's no reason why boys and girls in their early teens can't go out together in groups to movies or other attractions. At first, however, you may want to set limits, such as dating only during daytime and early evening hours.