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Teenagers — youths at the threshold of adulthood, still harboring a carefree, emotional child within, need their parents to empathize with them during the rocky, transitional phase of adolescence.
From bawling infants requiring round-the-clock care, to toddlers that break free and run-a-muck, to preschoolers learning to scribble and being read to, to hyperactive tots who love to help around the house and play with toys, parenting takes us on one roller coaster ride after another.
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Just when we think it will get easier, one fine day, these munchkins have morphed into teenagers: awkward, lanky, self-conscious, acne-faced and aloof. “Where did that friendly child of mine disappear?” you wonder.
Do not worry; your offspring will resurface in good time. Meanwhile, here is what you should keep in mind when dealing with them from now on:
Recognize the signs
In the past, you could barge into your “children’s” room at any time, without knocking; shouting instructions off the top of your head, you could drag them out of bed to make them clean their room. No more of that, now, Ummi. Your teenagers will begin to indicate their privacy needs through body language. It might be a scowl when they are asked a question they find invasive, a tantrum when you go through their closet to look for something, or an outright wrangle with a sibling when the latter enters their room while they are studying.
Do not take all this personally. It is a natural endeavor to establish boundaries around their ‘personal space’, in which they can retreat for privacy, which is a genuine need at this age. They are transitioning into adulthood, and a need for privacy or space is natural. In addition, they will stop disclosing each and every detail about their lives and/or feelings to you, as they did before – this is a step towards establishing intangible, ‘emotional’ boundaries around themselves.
Provide them this “space”
As parents, we should not take offense at our teens’ increasing aloofness with us or their frigidity in social gatherings. The best way to console ourselves is to think, “This is just a passing phase.” It really is. They need us to back off with the physical and verbal expressions of love and to treat them more like adults. The best way to make them feel appreciated is to delegate some adult tasks to them and to respect their opinions on matters.
Ideally, teenage girls should not be sharing a bedroom or bathroom with their brothers or father. If possible, each teenager should have a personal place to sleep and study in, in peace, and a locking closet that younger siblings cannot get into. However, if this is not possible, especially in large families, you can improvise and think out of the box. Renovate your garage, gazebo, tool-shed (no kidding!), attic, study, or balcony/terrace to set up a small personal place for your teenager, such as a desk with a bookshelf. Most of all, expect your teenager to withdraw into this space for a few hours everyday.
Make sure they know that you are still the boss
What parents must be careful about at this stage is to maintain the tricky balance between keeping a strict but discreet supervisory eye over their teenagers and giving them freedom and independence. Teenagers should be made to realize that garnering trust and “adult” privileges (e.g. using the Internet in privacy, going out alone, driving the car, or possessing a personal cell phone) comes with responsibilities and restrictions. These adult privileges must be earned after proving themselves to be trustworthy, responsible, honest and morally upright youngsters – especially regarding fulfillment of Islamic obligations and duties. Conversely, they should know that any breach in their parents’ regulations or intentional treachery can immediately result in the elimination of these privileges.
Talk about their interests without probing
If you really want to know why your fourteen-year-old daughter is so glum since she came home from her friend’s house, instead of asking her outright, you can start a casual conversation with her by telling her about your day. Then you can ask her how she liked the snack you packed for her.
“Parents often don’t understand that their adolescent is resistant to questions for two good causes. Adult questions are not only invasive of privacy, they are emblematic of authority. They expose the inequity between adolescent and adult. The adolescent is expected to be answerable to the adult authority, not the other way around. Being repeatedly questioned by an adult can feel threatening, and agreeing to answer can feel demeaning.” – Dr. Carl Pickhardt, “Surviving (Your Child’s) Adolescence“, PsychologyToday.com
Teenagers usually take the bait and start talking once they know they have a sympathetic ear. What they do not like is the interrogative probing. Know that the torrent will come out at some time; just make sure you are there for them when it does.
Watch your tone
If your teenager mentions something about their friends or recreational activities that you find objectionable, do not jump into “tyrannical-lecturing-parent” mode immediately. Let it pass then, but perhaps express your disapproval by remaining silent or not laughing (e.g. if they crack a joke in bad taste, use a curse word, or talk about an elder disrespectfully) or leaving the room to prevent an altercation. Later on, once you find a secluded spot and a quiet moment, talk to them about the behavior that is not appropriate. Keep it short (remember, they hate lectures) and never, ever make the mistake of scolding or reprimanding them in public, before their peers, or in front of siblings. Also, do not tattle to your spouse in front of the whole family as soon as the latter walks in from work. This will make your teenager feel as if you betrayed their trust.
Keep up-to-date with what is going on in ‘their’ world
As a teenager, I remember naively thinking that my parents knew nothing about all the “cool” stuff in “my” world – one that revolved around my friends, slang words, glossy fashion magazines, music, movies, pop idols, makeup, supermodels, dirty jokes and romance novels. What teenagers do not know is that even their parents went through this phase, and know exactly what they are going through.
Read newspapers, magazines and blogs to understand all that is new in the youngsters’ world, including the slang words and sly jokes that teenagers use during conversation. Keep yourself updated; become the technologically and fashionably “with-it” parent whom they can proudly introduce to their friends when the latter visit. However, remember that you will still be feared and revered by your teenagers; hence, you will not exactly be welcome to ‘hang with’ their friends. Therefore, do not take your teenager’s embarrassment and awkwardness personally when you walk in on or sit with their friends for a while. Most likely, your departure will elicit sighs of relief all around!
Be the “toughie” friend outside their clique
As a parent, know that your teenagers will probably consider their friends clique the center of their universe for a few years but will come crying to you when they hurt them in any way. Your role as parent to a teenager, is not “the hand that feeds them or bathes them”, but rather “the friend who is always there” when needed. In addition, you must not be afraid to become the occasional ‘warden’ or ‘bad guy’ when the need arises; someone who is there to set limits, enforce rules, check performance, and unfortunately, as a last resort, exact appropriate retribution to wrong behavior.
Establish a rapport with their educators
If your teenager goes to school, establish a rapport with their teacher by casually talking to him or her about your ward’s progress and behavior at school. This will establish your concern as an “involved” parent; someone who can be approached easily if they want to discuss something about your teenager’s progress at school.
Do not go through their private things
Unless you want your teenaged son or daughter to brand you as “the enemy”, do not go through their stuff behind their backs, unless it is absolutely necessary. Do not read their diary (if they keep one) or go through their journals, notebooks, desk, dresser, closet, school bag, clothes, or accessories without a valid reason. You need to realize that they are no longer children and that your role has changed. If you do not tread with extreme care, you might cause irrevocable damage to your relationship with them, which is at a fragile, volatile stage.
Your focus throughout your children’s adolescence should not be just establishing and enforcing stringent rules, restrictions, curfews and chore-lists. Rather, you should also give importance to maintaining open, heart-to-heart communication, providing an understanding and sympathetic ear, and giving emotional support. You will need to relinquish some control in their lives, and instead, learn to delegate tasks to them in order to build their confidence as “wannabe” adults and make them feel trusted. The more teenagers believe that their parents trust them, the less likely they are to break rules or to disobey them.
Lastly, if a breach of trust on their part gets them punished, but they follow it with sincere repentance, ratification and consistent good behavior, you as their parents, should embody humility and justice by retracting their punishment and allowing them honorary privileges once again.
This will convey the valuable message to them that, just as Allah always accepts His penitent servants’ repentance and opens the door for them to a new beginning, so do you, as their parents, accept and appreciate atonement. They should know that you will continue to have hope in them to reform after a lapse in good behavior and are always there for them as their “rock” during these stormy, hormone-charged, formative years of their lives.
Thereafter, you can sit back and enjoy as they come to you, again and again, looking for a hug, a heart-to-heart conversation, and emotional catharsis over warm, homemade brownies and a cup of hot tea.
This article was first published in SISTERS Magazine.