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When Your Teen Changes Up

How To Deal With Your Teenager's Attitude and Behavioral Changes

If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, then teenagers must be from a galaxy far, far away. At least it can seem that way when parents and adolescents try to communicate with one another. However, that teen slouching in the corner with the headphones on, the one who seems to be ignoring you, is just exhibiting normal youth development.

"Change in friends, appearance, music tastes without a corresponding change in your child's functioning is not a problem," says Phillippe B. Cunningham, Ph.D., an associate professor at the Medical University of South Carolina. "If change is happening, but your child continues to perform well in school (getting good grades) and at home (completing chores, keeping curfew) I would not be that concerned. Changes happen as our children grow, change interests and are exposed to various media such as TV, radio, music, concerts, sports, etc. We may not like these changes, but unfortunately – and inevitably – they happen."

What Can a Parent Do?

Parents often feel that they have failed or that they are no longer an important part of their teens' lives, especially when teens go through "the change." However, as most changes are just part of teen development (trying to find their own identity), many experts suggest that parents simply try and reconnect with their teens in order to offer a more "normal" family unit.

"Reconnecting with teens can be done in little, subtle ways, things such as putting TVs, VCRs and computers in a central location rather than in your teen's room in an effort to encourage them to be involved in regular family interaction," says Steve Moak, founder of the Not My Kid Foundation in Phoenix, Ariz. "While this is not a drastic change, sometimes subtle is much more effective."

There are a number of things parents can do to reconnect with their child. Most important, and for better results, Cunningham suggests parents establish regular opportunities for communication with teens. "Avoid communicating with your teen only when there is a problem," Cunningham says. "Schedule some family or one-on-one time alone with your child doing an activity or going somewhere they are interested in. Dinner is a great time to get the communication going both ways."

Food for Thought

According to Cunningham, there are some basic rules and advice to keep in mind when dealing with this stranger who once was your teen:

  • Ask your child about their interests without comment or critique – and listen to your child. Don't try to multitask. Look them in the eye and ask clarifying questions. Find out about their interests, likes and dislikes and aspirations. Everyone likes talking about themselves, especially teens. If you don't know, ask.
  • Keep the ratio of hard feelings (anger, confrontation, critical) to soft feelings (soothing, nurturing thoughts, I love you) to a point where the emotions of the communication can be overwhelmingly in favor of soft emotions.
  • There is nothing wrong with affectionate touches (hugs, shoulder rubs). These can go a long way to reconnect a parent with a distant teen.
  • Catch your teen being good. Pay attention to your teen doing something good and praise him for it.
  • Create opportunities for your teen to earn your trust. When your child shows responsibility, she should be given more responsibility. For example, if your child consistently makes it home in time for curfew, you should extend her curfew. In addition, when she misses her curfew the repercussion should be that her curfew is reduced.

Communication Is the Key

What it boils down to is that talking to your teen, even if all you get is a grunt or moan in response, is very important. "Establishing and keeping lines of communication open is key," Cunningham says. "Once open and honest communication is established, raising difficult or sensitive topics is much easier and causes less conflict. However, conflict will arise when raising adolescents. I typically suggest, when there is not imminent risk involved, talking with your child when you and they are in a good mood versus when you or they are angry."

Just as you can scare away a flock of birds with a loud noise, so can you scare away a teen with words, actions and things he doesn't want to hear. "Avoid lecturing and blaming by staying concise and to the point," Cunningham says. "That is, state what your concern is, trying to focus on specific behaviors, with language that is nonjudgmental and non-pejorative. Also, avoid thinking that your child is intentionally doing something to you or to get back at you, as this often generates more negative emotions, and you are likely to say something that you will later regret."

When to Seek Professional Help

There are times when changes in teens are not "normal" or just part of the teen growing process. During these times, a parent must intervene and maybe even get outside help. "A parent's concern is warranted when there are 'significant changes' in their child's behavior and personality," Cunningham says. "In this context, significant changes mean in comparison to their child's usual way of being and behaving."

These significant changes can include, but are not limited to the following:

  • Increased irritability
  • Moodiness
  • Argumentativeness
  • Increased hostility
  • Decreased school functioning (truancy, poor grades)
  • Decreased interest in usual activities or previously enjoyed activities (hobbies, sports, etc.)
  • Increased noncompliance with home and school rules (breaking curfew)
  • Associating with a new, more deviant peer group

"The bottom line is that as a parent, when you are concerned, when the pit of your stomach is uneasy or when you feel a significant disconnect from your child, you should act," Cunningham says. "As I suggest to parents, 'I would much rather that you act and be wrong than to not act and be right.'"

Many parents, especially those with teens, would agree that parenting is a balancing act of sorts. And, as Cunningham states, being able to keep a good balance is a much-needed skill in dealing with the stranger who was once your teen. "Research has shown that parents who balance warmth (acceptance, nurturance) and control (discipline) consistently have children who are psychosocially competent and less likely to use drugs," Cunningham says. "I would suggest that parents focus on these two dimensions of parenting and let the rest fall into place."

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