Same old whatever

2013-07-16 00:00

DRUNKOREXIA*. Bullycide*. Screenagers. Parenting a modern teenager can seem like a whole new ball game with its own weird lexicon — but is it?

Dr Linda Friedland, medical doctor, mother of five children and author of a new book on parenting adolescents doesn’t think so.

“Although there have been huge transformations from the baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) through to the Z generation (born after 1995), I don’t really believe that the concept of parenting has changed all that much, except for a leaning towards obsessive hyperparenting,” says the author of Whatever Mom: Body Piercing and Other Power Struggles.

“Certainly there is less formality, less ‘obedience’ and more negotiation, but the core issues remain essentially unchanged.”

Friedland grew up in Johannesburg and lived there until four years ago, when her family emigrated to Australia. She says she was “quite a boring teenager — a real goody-goody”, but experience gained from having two teens and three grown-up children of her own, as well as a wealth of information gleaned from the latest research, make her book an engaging and comprehensive read. Apart from issues raised by connectivity, communications and the Internet, she says, morals and values haven’t changed. “Universally, teens are ‘testy’ and challenging in any era. This goes with the territory of the brain and body, and hormonal changes. Children are more exposed to all kinds of things than ever before and are possibly experimenting earlier than previous generations but I am not sure they are more difficult in this era than before.”

In the book, she writes that in dealing with teenagers it’s important that parents realise they are literally dealing with a different creature. “Research in the past decade has revealed that the brain undergoes significant reorganisation (during adolescence) and suggests that teens aren’t intentionally making bad choices or being careless.

“A simple explanation for adolescent moodiness is that the thinking part of the brain has not yet developed to the point where it can rein in the intense reactions of the emotional brain.”

What’s the most common mistake parents nowadays make when dealing with teens? “Hovering, or helicopter parenting,” she answers.

“Diving in each time to rescue them and micro-managing every step of the way. Just as you need to let go of your toddler’s hand so he can take those steps alone, so too with your teen. Make sure you know their whereabouts, where they are going, what they are doing. But give them space to grow, develop and earn trust.”

She writes that conflict between parents and adolescent children is inevitable, normal even, but what’s important is how it’s handled. Friedland recommends that adults try to stay calm and back off after stating their position on an issue, rather than engage in a power struggle, as this is likely to fuel the conflict. Constructive engagement should be the goal, but she also notes that “regular quarrelling is normal and not all that harmful.”

She quotes Cambridge researcher and lecturer Dr Terri Apter, who writes in You Don’t Really Know Me: “The quality of a parent/teen bond has several measures: … the willingness to share a range of daily experiences and to express a range of feelings — happiness as well as their unhappiness. Some parents and teens who engage in frequent arguments have, by these measures, a good relationship.”

What teens want most from their parents (besides love, respect and support), is honesty. “Honest open communication and knowing they can bring anything to discuss with you regardless of how taboo the subject is.”

Spending time together is important too. The secret is to catch teens on their terms. “Get involved in something they are interested in. This creates common ground and an area of sharing ideas.”

One ritual that works for her family is eating together. “At least one night per week and one lunch time on the weekend, when possible, we sit together for a meal and catch up. It is extremely noisy and for some reason it seems that everyone is talking at the same time and sometimes arguing, but it’s okay to agree to disagree too.”

On challenges created by new technology such as cellphones and the Internet, Friedland says that parents need to be technically savvy too. “We live in their world and need to understand how all the social-media sites work. Teens need a level of supervision and surveillance. This doesn’t mean we should breach privacy issues. In the same way as a generation ago it was not okay for a mom to read a daughter’s private diary, so too now we need to respect their privacy. But we need to guide them and brief them on the dangers lurking out there. And the level of supervision is obviously age specific. Younger teens require much more direct supervision, but we need to give them more space as they get older.”

As a veteran from the trenches of parenting, Friedland has learnt to be fairly phlegmatic. “Each one of my five kids is different in temperament and personality, and as parents we need to be flexible in our approach. There is no one size fits all. We need to be creative in our parenting.

“I think if parents could maintain a sense of humour, practise deep breathing, demonstrate consistency in affection and also boundaries, but be flexible too — and most importantly trust that it is a phase, an emergence of an adult — it would not be half as daunting as people experience. Adolescence does not last forever.”

* Drunkorexia: skipping meals in order to have more calories for alcohol. According to researchers at the University of Missouri, there are three times the number of females to males who binge drink without eating in order to lose weight.

* Bullycide: suicide as a result of being bullied is a real phenomenon, writes Friedland. “The person, often a teen, feels so humiliated that she feels she cannot face the world. This may be the result of a post or message that has gone out digitally.”

• Whatever, Mom! Body Piercings and Other Power Struggles by Linda Friedland is published by Tafelberg.

• shelaghm@witness.co.za

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