Adolescent Tragedies and My Teenager
Once again I am writing about a terrible tragedy. Fifteen dead children. Fifteen lives ended prematurely and violently. An entire community that will not recover for generations. An entire nation searching for answers that aren’t really there.
Acts of violence have always been a part of human nature and will continue unless we become some sci-fi world with better living through chemistry and genetic manipulation. Sure, there are general reasons the experts will point to, such as alienation; access to guns; too much exposure to violence; a society whose leaders lack values; and families who are disconnected from community.
But the reality is that the great majority of teenagers are growing up in this environment and not killing anyone. That doesn’t mean we should ignore steps to reduce the negative influences on their lives and ours. It does mean that no matter what we do, there will always be tragedies. We simply do not have that much control over another person’s life. That is a frightening reality for most parents to accept.
But this doesn’t mean that parents shouldn’t be doing things that make it more likely that their children would turn out okay. Inside each home there are parents asking if their son or daughter could be in trouble and the parents might not know it. Or, even scarier, there are parents who see their children struggling and feel powerless to help. What do we know that will help?
Well, the research points to the same issue nearly every time: children who have stronger relationships with their parents are less likely to end up in serious trouble. My emphasis on “serious” is because too often parents are upset about issues that are not life-threatening or life-determining. Clean rooms, grades and homework, being disorganized, being impulsive and screwing up, foul language, a few extra holes in an ear, some grungy friends, some broken curfews, or the protective or manipulative “lies” that children use to try to get away with things – all normal adolescent behaviors that do not alone signify a child “going down the tubes.”
Adolescence is a time for many teens to experience disconnection and disorientation, to become confused and uncertain about their values or about their capacity for success. It is a time to be scared about changing bodies and changing friends and experiencing failures when success may have usually come easily. It is a time to defy and distrust authority. It is a time, especially in with the phenomenon of the Internet, when teens’ worlds expand exponentially and it is quite a challenge for them to digest and manage all to which they are exposed.
Parents often respond to this by waging battles for control. While it is essential to have some unequivocal rules that involve health and safety and to seek help from others if there are signs of more serious trouble (e.g., depression, explosive outbursts, eating disorders, substance abuse, marked change in personality), it is particularly important to focus less on content and more on process.
What does this mean? Simply, that nothing is a substitute for maintaining the connection between you and your teenager. Time must be found for one-to-one interactions. Parents must be ready to give their attention when a teenager is suddenly ready to talk. Parents need to spend some time inside the world of their teenager and try to do so without being too judgmental. Do errands and chores together. Find an activity that can be shared. Take a teenage child out to dinner occasionally. A parent whose work involves travel can bring along a teenage child and turn it into a significantly valuable time together. Know each other!