Surviving your child’s adolescence

Communications "dos" and "don'ts" for parents of teenagers

Adolescence can be a trying time for the whole family.
Adolescence can be a trying time for the whole family.

As your 13-year-old slips into a meltdown about a pimple on her chin, your teenage son insists everyone’s curfew is 2 a.m. Then your 17-year-daughter walks through the door with pink hair and a nose ring. At this point, many parents wonder how they’ll ever survive their children’s adolescence.

“The best way to deal with this potentially challenging time is to be flexible — and expect to be tested,” says Katie Plax, M.D., the interim director of the Adolescent Center at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “During adolescence, kids are really pushing for their independence and trying to establish their own identities. It’s important to remember that this is a time of serious change for them.”

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), adolescence is characterized by dramatic physical changes as young people grow from childhood to physical maturity. During adolescence, we gain 50 percent of adult weight and 20 percent of adult height while going through puberty and developing the ability to reproduce. The agency reports this rapid growth spurt occurs in most kids between the ages of 9.5 and 14.5, peaking somewhere around age 12.

“There are so many physical and emotional changes occurring at the same time, so parents need to be prepared for change, even from day to day,” says Plax, also a staff physician at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. “Parents must be ready to listen to a child at any time, day or night. It may be midnight with work looming in the morning, but parents need to be ready to listen when they need you.”

During adolescence, children develop the ability to comprehend abstract concepts and develop moral philosophies, including rights and privileges, moving gradually toward a more mature sense of identity and purpose.

But for most teens, becoming independent means testing the waters. When it comes to setting rules, Plax recommends parents establish fair and consistent guidelines and discuss why they’re necessary as well as decide which rules are negotiable and which are not. Then parents should clearly outline rewards for following rules and consequences for breaking them, she says.

When rules are broken, it’s important to avoid taking action in the heat of the moment.

Katie Plax
Katie Plax

“Take time to calm down, so everyone can think more clearly and come to a decision that’s fair,” Plax says. “Realize that severity of punishment does not cause an equivalent change in behavior. In fact, most of us respond best to positive reinforcement, so when they’re doing things that you like or appreciate let them know that, too!”

To open communication lines, she says parents should try to learn what is going on in an adolescent’s life — know their friends and their friends’ parents.

“Try to find alone time with your child to stay connected — it may even be the ride home from basketball practice,” she says. “Think about the things you do with your teen that are fun and then do them again and again.”

Adolescents usually require privacy, too. Ideally, they should be allowed to have their own rooms. If that’s not possible, she says it’s important that some private space be allotted to them.

According to the NIH, many adolescents also are at an increased risk for depression and potential suicide due to pressures and conflicts at home and at school. The agency reports that adolescents face unique health concerns, such as accidental injuries — which account for approximately 70 percent of adolescent deaths. These accidents include motor vehicle crashes, drowning and poisoning, which usually results from drug overdoses.

The second leading cause of death among adolescents is homicide, followed by suicide. Alcohol and substance abuse, sexual experimentation, teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases also can be serious issues.

So if things get tough, Plax suggests parents turn toward coaches, pastors, friends and other family members for support.

“By all means don’t feel like you have to go through it alone,” she says. “It’s also important for parents to try and keep their sense of humor. And, most importantly, remember adolescence doesn’t last forever.”

Communications Dos:

  • Listen; don’t interrupt
  • Respect their opinions
  • Make time fro your child and get rid of distractions
  • Speak as an equal — don’t condescend
  • Be honest and admit when you’re wrong
  • Respect privacy

Communication Don’ts

  • Open the conversation with a critical comment
  • Lecture or moralize
  • Minimize a problem
  • Make a comparison to other siblings or adolescents
  • Solve problems for your child
  • Overreact (“you did WHAT?”)
  • Yell and scream

Washington University School of Medicine’s full-time and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient care institutions in the nation, currently ranked third in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.