- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 6, 2000

Katherine McMillan knew she was in for a wild ride when her oldest son, Ben, came home one day with a Mohawk haircut.

Then nearly 13 years old, Ben already had been struggling with his parents over curfews, house rules and boundaries. When his father took a distant job that absented him from the family during the workweek, everything escalated.

"I was absolutely unprepared for parenting a teen-ager," says Mrs. McMillan, an Arlington mother of four. "Within two weeks of my husband Marshall's new job, Ben got that haircut as a declaration of independence and a visible rejection of everything I thought our family was about. I felt like he fell into an alien culture."

Parents often are unprepared when adolescence transforms their once-familiar children into rebellious and moody strangers. Experts, while agreeing that middle school years can be tumultuous, remind parents that these are just the growing pains that signal a healthy move toward adulthood.

"That's the primary developmental task of adolescence," says Ava Siegler, director of the Institute for Child, Adolescent and Family Studies in Manhattan and a practicing psychologist. "It's the time when children learn how to separate from their parents. Since they are so attached to their parents, they mobilize hostility and anger to create a separation."

Consider the alternative

Parents often feel hurt and betrayed when their child pushes away from them, but Thomas Phelan, a clinical family psychologist from outside Chicago who specializes in discipline issues, urges parents "not to take it personally."

"I ask parents, 'Do you want them to live with you forever?' Whether it's green hair or their terrible rudeness, realize that this is a phase and relax and enjoy it."

Engaging in angry dinner-table arguments or enduring endless sulky moods can be far from enjoyable, and most parents feel helpless when the parenting techniques that served them well during their child's earlier years are no longer effective.

Mr. Phelan says parents can minimize their discomfort by distinguishing between harmless annoyances and issues that are worth fighting over.

"Teens come equipped with an MBA," says Mr. Phelan, who is referring to "minor but annoying" behavior. "Expect long, drawn-out, totally annoying discussions. Expect that they will hone their negotiating skills on you. You don't always have to argue back. Let the minor ones go."

After arguing for 10 years over your 17-year-old's messy room, "it's time to wave the white flag. Admit it, you lost that one. Stop fighting," he says.

Parents should save their energy for the major confrontations those issues that involve a child's health or safety, such as drugs, alcohol, driving rules and sex.

Once those issues are defined, parents need to determine what level of involvement is needed, he says. Some issues require that parents participate as silent sideline observers as teens learn important lessons through trial and error. Sometimes a parent will be an adviser or negotiator. At the highest level, a parent will have to intervene to solve a serious problem.

Mourning childhood's end

"Many parents don't realize that it's not just the child that changes, but parents must change as well," Ms. Siegler says. "The rules and regulations from childhood are just no longer appropriate."

That's a difficult change, says Susan Panzarine, a health professional from Basking Ridge, N.J., who specializes in adolescents and has two teens of her own.

"Parents of teens are dealing with a loss. They don't know who they will greet when their child comes down the stairs each morning, and they wonder what ever happened to their sweet little girl or boy," Mrs. Panzarine says. "They have to give up their old comfortable, warm and snugly relationship and come to terms with getting to know their child all over again."

Mrs. Panzarine says parents need to work hard to find ways to stay involved in their teens' lives. That's quite a challenge when teens are seeking the opposite a disconnection from parental ties.

That was a lesson Mrs. McMillan learned the hard way. Worried about the influence of her son's friends and scared that she was losing him, she told Ben that she was sending him to stay with his grandparents. He ran away instead. Fortunately, he didn't go far and returned after 10 days.

"I'm not proud of what I did," says Ben, now a self-assured 17-year-old, "but running away released a big demon that was sitting on my chest. I felt so pressured by my parents to be someone that wasn't me the football player that dates the cheerleader. When I came home, I was much more clear about who I was, and it helped me sit down and have a civil conversation with my parents."

Parenting out of fear

Mrs. McMillan agrees that maybe Ben's 10-day escape "was something he needed to do."

"I was much more judgmental than I am now," she says. "I was fearful, and that fear made me clamp down on him more, which made him feel even more repressed."

The entire family went to family therapy, and everyone including Ben's three younger sisters benefited from the experience, Mrs. McMillan says. Communication replaced clashes, and, she says, "Everyone learned a lot."

Mrs. McMillan says she admires Ben's courage in finding and following his own path.

"That's my advice for other parents," she says. "Respect your children for the people that they are and the adults that they will be, not who you think they are or who you think they should become."

That's often easier said than done, says Elaine Rubenstein, a clinical social worker from Annapolis who specializes in family and adolescent issues.

"For most parents, the adolescent years are really uncharted territory," she says. "It's even more difficult because every child is so emotionally different, and 'normal' has such a wide range."

Parents should expect to see mood swings, irritability, anger or rebellious attitudes. But when the bad moods settle in for more than a month and the child's personality goes through a long-term change, it may be time to seek outside help.

"Do they isolate themselves from the family by hiding out in their room? Do you see a drop in their grades, a change of friends, loss of interest in the previously favorite activities?" asks Ms. Rubenstein. "If so, then it's time to get help and get help quickly."

Failure to function

A consistent and persistent inability to function should be the measuring stick of when a problem has passed from adolescence's normal moodiness into a problem that warrants parental intervention, Ms. Siegler says.

"Mood swings should not be dismissed. They can be a sign of a serious problem," she says.

Ms. Siegler says parents should get help immediately if their child discusses thoughts of death or suicide or exhibits signs of an eating disorder.

Kate Kelly, a Larchmont, N.Y., mother of three and author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Parenting a Teenager," says that whether adolescents are going through a good mood or bad, it's important for parents to develop a new system of communication.

"Your child is going through so many changes. They are immature and insecure and worried about who they are and where they fit in," she says. "Just know that some moodiness, irritability and surliness is part of the territory."

Parents can be understanding of adolescent angst while still maintaining some ground rules. Mrs. Kelly says she has two firm rules for her three daughters, who range in age from 19 to 11. The first is that nonstop complaining is not permitted.

"I'll let them get it off their chests and listen to a string of 10 complaints but that's it," she says. "I'll then tell them to look at that list and come up with something positive."

The second rule is to instill a reality check. "Teens can get into a deep funk over the smallest things," Mrs. Kelly says. " 'Fine,' I'll say. 'You can't have those sneakers but you're alive, you're healthy, you're clothed. Let's move on.' "

Parenting an adolescent is hard because parents can no longer just fix everything, she says.

"Sometimes the only thing we can do is to empathize and tell them that this won't last forever," she says. "After all, we all survived adolescence."

Mrs. McMillan says she has learned a lot about life as her children have moved through their teen years.

"As a parent, I always thought that my job was to help form my children by developing their talents and gifts," she says. "But finding and developing their gifts is their job. My job is to love and support them. That takes a lot of pressure off parents. We may not know everything about parenting, but we do know about love."

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