- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 6, 2000

Every phase of child-rearing comes with its own challenges, but parents who survived midnight feedings, toddler tantrums and homework battles say nothing could prepare them for the daunting demands of parenting an adolescent.

"It's hard because it's nonstop change," says Thomas Phelan, a clinical psychologist and parenting expert from outside Chicago. "At no other time, except in the first year of life, do children change so quickly." He says parents also go through tremendous changes when they realize the rules, techniques and parenting methods that served them well for a long time are no longer effective.

The father of two grown sons, Mr. Phelan says parents of young teens need to develop a thick skin and "not take personally" the inevitable rejection as adolescents distance themselves from their parents.

"That's probably the toughest thing," he says. "One day they adore you; the next day they are humiliated to be seen with you at the mall. Parents need to know that they didn't do anything wrong. This is just part of growing up and eventually leaving home."

Experts as well as parents who have survived trial-by-adolescent agree that maintaining a good communication channel is vital.

"The way you communicate will change," says Kate Kelly, mother of three and author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Parenting a Teenager." She says adolescents, unlike younger children who immediately unload their concerns as soon as they get home from school, need time and space to work through their emotions.

"Let them know that you are available, but give them their space," says Mrs. Kelly, who lives in Larchmont, N.Y. "If you press them before they're ready to open up to you, you risk driving them further away."

Mrs. Kelly says a parent's biggest mistake is withdrawing from their child's life too soon. "Just because they tell you that you're stupid and they don't need you should be proof to you that they do," she says.

The following is a list of some tips from experts, who all urge parents to follow their instincts and stay connected especially when the going gets tough:

• Expect the unexpected. Mr. Phelan says adolescents delight in setting themselves apart from their parents through their appearance, clothes, music or interests. "Enjoy their weirdness," he says. "This phase won't last."

• Take mood swings seriously. Don't dismiss them as a normal part of growing up. They are, but if depression lasts or if a child is always angry or irritated, it could be a sign of a serious problem, warns Elaine Rubenstein, a clinical social worker from Annapolis.

• This is the time to listen, not preach. "Parents need to step back from the 'I told you so' method of parenting," says Susan Panzarine, a Basking Ridge, N.J., mother of two teens and a medical professional who specializes in adolescents.

• Be flexible. Go with the flow and relax the rules a bit, Ms. Rubenstein says.

• Know their friends and the parents of their friends. Because your children may no longer freely share information with you, it is critical that you cultivate a parents' network to keep track of their activities and whereabouts.

• Keep your sense of humor. How else can you survive the day that your child comes home with a Mohawk haircut?

• Don't add emotional fuel to the fire. "Your teens are experts at knowing how to push your buttons," Mrs. Panzarine says. "Sometimes you need to take a time out."

• "Be liberal with your compliments," Mrs. Panzarine says. Don't let all your conversations center around complaints and criticisms.

• Know how to differentiate between minor annoyances and dangerous situations and be ready to intervene when your child's health or safety is at risk, Mr. Phelan says. A messy room won't hurt anyone. Drugs or alcohol can.

• Be prepared to change family routines. Family outings may no longer work as teens choose friends over family. Parents should try to find alternative activities through which they can spend time with their teen.

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