One challenge of understanding teens is that the term “teenager” covers a broad spectrum of people—anyone from the shy adolescent entering middle school to the independent high school senior who has just gotten into his first-choice college. General guidelines will help you better understand the dynamics of communicating with a teen:
According to a recent Carnegie Council report, many parents (who admittedly are busy, stressed-out, and confused about their roles) disengage from their teenagers too soon. They believe that hostility from their adolescent is inevitable and that they should get out of the way to let their child become independent. As a result, kids are left to drift and sometimes get into trouble with nobody nearby to notice.
- Young teens (ages 13-14) are continuing to work at establishing their separate identities, and they express this in more obvious ways than they have before. Their attitude at home may be one of rebellion (though they aren’t likely to be quite so outspoken or outrageous away from home). They may be dismissive of your thoughts and opinions, but they’re still absorbing what you say. Not wanting to be seen with you in public is part of this early stage of differentiating who they are.
- Middle teens (ages 14-16) are beginning to take more risks. They often make decisions based on what’s happening at the moment without regard for how it may affect themselves, their family, or the world around them. (This thinking will change as they continue to develop.) They will begin to experiment with alcohol, drugs, and sex, and it’s more important than ever that you continue to communicate your values on these subjects.
- Older teens (17-up) are coming around and if you’ve maintained a decent relationship, you may find that suddenly your teen and his friends may alight for a few minutes to talk with you before they go on to something “more important.” This can be a rewarding stage, as you begin to get a glimpse of your teenager as a future adult.
An important task of these years is for your teen to become an independent person, free of her reliance on her parents. As a result, teenagers display a certain amount of rebellion, defiance, discontent, turmoil, restlessness, and ambivalence. Emotions usually run high, and mood swings are common. But throughout, they listen. They may choose to ignore you, but don't believe it for a minute when they say, “I didn't hear you.” They did.