Your silent teenager won’t look up from texting. Your not-so-silent one screams in your face, “I wish I was never born!” Either way, you might be wondering if you’re doing this parenting thing right. For USC’s Julie Cederbaum, the answers require taking a look at the bigger picture.
Healthy households grapple with teen angst holistically, says Cederbaum, assistant professor in the USC School of Social Work. That could mean counseling—for everyone in the family.
“Otherwise it’s like a game of telephone,” says Cederbaum, whose philosophy draws on her background in public health and social work. “You don’t know how the dialogue in a one-on-one session is being translated later at home.”
A specialist in risky teen behaviors, mental health and HIV prevention, Cederbaum understands the challenges facing parents. To nurture a healthy parent-teen relationship, she advises, communicate early and often, especially about uncomfortable coming-of-age topics. Many parents believe teens have already heard it all, but research shows that children make the healthiest decisions about sex and substance use when they hear messages from their parents. “We fail kids when we think that they can navigate an adult world alone,” she says.
That’s because teens, while highly intuitive and acutely aware of everything around them, wear blinders when it comes to long-term planning. “Adolescents do not have consequential thinking,” Cederbaum says. “They’re very in-the-moment—and that’s totally developmentally appropriate.”
Here are some of her tips for dealing with touchy teens:
My teenager refuses to talk to me. Now what?
It’s not an ego blow. You might not be the person your kid needs to talk to, so find a surrogate. Who would your child feel comfortable getting that message from? An aunt, grandparent, coach or the family doctor? These people can be very influential in giving the same message or supporting the parent’s message. And take the initiative to tell the surrogate the values that are important to you.
What if my teenager screams, “I hate you”?
That leads to a conversation about respect. Kids are smart. They know your weaknesses. They’ll push your buttons, test your limits. If you’re really angry or hurt, take five minutes to ground yourself. Sometimes that’s the hardest thing to do. But the goal is to have a thoughtful conversation, not a reactive conversation.
Mine is begging for a tattoo. What should I do?
The message should be: Your body is yours. Ultimately you’re going to make decisions around it. But there are laws [about being underage], and there’s a reason that there are laws. You don’t need a tattoo of Winnie-the-Pooh. That’s not the permanent choice you want to make.
Maybe I’d strike a deal and say,“When you’re 18, we’ll go together to a reputable tattoo parlor,” or “If in a year you still feel this way, we’ll have this conversation again.” I think it’s good to teach our kids self-control. We don’t always have to get everything we want the minute we want it.
What are the tell tale signs of a moody teen versus one who’s really in trouble?
When they isolate themselves from you, I would be concerned. Yes, teens are going to be resistant—they roll their eyes, they think you’re lame. But coming home at the end of day, unwilling to talk about anything that happened to them, spending the evening in their room with the door closed, only coming out to eat dinner and then going back—I think that’s a red flag that something more significant is happening.