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Teens: 5 secrets parents should know

GeoParent and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Ron Huxley bring you Remote Control, a column for today's online parents. Says Ron, "Here's your place to stop, if only for a few minutes between making dinner and putting the kids down for bed, to read about the solutions you need or to post an important question."

Secrets you should know
In my years of work with teenagers, I have learned some very important secrets that might interest parents. It wasn't easy getting these secrets. Your teen will probably deny all of them. For some, it is so secret, even they are not consciously aware of it. But trust me, once they know that you know about what most of them know, it will improve your relationship. What do I mean? Let me show you by telling the first secret.

Secret No.1: Teens want parents to know them
It doesn't seem like a big deal? It my opinion it is huge. Teens have worked hard to convince adults that they don't want them "butting into their lives." On the surface this is true. But deep down they do want to share with us their fears, joys and dreams.

The main reason they don't just open up is that parents discourage it with analysis, judgment and lecture. To cover up, they make those weird funny faces like parents are the one's from another planet. Teens are biologically driven to differentiate from their parents. The problem, psychologically, is that they don't know what they want to be instead. They just know what they don't want to be you! It's called an identity crisis. The challenge is to get to know teens gracefully, without raising their defenses, and share with them some of the wisdom parents have learned since adolescence. The remaining nine secrets will help you do just that.

Secret No. 2: Teens are troubled by peer pressure
Almost every teen I have talked to will say that peer pressure is not a big thing. They tell me adults overrate peer pressure and you can see why, with all the drug campaigns flooding the media with peer pressure messages. They don't want you to know their secrets (outwardly) and when the media blasts the truth about peer pressure on television, radio and billboards, their cover has been blown. What is a teen to do, except deny that peer pressure has any power over them?

Take their dress for example. To us adults, they all look the same and yet every one of them will maintain their uniqueness. Point out that any two are wearing nothing but black clothing and they will correct you that they are wearing very different styles of black clothing. Ironic, isn't it? But you can't convince them differently, so don't bother trying. As teens differentiate from Mom and Dad, they turn to their peers for support and guidance. Not all these peers give good advice. Those junior "Dear Abby's" are lost too.

The challenge for parents is to get teens to accept values that will steer them through their turbulent years. Part of the solution is to give teens something to say "yes" to, instead of telling them to "just say no" to harmful substances and behaviors. Since peer pressure is so powerful, why not use it to the parents' and teen's advantage by finding organizations and groups that have healthy peers to influence them? Take teens to church youth groups, community recreation programs and police-sponsored activity leagues. If you don't have one in your area start one up. Involve teens in the ground rules at home and school. The more they are involved in the process, the more likely they will follow those rules.

It also communicates that their thoughts and ideas are important. If their rules are unacceptable (too lenient or unrealistic) talk about the problem and find a middle ground. And as much as they say they hate it, discuss values and peer pressure with children. Don't argue, lecture, analyze or judge them for their thoughts. They are still on the learning curve and usually their responses are naive and exploratory. Another way of saying it is "Guide them, don't force them." Take small opportunities in the car, at the dinner table or in the middle of a project together. This makes everyone more relaxed and comfortable to discuss uncomfortable topics.

Secret No. 3: Teens perceive the world with emotionally charged lenses
To the teen, life is techno colored. To us their world is sensitive, moody and often dangerous. As their hormones kick into high gear, they go from feeling manic and on top of the world to depressed and at the bottom of the barrel, all in a matter of moments. Don't go get prescriptions filled yet. It is simply part of being a teen and fortunately, doesn't last forever. The more parents understand the ebb and flow of teen energy, the better they will cope.

The challenge is to channel this energy into positive outlets. Find opportunities for them to be active and involved, and learn how to swing to the mood music. Although parents don't want to overload their teens, they do need a balance of activities that focus their mental, physical and emotional energies. Allow your child to have a "bad" hormone day from time to time. See the long view. Tomorrow they will be back up again. Don't talk about the mood swing and create defensiveness and don't blame them for their mood swings. Don't excuse it either, just don't make a case of it. The less pressure from adults, the quicker the positive moods will come back up.

Secret No. 4: Teens have very few time management skills
"Who does," you say? Exactly my point. If we, the adults, don't have good time management skills, why would we expect teens to have them. Who would they learn from if not us? But even if we are the most punctual of people that is no guarantee that our teens will be. They might act as the exact opposite in an effort to find their own identity.

The challenge is to help teens learn to use their time wisely. That might involve become better time management models ourselves, suggest time management techniques and doing nothing. We have already mentioned that we need to be good models if we expect our children to manage their time but watch for signs of poor school performance, inattentiveness and excessive sleepiness. These signs may point to deeper, emotional problems.

In some cases, time management skills may help. In others, it may require more professional help. Suggest, don't lecture on time management. Teens will save face if they pick up a technique "on their own" that you suggested. And if they don't, you will have to decide how important the situation is to know if you should strongly suggest, demand or do nothing. Parents must decide what is negotiable and nonnegotiable with their teen. Perhaps having a messy room is negotiable ("clean it at least once a month" or "no food left as science experiments under the bed") while daily chores and doing homework are not. Teens can be good manipulators so it is good to know this before hand.

Secret No. 5: Teens like the practical and social side of school
Although some teens will talk about school as if they are being forced into manual labor or tortured by sadistic criminals disguised as educators, the truth is that they find a lot of reinforcement from school and actually like learning. Vague statements, by parents, that they must study history because it's good for them will never work. Telling a teen that they must study Algebra in order to get into a good college won't be very motivating either. They need to see the more pragmatic or social side of school.

The challenge is to help teens understand why they need to learn various subjects in school. Talk with your teen's teachers about the concrete objectives of each class. Find practical uses for it in daily life. Build in connections with past learning to show a continuum of learning over time. Have teens' brainstorm practical uses for the concepts they are learning. Or go the other way and talk about what they are interested in doing in life and how different subjects are necessary to accomplish that goal.

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