Parents and family can be a safe harbour for teenagers. But parenting requires caution, unending patience and good humour
Your children are not your children
They are the sons and daughters of
Life’s longing for itself
They come through you but not from
And though they are with you yet
they belong not to you
— On Children by Khalil Gibran
he case of the young woman Dua Zehra has been in the news for a while and, for many, still remains unresolved. I wrote about early marriages and its consequences in these pages a while ago. This time, I was asked to write something about the teen mind and, it so happens, that I have a living laboratory at home. My wife and I have parented three children through the fraught era known as “teenage” in the last decade and, while we have more than our share of grey hair to show for it, it has been an exhilarating, even if tiring, experience.
“Teenage” officially begins at 13 years of age but, of course, this is completely arbitrary. A better benchmark might be puberty, the onset of hormonal changes in both girls and boys that signify impending sexual maturity. In girls, this is usually obvious with the onset of menstruation. In boys, facial hair, voice changes and other bodily features (including nocturnal emissions, sometimes called nightfall or wet dreams) are a reliable indicator of the onset of puberty.
The outward bodily changes are an indicator of the impending maturation, not just of the sexual organs for eventual reproduction/ child bearing but also enormous changes in the brain which affect everything from thinking to emotions, sleep and appetite, judgment and everything related to the brain – in short, every aspect of a person’s life. Teenage is, in a way, a hurricane; waxing and waning but always ready to explode with the unpredictable fury of a storm. Parents and family can be a safe harbour but this requires delicacy, caution and unending patience and good humour. My wife and I have had our share of challenges but, all told, I’m fairly confident our teenagers are coming along nicely. So, what did we do that helped (and what would we never ever do again)?
The teen brain is still developing, especially the large area at the front (the ‘prefrontal cortex’) which is responsible for the executive functioning: attention, planning, judgment and behaviour that move us successfully towards our chosen goals. It is the control centre of a person and does not mature fully until a person is well into their twenties. Just because your teen got several A stars in their CIE exams doesn’t mean their judgment is as mature as yours (with your decades of experience and wisdom).
But that does not mean you can demean their judgment. Teenagers, as every parent knows, are famously prickly about their growing autonomy. They are, after all, transitioning from being ‘children’ to ‘adults’. Be honest with them, keep the lines of communication open, respect their opinions but don’t be shy about offering yours. It may look like they are tuning you out but they are listening very carefully. At the same time, if your values as a parent conflict with your own actions, don’t expect your teenagers to listen.
Model adult behaviour. If you yell and scream at them, don’t get upset if they do the same. If you can calmly reason through an argument, they will learn to do the same.
Give them the freedom to make mistakes by giving them autonomy as long as you are also making sure they are safe. Don’t be afraid to ask who they are meeting, where they are going and initiate discussions about sensitive topics: drugs, sex, dangerous behaviour. They want to talk to you but only if you listen and don’t lecture. As my older son said irritably a few years ago during what I thought was a friendly talk: “Baba please, not another life lesson!”
Share stories of your own teenage and youth. They are intensely curious and want to learn from your experiences (feel free to edit what you don’t want them to know).
Help them see ‘the big picture’; your decades of experience are one thing they don’t have and it is invaluable for them. So let them roll their eyes at the meal table when you talk and keep talking; they are listening very carefully.
Be kind, be kind, be kind. In a harsh, scary world, this cannot be repeated enough. It helps to be kind to yourself first, and always, always be gentle with your children. A harsh word from you is like a knife to their heart. A physical blow might be remembered forever. So, if you are angry, stressed, or irritable, avoid conversations (and arguments). Come back and sit with them again when you are rested and in a better mood.
Take an interest in their lives. Talk about their friends, their hobbies, their favourite foods – anything at all. Get to know them as they are: vibrant, energetic and bubbly. Put your worries about them aside for a moment and just share their world.
In a very real way, parenting teenagers is like being confronted with your own teenage all over again, and not always in a good way. If you struggled as a teen (we all did), all kinds of emotions will come up: envy, anger, sadness, joy, happiness, love. By and large, we are all glad we are not back there again, that we are finally in charge. But of course, being in charge brings its own set of challenges. And it helps to remember that we are simply (and very briefly) custodians of our world for those to come after us. So “give them your love/ but not your thoughts/ For they have their own thoughts/…house their bodies, but not their souls/ For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, even in your dreams“.
The writer is a psychiatrist and faculty member at King Edward Medical University. He taught and practiced psychiatry in the United States for 16 years. He tweets @Ali_Madeeh