The University Record, June 25, 1997

Parents: You can survive your child’s adolescence

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services

You can survive life with an adolescent, psychologist Merton A. Shill assured U-M staffers at the recent Workplace 2000 conference.

"Base your parenting on your child's developmental needs," Shill said, "not on their demands or your own needs."

To help parents understand what teens need, Shill reviewed the main developmental tasks of adolescence. Early in the process, teens' emotions are heavily influenced by fluctuating levels of sex hormones and their changing bodies, with the common effect that they become moody and preocuppied with appearances. The same hormones that stir their interest in the opposite sex also heighten aggressive feelings, Shill pointed out, which is why girls may start watching horror movies, while boys watch films filled with violence.

At the same time, teens may shun any physical contact with their parents, recoiling from hugs or kisses. "They're trying to learn how to deal with the overwhelming feelings physical contact stirs up in them," Shill explained, "and they need to learn how to cope with these feelings on their own.

"That's the enormous challenge of being a parent. We're adults, which means that we are supposed to think of the child's needs first and postpone our own gratification. Whether we want to hug the child isn't the point. Whether the child wants us to hug him isn't the point, either. The real point is what the child needs. And at this stage in life, what the child needs, emotionally, is for us to back off."

Adolescence is really an apprenticeship for adulthood, Shill noted, a time when kids are trying to separate emotionally from their families of origin in order to form other emotional attachments, first with friends and later with a life partner of their own. During this time of emotional and physical separation, providing discipline is the best way parents can show teens they still love them.

Discipline is really a form of affection, Shill emphasized. Teens want to know you still care about them. You're the catcher, the safety net, the disciplinarian. If friends ask them to do something they're not comfortable with, they don't want to risk alienating them by saying no. You're the one on the hook, the one who can still say "no" for them.

Shill divided the group in half for role-playing exercises, giving each person a chance to take the part of parent and of teen. By paying careful attention to their own reactions, Shill said, they might be able to understand how to avoid or short-circuit unnecessary conflicts.

For one thing, when kids ask if they can do something you're uneasy about, or resist doing something you want them to do, don't automatically start saying, "When I was your age. . ."

"It doesn't matter what you did as a child," Shill advised. "That doesn't have anything to do with your child's needs. We often treat people the way we were treated, and this is not necessarily a good thing."