20 July 2010

Are you a slave to your teen?

It's a grim thought: your teen might be taking you for a massive ride. Here's how to recognise it, and put a stop to it.

You're only 39, but today you feel 75. Your teenaged child has been at it again – shouting, slamming doors, leaving dirty clothes strewn about and what's more, he came in an hour after curfew last night. And he wants more money for his cellphone account.

Is this normal teenage behaviour that can be found in most households at some time or other, or are you being a slave to the whims of your teenaged son or daughter?

"It must be remembered that this is the age when children's identities are formed and that there is a conflict between their identities in their peer group and those in their families," says Cape Town psychologist, Ilse Terblanche. "This is also the age at which your children are likely to push the limits to see exactly how far they can push your tolerance levels and your rules."

And it's when these tolerance levels get pushed that you can feel your stress levels rising to unacceptabel levels.

"Every family is different and operates in a different manner, but there are certainly things which could quickly form very unhealthy patterns in a family."

So are you doing things for your children that they should be doing for themselves?

The following are signs that you may indeed be becoming a slave to your teens:

Tantrum manipulation. You want to keep the peace at all costs and the mere threat of another screaming tantrum is enough to make you give in to your teen's whim. You suddenly find yourself agreeing to buy a new garment, to do endless fetching and carrying or allowing her/him to go to a party where there will be no adult supervision. Anything to avoid more slamming doors and insults.

Tidying their rooms. If you are tidying up your teen's room, sweeping, dusting, making the bed, fishing breadcrumbs out from under the bed and picking up clothes off the floor, you are doing something which your teen should be doing him/herself. If you are afraid that it may simply not be happening unless you do it, stop for a month or two and see how much your teen enjoys living among the dust and the debris. And what's more you don't have to look at it – that's what doors are for.

Cash cow. Few parents have an endless money supply. And, even in the unlikely event that you do, it is not a good idea to make that available to your teens. Most parents know the desperation of being expected to fork out for designer clothing, expensive outings or other luxuries when they really don't have the money. And when they say so, they are just not believed. Parents are not cash cows and also have strict budgets to stick to. When you are financing a life of luxury for your teen while you haven't had a treat in ages, you're being taken for a ride. Set them a fixed budget, within reason, and don't interfere too much. Don't come to the rescue if they make a poor decision. You will be setting a pattern for life. (And no unlimited cellphone accounts, either!)

Helping with homework/projects. Does the finding of images off the net for your teen's project on Brazil become your problem? Why is it necessary for you to worry about the homework of a 16-year-old? Have you thought of the fact that he/she doesn't have to worry, because you are doing it for them? You can show interest, but draw the line at taking responsibility. And if a project doesn't get handed in on time and loses marks or your child spends three afternoons in detention for not having done homework, maybe the message will sink in about whose problem this really is.

Last-minute notifications. You're rushing out the front door on your way to a meeting, handbag and keys dangling, lipstick in the other hand, when you're told he/she needs R50 for the school outing that day. Or they need to take a cake to the cake sale. Or wear something green for Arbor Day. If you drop everything and make the impossible happen, you're setting yourself up. It's going to happen again. Insist on timely notification, otherwise nothing will be done.

You make excuses for them. Your child forgets to prepare for a test, or doesn't feel like taking part in the swimming gala, and you're prepared to send a sick note to the teacher to explain his/her absence. You are helping your child establish bad habits and avoidance behaviour. All of life is not fun and games, and the earlier we learn this, the better. You are standing in your child's way of accepting responsibility for their own lives.

You expect no help with chores. You work all day, but come home to a wrecked house and two teens lying sprawled in front of the TV. Children can be expected to help with the household chores, but if you do everything for them and clean up after them, why should they bother? Divide household chores and give each person an area of responsibility. And don't fall for the oldest trick in the book – doing it so badly, that it's less hassle for you to just do it yourself. You're being had.

You give in to food whims. Everyone has food preferences and if no-one in your family likes peas, you're not going to cook it twice a week. But if you find yourself having to cook several separate meals to indulge everyone's whims, you're being taken for a ride. A 15-year-old is quite capable of making his/her own fruit salad or baked potato rather than having the family meal. It's fine to indulge whims every now and then, but remember what Erma Bombeck said: "Your child only gets to say what's for supper if he's buying".

Feeding their friends. And on the topic of food – a hungry horde of teenagers can clean your fridge and food cupboards out like a column of military ants. If it happens once in a fortnight, fine, but if it is a daily occurrence, you have a problem. If you're finding yourself feeding other people's children on a daily basis, put a stop to it. Or stop buying food they like. How exciting can brown bread and butter be? The message will hit home soon.

Playing off parents against each other. This is an old trick. Whether parents are divorced or not, even young children learn to exploit a situation where there is either discord or inconsistency in the application of rules. It is a very natural thing to do and something you yourself more than likely tried when you were a kid. Don't fall for comparisons about how great your spouse or ex-spouse is, how much he/she allows them to do, spends on them etc. You are a parent, not a contestant in a popularity contest. In the long run, children will value consistency a lot more than indulgence, which only serves to make them feel insecure.

Your rules don't rule, OK. If the rules you have decided on together simply get ignored or broken regularly, you need to put your foot down. But you cannot blame your teens if you are inconsistent in applying the rules. They need to be set down and stuck to, otherwise no one is going to take them seriously. You cannot allow teens to do whatever they please. Someone of 14 usually just does not possess the kind of judgment needed in really tricky situations. And let's face it, the world out there can be a dangerous place at times.

(Susan Erasmus, Health24, updated July 2010)

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