Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Dance-Part II

I've been a child psychologist for 27 years. This article is a continuation of the concept of "The Dance," which I developed to help parents understand their role in guiding their progeny. Please read the first article before perusing this one...
The Dance happens when you as the parent resist, then back up as the child proves his or her case. As you back up, your child advances. In this case, your child pursued and then demonstrated some constellation of traits that convinced you s/he was "ready," at which point you acceded. At other times, you would have said "No" to the pressure of some request, because your child was not ready. At that time, the child backed up and you remained fixed in your position. At other times, the child might have regressed; that is, reverted to less mature behaviors because of the influence of friends, misguided information, a momentary failure of maturity or irresistible temptation. At this moment, your child "backed up" so you retrenched, which means you temporarily treated him as if he or she was much younger ("retrogressive parental re-posturing"). Why? Because at that moment, considering the issue at hand, your child was NOT ready, and you, as the wise parent, knew it. You held the line.
One example I often see is when a teen comes home with a pierced lip, green hair, black clothing and is accompanied by three friends who look the same. Your parental reaction is predictable and your teenager knows what it's going to be. This is a test. But my experiences as a child psychologist suggests this is another normal stage teens create. And, it turns out the outward trappings of "degenerateness" are not predictive of much of anything in the future. Teenagers experiment with everything-dress, makeup, jewelry, behavior; you name it. They are still the same beings underneath the trappings and have the same values you inculcated in them from day one. Be patient and tolerant UNLESS there is "just cause." Just cause is when your teen comes home drunk with straight F's on the report card, still sporting the counterculture couture. THEN have the talk, but be careful to talk about the alcohol and grades, not necessarily the other stuff.
At each developmental step, The Dance changes because your child-come-teenager has different needs and the issues at hand become altered, expanded, extinguished, etc. Your task, now that the teenage years have arrived, is to be aware of your teen's needs and deal with whatever the issue is at the moment, assessing your teenager's competence, skill levels, needs, appropriateness of wants, etc. Your task is not to hold your teenager back from progress (you couldn't do this even if you tried); rather, your parental mandate is to give your offspring the tools to succeed.
Because you have been around the block more times than your offspring, you get to make the call about when and where to hold the line, or give in to the upward evolutionary pressure your child constantly applies. This is normal, but at any given time, when and where to draw the line may not be clear. It was easier to assess when your child was younger because his or her needs were more simple and concrete. However, with maturity comes complexity, adaptability, greater range of feelings and depth of thought.
So, The Dance becomes more poignant with teens. Teenagers seem to have greater intensity of needs or at least they are sometimes more vocal and persistent in their expostulations. And while their "issues" are every bit as important to them as the sleepover is to the seven year old, they also experience their "issues" as having greater scope, proportional to teenager's expanding vistas. What are different are the larger physical bodies these needs are housed in, and the greater intelligence (some parents say "cuning") wielded to meet those needs. The good news is that your teenager has grown into a more mature being. The bad news is that s/he has more resistance for you to circumnavigate. Negotiating with older teenagers is more intense because no longer can you send them to their room when you disagree. No longer can you give them a simple time out. At best, you can take away some of their toys if they are on the low end of the teenage spectrum, but as they age, even this works less and less. Increasingly, you have to deal with them as "almost" adults, which means you are nearing the end of The Dance.
As teens near adulthood, increasingly they demand you treat them as competent beings, granting them increased privileges such as having later curfews, the opportunity to take summer jobs and manage their own money. Your job is to acknowledge this, even encourage it by reinforcing the behaviors that are most desirable, as discussed above. Increasingly, this is done with less and less punitive feedback and more and more with collaborative approval. You are shaping the final chapter of your teenager's childhood. At this stage, the relationships become a cooperative, not a dictatorship.

-Dr. Griggs

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