Chapter OneRevisit Your Own Adolescence
One night when I was seventeen, I ran my parents' Ford Fairlane
station wagon as fast as it would go. It gave out on me after
about two miles. It just stopped, and that was it. The engine had to
be rebuilt. What was I thinking? It was a station wagon! I had to call
my dad at 1:00 a.m. so he could take me home. We had the car towed
the next day.
While the Fairlane tragedy isn't a good memory, I benefited from
that experience. When one of my sons told me that he had lost a watch
I had given him, I remembered how crummy I had felt when I had to
call my own father and tell him what had happened to the Fairlane.
That memory helped me understand how bad my son was feeling about
losing his watch, so I just told him, "Oh, well, we'll get another and try
If you have a pulse, you have similar stories from your adolescence.
Teens do things that are irresponsible. That is the nature of
adolescence. For some of us, the teen years had some minor blips, and
for others of us, they were miserable.
For the sake of your teen, remember your own adolescence. The
more you can recollect how you felt and what you did then, the better
a parent you will be.
Your Teen Needs You to Have a Past
Why should you unearth those days? What benefit will it bring to
your adolescent? Significant ones, as we will see. Remembering can
help you show your teen:
Empathy and identification. It is easy to forget how difficult the
teen years can be, and parents sometimes judge teens too harshly for
behaving like a teenager.
But your teen needs a parent who will connect with him and show
him empathy, who can identify with what he is going through and
who understands the struggle of adolescence. He needs to know that
he is not alone in the fight.
Think about how much you need someone to hear you and be
there for you in your everyday struggles as an adult. What if every
time you screwed up, all you heard was, "What in the world are you
doing? Are you trying to ruin your life?" Wouldn't it be easy to feel
disheartened and give up? Your teen, whose brain is less developed
than yours, is even less resilient in the face of criticism. Your support
can soften the blows that will inevitably come your teen's way.
This doesn't mean that you should tell your teen lots of stories
about your own adolescence. Parents often do that, thinking it's helping,
when it really ends up being more for the parent than for the teen.
Instead, remember those days, give them a few stories now and then,
but keep most of your memories to yourself and allow them to help
you identify with your teen. I have had so many teens tell me how
disconnected they feel when dad tells them all the stories of his adolescence.
It's much better for you to enter their world.
Nor does identifying with your teen mean you will approve of
all his choices; rather, you are able to put yourself in your teen's
place-even when he is being rude, self-centered, and unreasonable.
When you see a little part of yourself in your adolescent, you can give
him the connection he needs to mature.
Insight and wisdom. Because you have survived your own adolescence,
you have access to what helped you during those turbulent
years, and why. When you remember what made a difference in your
life, those memories can give you insight and wisdom so that you, in
turn, can provide what your teen needs.
So ask yourself these three questions:
1. Who stuck with me without giving up on me?
2. What truths helped me make sense of the world?
3. What did I learn from the consequences of my actions?
My Boy Scout troop leader, A. J. "DK" DeKeyser, spent time with
me during countless meetings and trips. He encouraged me to stay in
Boy Scouts when I was ready to bail. And he didn't tell my parents
every bad thing I did; instead, he handled each one himself. DK is
one of those people whose wisdom helped me learn persistence, and
my memories of him have reminded me of the kind of parent I want
Hope. All parents wonder if their teen will ever change, become
responsible, or care about his or her life. Parents don't know their children's
future. Yet, because you can remember your own adolescence,
you now can understand your own life and decisions. You know that
you went through tough times and made many bad decisions, but that
you gradually became more connected, self-controlled, focused, and
responsible. Your own years should offer you hope for your teen; you
can convey that hope even when your teen is floundering.
My mother raised four kids. After I had grown up, I asked her how
she made it. She told me that when she was overwhelmed with us, she
would go to her own mom, who had raised six kids. Her mom would
always tell her the same thing: "It's just a stage; they'll grow out of it."
This helped my mom put up with us and help us get to the next stage,
whatever it was.
Try to Remember .
Even though it's not uncommon for parents to talk about how much
more challenging the world is today for teens, research statistics say
otherwise. For example, between 1978 and 2002, the average age for
drinking alcohol for the first time went from 16.3 years to 16.2. The
age for smoking the first cigarette went up from 15.2 years of age to
16.1, and the age for smoking marijuana for the first time went from
18.4 years of age to 17.2. In 1991, 54 percent of students had had
sexual intercourse. In 2003, the percentage was 46 percent.
Today's parents can rest assured that many of the challenges they
faced in adolescence are similar to the challenges their teens face. So,
reflect back on how, as a teen, you may have struggled in the following
areas, and allow those experiences to help you offer your teen compassion
Conflict with and distance from your parents. Most likely, you
went through a rough patch in which you thought your parents were
controlling and didn't understand you. You may have been overtly
defiant and had long and loud arguments with them. Or perhaps you
were sneaky and did what you wanted behind their backs. Then again,
you may have never disagreed with your parents and weren't able to
individuate from them. If so, you likely entered into adolescence later
in life, when you had already left home.
No matter when you experienced this conflict with your parents,
you probably didn't enjoy the fighting or the duplicity with them. Parents
are the center of a child's life, so it's always difficult for children
to disconnect from them. So when you look at your teen's surly, angry
face, understand that she does not enjoy the alienation any more than
Relational problems. Who were your friends? Were you into sports,
studies, art, music, church, or some combination of them? Remember
how central your friendships were to you. They were the only world
that mattered to you.
That sort of prominence probably had its downside too: cliques,
arguments, broken romances, and fights. Think of how vigilant you
had to be, sometimes to the point of being more concerned with who
liked you than with who you liked. Think of how devastating it was
when someone you trusted turned against you, and you had no way to
deal with it. That is how your teen feels.
Emotional and behavioral issues. Did you ever feel depressed and
very down? Lost and confused? Did you ever get high or drunk? Go
further than you wanted to sexually? Experience angry outbursts that
you couldn't control?
Sometimes when we think about the good old days of our teens, we
whitewash the angst, negative feelings, and out-of-control behaviors that
we struggled with. It's scary to do and feel things you can't manage.
Candace told me that as a teen she felt tremendous pressure to
keep everyone cheered up and was unable to experience or talk about
negative emotions. As a result of this, she developed a habit of sticking
pins into her fingers until she bled, and says that at some level
this calmed her down. No one ever found out about what she was
doing. Years later she realized that sticking herself with pins was a
way for her to feel on the outside the pain she couldn't experience on
the inside. (Teens who cut themselves do so for similar reasons.)
When her daughter becomes angry with her, Candace uses this
memory. While she always requires respect, she also feels compassion
for her daughter's frustration, and she thinks, At least she can talk to
me about what she is feeling. Candace is using her painful memories
for good parenting.
Some Tips for How to Recall
If you find it hard to remember your teen years, here are some guidelines
to help you recall them, in the service of developing more compassion
for your teen.
Journaling. Use the exercise of writing to bring back your teen
years. Start as far back in those days as you can remember. Often
the act of journaling what you know will bring forth what you have
Talking. Conversations with friends about your past will often
shake loose memories. Though it's helpful, having friends from those
days is not necessary. It is more important to be with someone safe,
accepting, and interested in you, so that what is inside you can be
Observing the past's effect on who you have become. Our past
experiences make a significant difference in the adults we are now.
Look at your strengths and weaknesses, and see how they are rooted
in your teen experiences.
When I was in high school, I was way too active in sports and
committees. I was tired a lot because I didn't get enough sleep, and my
parents told me that they thought I was getting mononucleosis. Actually,
it just turned out to be fatigue. But I can still see my tendency to
be too active, and I see it in my kids too.
Grieving and letting go. Most of us had a lot of fun in our teen
years, as well as a lot of loss, failure, and sadness. Entering the grief
process can help us learn from what happened, move on, and help
our teens. You may need to get in touch with some hurts you experienced,
mistakes you made, or losses you experienced. If you haven't
been able to deal with these, it will hamper your ability to empathize
with your teen. We can't empathize as well if our own pains haven't
been resolved. But to the extent that you have let go of past pain,
you are that much more able to feel deep compassion for your teen's
Give Grace, Love, and Understanding
The next time your kid is defiant or moody, try to see your teenage self
in your teen's eyes. Hold the line, tell the truth, set the limits. But give
your kid grace, understanding, and love, for these years aren't easy
ones. Teens need parents who "get it," who haven't forgotten their
own past but instead have grown from it.
GET TO KNOW YOUR TEEN
As you revisit your teen years, think about your relationship
with your parents. Did you feel they wanted to understand and
connect with you? If so, you know what a positive impact this can
have on a kid. It not only helped you like yourself, it likely made it
easier to accept their boundaries and corrections.
But if not, how did it make you feel? What difference might it
have made in your life if your parents had expressed interest in
understanding and connecting with you? You have the power to
make that kind of difference in your teen's life, simply by getting to
know him and his world. Here are some ways to do just that.
Aim to know who your teen is rather than to change
your teen.Your teen needs to know that you want a relationship
because you want a relationship. This must be primary. If your
teen thinks you want to talk to him so that you can change and fix
him, you are lost, and you will get either resistance or pretense.
So second-guess and check your motives at all times. Your teen
will be checking your motives as well.
Listen more, lecture less. Your teen should be using a lot
of the information she learned from you and trying it out. Adolescents
are working on experiencing life more than they are receiving
head knowledge. While you should always be teaching, guiding,
and correcting, the focus needs to shift. Listen more and
draw her out, so that you can see what she is thinking about and
struggling with. Refrain from moralizing about every wrong thing
Ask questions. Ask questions that require more than "yes"
and "no." Instead of asking, "How was school?" which can be
answered with an "Okay," ask, "What did you do first period?"
or "Tell me about the science test; what were some of the questions?"
or "What is Daniel up to these days? I haven't seen him
for a while."
Follow up with more questions that are based on what you
have heard. For example, suppose you asked about Daniel, and
you heard, "He's okay . he had a big fight with his girlfriend." Go
after the fight. Keep finding out more.
Begin with questions about facts, move to thoughts, and then
to emotions. Your adolescent needs for you to know him at a heart
level, not just at an event level. This opens him up to your parenting
him where he truly lives. For example, you might say, "What
did you think about Daniel's argument with his girlfriend? Did you
agree with his side or hers?" Now you are into his thoughts and
opinions. After that, you can ask, "Did you feel bad for him? Were
you angry with her?" You are now helping your teen express and
put words to emotions and feelings deep inside himself.
Take off the physical pressure. Don't walk up to your teen
and say, "So talk to me. Now!" Instead, say, "I don't want to lose
touch with how your life is going, so I'm going to need a few minutes
with you several times a week, just to touch base. Doesn't
need to be a long time, but enough to see how you are doing,
how we are doing, and if there's anything I can help you with."
Your teen will likely protest, but insist on this. It's important.
Rather than sitting down to talk, take some pressure off by
taking a walk, throwing a ball, or going out for an evening with just
the two of you. (I don't recommend trying to talk while watching
television or playing a video game; it's just too powerful a distraction).
Create a safe space for the teen to feel okay about opening
up with you.