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The parent teenager divide

by Jacob Ninan

Even though this divide has been taking place between parents and their teenage children throughout the generations, when it happens to -- parents or teenagers -- we feel as it there is something unique and unsurmountable. Things can be very difficult, but we have a God who helps us in our need. There are a few things that can help us to understand and deal with this issue from either side.

As babies grow up, they pass through the teenage years before they become adults. It is basically a transition period, where they are neither children nor adults but they behave sometimes like children and sometimes like adults. From the time of being children, when they did not do much thinking of their own but did what they felt like or what the parents told them, when they become teenagers they begin to think for themselves and ask themselves lots of 'why' questions. "Why should I do this, and not the other thing? Why can't I do this? Why do the other parents allow their children to do certain things my parents don't allow? Why can't my parents understand me? Etc." The parents get baffled because the children are suddenly asking such questions, and they interpret this as a sign of rebellion and not as coming from an enquiring mind. They answer back in confusion, "Because I say so!" This strengthens the teenager's belief that their parents don't understand them. Actually the teenagers don't understand the sincere desire of the parents to guide and protect their young ones, and the confusion they (the parents) face at this time. This builds up the generation gap that may end up with a permanent break of relationships in extreme cases. Many times the teenagers understand their mistake when they grow up and become parents themselves! Many times the old parents continue to treat them as children and think that their children ought to obey them (even when they grow up). (As a matter of fact, the Bible tells only children to obey their parents. Grown-ups have to honour their parents, not obey.)

What teenagers 'hate' is to be treated as children, when they think they are already grown up and they know many things their parents don't know! (But at times they want to be treated like children, especially when they want to get some favour from their parents.) The situation gets aggravated when the parents demand obedience, and become impatient with the questions and the demand for explanations. This is how the generation gap becomes wider. What the parents can do is to first of all recognise that their children are going through a difficult period of transition in their bodies, minds and spirit. They (the teenagers) are confused with the changes that are happening in their bodies, and become more conscious of the impression their appearance creates especially before their friends. The hormonal changes in their bodies also create new thoughts and desires in their minds. The spiritual tradition that has been handed over to them from their parents comes under scrutiny because they begin to examine the validity of their assumptions. (Depending on their personality types some tend to just accept tradition without question, and others tend to question everything.) Philosophical questions such as "Who am I? Why am I here on earth? What is the purpose of life?" begin to bother them.

A whole lot of things depend on the love, attention and care the parents have shown earlier, when the teenagers were really children. Normal psychological development depends very much on a foundation built up during the early days when the parents demonstrate their love and care with hugs, kisses, words, affirmation, time spent with them, etc. If this was absent or mixed during childhood, the teenager is already confused and fragile when he faces the pressures of teenage. It is then that they begin to value the company of their peers more than anything else. This is why the Bible tells us to "train up a child when he is young." Unfortunately many parents think the children are too small to understand anything and postpone all training and discipline to the later years, when it sometimes becomes too late, and otherwise extremely difficult.

Parents of teenagers can adapt to their children by switching their approach from authority figures to friends. It is not that one needs to abdicate one's parental authority -- which is given by God to train and lead their children in the right direction -- but one has to realise that an authoritative approach that demands instant compliance is likely to widen the communication gap at this time. The parents need to win their teenagers' friendship by listening to them (even when the teenagers express things that might shock them -- don't worry too much; it may not be rebellion. They may be trying to learn from your response, or gauging you to see how far they can stretch you!) 'Commands' need to be changed to 'suggestions' or points of discussions. If childhood training was skipped and relationships are frail at this point in time, it is specially important to understand that an aggressive, authoritarian posture is not going to achieve the results you really want. It is good to anticipate issues that might come up -- such as premarital sex, dating, alcohol, drugs, choice of career, spiritual choices, etc. -- much before they actually come up, and discuss them in a neutral, friendly and pleasant atmosphere, so that values, principles and guidelines can be passed on to the next generation. Instead of telling the teenager what to do or what not to do, it would be far better to raise these issues in the form of discussion in an early stage itself. If such issues have already come up it is all the more important for the parents to exercise great restraint and stop 'dictating' to the teenagers. Certainly this calls for great exercise of patience, and time and energy on the part of the parents. But it is better to invest these now, than to have to watch when the 'divide' becomes bigger and bigger.

Teenagers need to realise that in spite of how it appears to them, their parents have the advantage of years of experience in this world, with different types of people and situations, and they can see ahead into the future and understand the consequences of present behaviour and choices. Parents may not understand technology or the latest fads as well as the teenagers, but experience is what is more relevant when making life's important decisions. All well meaning parents (excluding abusive, 'absent,' and negligent parents) hope to pass on the benefit of their experience to their children, even when they are not able many times to give full explanations for their choices to the impatient teenagers.

Surveys have shown that one of the most common cause for teenage rebellion is a dysfunctional family. If the relationship between father and mother is broken or in turmoil, children experience great insecurity concerning themselves, and some children also assume that it is their fault. Many times parents are busy with their career (making money for their children!) without having time to talk with their children. Many other parents assume foolishly that what the children need most is what money can buy -- clothes, good education, entertainment, etc. -- and neglect time to show affection and to build up relationships.

Some parents wrongly put the entire blame on their children without realising how they may have contributed to this by their own neglect in the earlier years. Other parents, again wrongly, assume that it is entirely their fault that their children have turned out like this, and condemn themselves. But one needs to be objective. Who has done everything right? Aren't there many people, other than the parents, who have also influenced the children? Doesn't the children's temperament also have something to do with the way they develop? Instead of passing the blame or taking the blame foolishly, isn't it more practical to look at what can be done now? Certainly an understanding of what went wrong is helpful to take the right corrective measures now. But the burden of past wrongs should not be allowed to hinder the future.

Teenage rebellion happens many times in godly families where the parents are serving the Lord sacrificially. This can be extremely painful to the parents whose major goal for the children is that they grow up in godly ways. But godly character does not develop automatically because the parents are godly, because the children have the same flesh like everyone else. These children also need attention and affirmation.

There is something that is extremely helpful and necessary. That is prayer. Even in situations that look impossible, we must not forget that God is almighty, and extremely merciful, understanding and helpful. Sincere, heartfelt prayers of parents who do not give up can do wonders -- if not immediately, ultimately.

Both sides must recognise how hard it is for the other side, just as it is for themselves, to get through this phase of life. Why not give up waiting for the other side to change, and start making your own changes to build better understanding and relationship?

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