Monday, January 31, 2011

Who am I? The real work of a teenager Part 1

Some jobs pay money, some jobs pay dividends, and some change your life. The work of a teen is to change their life. This is unsettling, exciting, and terrifying, and that's just what you as a parent are feeling. Gone is the predictability of life. Monday is Soccer, Tuesday is piano, Wednesday is dance/chess, Thursday is some sort of religious training. Its all on the calendar, the proper equipment is in place, and you know where and what your kids will be doing. And then, its over. The whining, the complaining, I hate piano, I don't believe in God, I hate sports. Your well-laid plan for a piano playing, soccer, dancer, rich in core beliefs is slipping away. Your teen wants to quit it all.

Here is why. Your teen has seen the light. He/she has stepped up the buffet of life, no longer satisfied with what you have picked for him/her to "eat". Perhaps you put your then 6 year old in kinderkick, and he/she showed an early aptitude for soccer. The coach said so!! So year after year soccer was played, travel teams, school teams, soccer camp in the summer, and it took on a life of its own. Now at 15, your teen is really good, and perhaps you see a college scholarship in your/their future, but they start to complain about practice, the coach, etc, and want to quit.  Just because your teen has an inborn talent for soccer, doesn't mean they actually like it.

As the brain develops in the teen years, one of the new abilities is to analyze and think more deeply about things. As a 10 year-old, your child basically went along with "the schedule" not really questioning much about it except, where are taking me now? As a teen, they are starting to question it all. Do I like soccer, do I believe in God, do I like piano?  This is a good thing...yes it is!!!! But it also means that everything is up for grabs. Perhaps you are really attached to their life as a soccer player, perhaps you were even the coach, or helped out with the team, or you love music, and you loved that your teen played the piano or violin. This all feels like a loss, and you might resist any change fearing that your teen is just turning into a quitter.

The bottom line is now your teen has to want to do these things because they want to, not because you want them to. This is the work of developing a personal identity. And the way teens do this is through trial and error. Sometimes it does look flaky. Are they just saying they don't want to play piano anymore because practicing takes away from valuable friend-time? maybe, and is that OK? Yes. Unless your teen is going to be a concert pianist and is heading off to Julliard,(if this is the case, they won't want to quit) maybe they have had enough, and want to put that energy into something else. I once worked with a parent whose daughter had been on a swim team since she was 8. Now at 16 she was sick to death of getting up at 5 in the morning to hit the pool for practice, then again at 6 in the evening for another round. She was the star of the team, and the coach relied heavily on her for the wins. The parents, also heavily involved had given up a lot for her to do the swimming, and were now enjoying the fruits of their labor, I mean her labor as she racked up the gold medals. But here is the thing, the daughter was miserable, she was sick of it all, the practice time, the pressure, and feeling like she had no time to be with friends, and wanted to try her hand at other things. Rather than listen to her, her coach and her parents worked hard to convince her that she was letting herself down, her coach down and her family down after all they had done for her. Well that was the kiss of death, because this girl felt she wasn't being heard, and began acting out; drinking, staying out late, being defiant, and becoming a really really angry person.

It is really important for your teens to find things in their lives that give them feelings of joy, self-confidence and competence. Teens also need to begin to find what these things are for themselves. The expectation of parents should be that this can be a time for exploration. The choice isn't whether to do something, but what the something is. Too much free unstructured time is lethal. If school is over at 1:40 or 2:30 that leaves whole afternoons needing to be filled. If your teen is ready to quit a sport or a musical instrument, and is making your life miserable here is your" I get it " moment: "I get you are tired of X. I know you have been doing this for a long time, and maybe you want to do something else, or do stuff that your friends are doing. Here is the thing. I just want you to really think about about what you don't like about it anymore, and what it is you would like to do instead." Sometimes, kids have been involved with something that no longer seems cool, and because of that all-mighty self-consciousness want to give up something they actually like but feel embarrassed about. Make sure you validate that for them rather than making them feel bad for thinking that way. It is totally normal. Maybe you can help them strategize how to keep doing that thing, but add in something that feels cooler. But always support the adventure of seeking out new things no matter what the motivation. Sometimes you find a new passion because you follow along with a friend. You just never know, it's all part of the journey.

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