Not Yet An Adult, But Not A Baby

The teen-age years could be a time of constant clashes with parents because of a child's growing independence and need to shape his or her own identity.

A 14-year-old girl, who disagrees with her mom on virtually everything, wrote a letter to family counselor Mike Riera for some advice on how to come to a middle-ground with her parent. The letter was divided into two excerpts to try to answer the different concerns of the teen.

EXCERPT 1:

"My mom looks down on my friends: Spiked hair, dog collars, chains — kids who dress as they do to filter out those who would reject them based on their appearance. My mom has never taken the initiative to find out what kinds of people my friends are. If she judges me on my clothes, I can just imagine what she thinks. This is MY body. I want to change some colors, not sell it on the street for a nickel and a bag of jellybeans."
If you have a parenting question for Mike Riera, send an email to
sat@cbsnews.com with "Ask Mike" in the subject line. Or write to "Ask Mike," The Saturday Early Show, 524 West 57th St., New York, NY 10019. Your question may be featured on The Saturday Early Show.


Question:
Why do kids dress in ways that parents think are crazy, and what should you do if you don't like your kid's crowd based on things *other* than appearance?

Answer:
The bottom line for your kids is always health and safety. If your teen-ager is with a crowd that jeopardizes her health and safety then you do have to step in, and it won't be pretty either. But in this letter there is nothing jeopardizing this girl's health and safety, and nothing is permanent either — it's hair, clothes, and jewelry.

Teen-agers use clothes as a way to establish an identity — they form their identity from the outside-in. They literally try on different ways of being in the world. At 14 there is usually a dramatic shift, in effect telling mom and dad that they are now taking the lead on their identity formation. (Don't worry, dress is usually at its most extreme in sophomore year, and softens thereafter.) It's difficult, but the challenge is to look past the dress to see your child for who she is. I know lots of kids with extreme looks who are more involved in community service and church than many of their peers.

Excerpt 2:
"I'm not allowed to go out or talk to my friends from 8 o'clock until I go to bed. What else am I going to do, knit? The very thing I can't live without is the thing I don't have access to: my friends. I'm not an adult, but I'm not four. I still need structure and rules. But I want to be treated my age. How can I get mom to change?"

Question: How important are friends to a teen-ager - are they more important than family?

Answer: Psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan: "Once someone reaches puberty, the strongest organizer of behavior is the avoidance of loneliness." This means everyone needs a few good friends once they reach adolesence.

For most teen-agers, friends are as important as family but in very different and complimentary ways. Friends represent a second family. Friends choose one another whereas family is a given.

During adolescence friends influence behavior more than parents, but parents influence attitudes more than friends. Teen-agers need both, family and friends.

Question: What can this girl do to convince her mom to give her more freedom?

First, I hope they are watching this segment together right now.
Second, this writer needs to go out of her way to prove to her mom that she can handle more freedom. That is, approach your mom with a plan and be willing to compromise.

You'll get less freedom than you want and your mom will give you more freedom than she wants. That is, you share the frustration and worry, which lays the ground for further compromise down the road.

For instance, say you approach her asking to be able to talk to friends on the phone up until 10:00 pm. You need to consider her viewpoint. So add things like, "I'll make sure my homework is done first, and after a few weeks of this you can check with my teachers to make sure my grades aren't slipping. So if my schoolwork stays good then I can keep this privilege, but if it slips it's back to your way — no phone calls after 8:00 pm."

Just thinking it through from her vantage point will help your mom see your maturity. But I would be lying if I said it was going to be easy, it's going to take time and patience, and it's worth every bit of effort it takes.
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