Understanding your teenager | Sunday Observer

Understanding your teenager

When I saw him first, I thought he was a school Principal. I was wrong. He was a Senior Consultant psychiatrist specializing on issues related to children and youth with over three decades experience both in South Asia and the West. Dr.Suneet Kapoor was a pleasant and down-to-earth person. When I met him, he was enjoying a holiday in Sri Lanka.

During our chat, we talked about today’s teenager. I told him, today’s parents are confused and feel alienated from their teenage children. They believe their teenagers are ungrateful and scornful.

Dr.Kapoor said, “Their worries are genuine, but often beneath their concern there’s also a suppressed resentment. It comes through parents’ disagreement to the way modern teenagers dress, wear their hair, conduct their day-to-day lives, or refuse to communicate with them.”

“Within the alienation, there’s also a hidden fear. Parents are afraid their children won’t measure up to their expectations. But also, some of the alienation stems from our refusal to let the youngsters do things their own way - make the necessary mistakes - in order to learn.”

Dr.Kapoor adds, “If I were facing a group of parents with the assignment of helping them learn to like our youth - really like and trust them - I’d begin by urging them to take a hard, honest look at their own feelings.

Most parents prefer to think they have no hostility or fear where young people are concerned. But they do, and it’s not so surprising.”

“They are scared. Yes, scared of their children going on wrong paths. They worked so hard to bring up their kids to this level and they see no appreciation. They have an uneasy sense they are failing as parents, and this makes them feel guilty, and feeling guilty makes them angrier than ever.”

I asked him, “What is the solution?”

Dr. Kapoor explained:

“First, the most profitable attitude is one in which a parent says to himself, “Yes, I sometimes have anxious, angry reactions to my children because they can be very trying. But, I’m not going to let these reactions drive me away from them. I want to know why these teenagers think the way they do.”

“Second, I’d urge any parent to accept the fact that today’s youngsters really are something new under the sun. In most cases, they reach puberty as much as two years earlier than their parents did. In short, they develop much faster, physically - and sometimes the psychological maturity doesn’t keep pace. Keep that also in mind.”

“Third, today’s teenagers are caught in a vicious time-trap. George Washington became a fully qualified surveyor at 17. But, for modern youth, education takes much longer, and earning power begins much later. When late- teenagers ask, during this long waiting period, for a piece of the action, for a degree of real involvement in life around them, often they’re discouraged or if allowed, only with restrictions. If they comply, parents ignore them. If they don’t, parents tend to try to repress or harass them.”

“As John Locke said 300 years ago, when a parent sought his advice about a youngster, “The sooner you treat him as a man, the sooner he will be one.”

“Ideally, parents should allow teenagers (particularly, late teenagers) a reasonable degree of liberty to take their own decisions subject to little monitoring. This failure of today’s parents to provide teenagers with a genuine, honest-to-goodness sense of involvement in living, lies at the heart of the alienation and hostility.”

“In hundreds of ways, today’s teenagers are telling parents that they feel left out, bypassed, misunderstood or ignored by the same people who are important to them, their parents.”


To end the dialogue, I asked Dr.Suneet Kapoor to give a few rules of the thumb to a parent to reduce this alienation. He offered 7 don’ts.

1. Don’t ever physically punish your teenager.

It creates enormous humiliation and anger in the teenager and deeply alienates the relationship. At worst, in those cases where the young person decides not to take it, stands up and fights back (maybe, verbally), it risks a power struggle in which one or both parties can get seriously hurt.

2. Don’t let your feelings of inadequacy as a parent get you down.

Ask, “Am I correctly handling this situation?” As long as you keep asking it, things are far from being hopeless.

3. Don’t let a friction in your family discourage you.

Disagreement - even loud disagreement – with your child is a form of communication. It’s a dialogue, a bridge. Friction may be unpleasant, but it’s a lot better than indifference or silence. Be calm.

4. Don’t be afraid to be yourself.

You have your own values, your own lifestyle. Stick to them, even if your children seem scornful or disapproving. They want you to be loyal to your own standards. They need a yardstick to test themselves by.

5. Don’t mistake a passing personality phase in a youngster for a permanent problem.

No more friendly conferences. No more seeking of advice. Just a sudden turn-off. It is a natural phase. The time always comes when the adolescent turns away and begins to look for values and guidance from his or her peer group, as well as from other adults. This won’t last forever. But, the parent who fights it too hard can make everyone miserable.

6. Don’t make permissiveness the scapegoat.

You cannot blame permissiveness for everything that seems wrong with the younger generation because the remedy is the reverse: authoritarianism, repression. There has to be a limit- setting, to be sure. But, one extreme is as bad as the other. Harshness just makes adolescents fight harder.

7. Finally, don’t ever scream and slam the door.

At times, as every parent knows, the temptation can be strong. When a youngster seems endlessly hostile, sullen or unresponsive, it’s easy - and very human, to react with anger and withdrawal. But, the “difficult” child is often the one who needs your patience and understanding the most.