The teen years are hard - a new step for both parents and teens. The kids are trying to gain their independence; the parents have a hard time letting go.
But Tom McMahon believes that parents of teens can learn a lot about what works and what doesn't from each other. A counselor at Ohlone College in Fremont, Calif., McMahon is the author of "It Works For Us!," a collection of child-care tips gleaned from parents across the country, now in its third printing (Pocket Books, $10). He is turning his attention to the teen years. "I'm convinced that every parent of teens has at least one great tip - one thing that has worked for them." So far he has talked to parents in 40 states and was in Salt Lake City recently to talk about his project and to visit with some Utah families.Some people tend to think of the teen years as being like the Terrible Twos, he says, something to hold your breath and get through as quickly as possible. People expect the teen years to be bad, and they are. But other parents say the years when their children were teens were the most enjoyable, a time when they developed the best memories to last the rest of their lives.
And while McMahon agrees there are no magic formulas and simple solutions - and no guarantees that what works for one family will work for another - he thinks parents can gain a lot from sharing experiences with each other.
In his visits with parents and teens around the country, he hears some of the same things over and over, he says. Out of that, he has identified some major ways successful parents and teens interact:
Spend time with your teens. "One mistake some parents make is that as soon as their children turn 12 or 13, the parents pull back. But I hear over and over that teens need their parents to the same extent that 3- and 4-year-olds do - just in a different way. This can be frustrating for parents who work and don't have a lot of time and energy, but there is no substitute for time. Teenagers need as much parental guidance, comfort, encouragement and support as they did when they were young children."
The family meal is very important. Even if you have to change schedules, sit down together at family meals as often as possible, he advises. That shared time and communication time is vital.
Nagging doesn't work. Teens get moody, and parents need to tune in to those moods and learn when to back off. Constantly bringing up the same things over and over won't help.
Listen. "Teens tell me they want their parents to really listen to what they are saying," says McMahon. Try to get the full message of what they are telling you. Don't just wait until they are done talking so you can start preaching. "The minute parents start to preach, the teens say they just click out."
Give them responsibility. The more responsibility they have and the more wise choices they make, the more privileges and responsibilities they should have. But they should also be allowed to make some mistakes and to live with their decisions. "It is difficult to let go," he says. "And parents expect their teens to change, but sometimes the parents are the ones that need to change their approach."
Watch for teachable moments. Teaching values and self-esteem should be an on-going project. Don't just sit them down and say, "let's talk about it." Watch a talk show or a TV program and use that as a springboard to say, "This might be the message of society, but it's not our message." "Teachable moments often come in the car, when you are one-on-one, confined in that space. Sometimes the kid will really open up and talk. Sometimes it's on a ski lift or fishing. It doesn't happen when it's forced."
Volunteer to drive. Because the car is a often a good place to talk, volunteer to drive your teens and their friends around as often as possible. "You'll often get an earful about their lives and interactions with friends. After a time, they forget you're there."
Pick your battles. Some things are worth fighting for - a stand on drinking or drugs, for example. But some things may not be - pierced ears or ratty T-shirts. Let the kids win some battles, and maybe they will let you win some.
Catch your kids being good. It's so easy to create a no-oriented household. So try to mention good things you see them do, advises McMahon. "If you hear your teen say `I can't do anything right around here,' you know it's time to ease up.
Get to know their friends. Who they hang out with will have a great impact on their lives. Get to know the parents of their friends, so you'll feel good about sleepovers and outings. "Don't say `you can't see so-and-so.' Be more creative and think up alternatives; encourage more activities with other people. One mother told her daughter, `you've lost that sparkle in your eye since you've been with so-and-so.' And after a while the daughter thought about it and realized it was true."
Do some role playing. This is a good idea for things such as sex education and driving. Kids often think bad things just won't happen to them. But sit down and talk about what would really happen if she got pregnant or if he got a disease or they were in a situation with a friend who is drinking and driving. "Make them feel what would happen, talk about the consequences, think about alternatives before these things happen," he says.
"One way to get out of riding with a drunk driver, for example, is to say that you're going to be sick. No teen will let someone who is going to be sick get in his car."
Make teens feel like they belong. "I'm sometimes surprised that more kids don't join gangs. The biggest need they have is to belong, to feel connected. They don't get it at home, so they find a gang," says McMahon.
Society needs to provide more activities, more to keep kids busy, he says. Yet budget constraints have eliminated many extracurricular programs. Teens need to feel a part of something bigger than themselves - both at home and in society.
Get call waiting. It's made for teens, he says.
Let your teens get to know you. Teens love to see their parents as real people. When you sit down to ask questions about their day, let them ask questions about your day. And be truthful in your answers. Let them ask about how you did things and felt about things when you were their age.
Let kids use you as an excuse. It's much easier to blame parents, to say my mean old father won't let me, than to come up with convincing reasons for not doing something. Sometimes teens need that out.
Consider jobs carefully. Part-time jobs are both good and bad, says McMahon. "They give kids a realistic outlook about money and society. But working too many hours can cut out activities and sap energy. I don't think kids should work more than 15 hours a week."
Keep learning. Help them figure out what they are good at, expose them to as many things as possible, make learning easier by creating a good environment for study. Don't be a homework cop; let them take responsibility. At the same time, they need to learn about consequences for poor performance.
"Parenting the adolescent has always been a challenge," says McMahon, "but never has the challenge been greater than it is now. Parents tell me that they feel even more inadequate in dealing with the many issues confronting their adolescent than they did when they first became parents and were facing the demands of an infant."
But, he says, we can learn from each other.