Confidential memo to all parents of teenagers:
It's not just them. You know, those days when our teens seem like they've redefined the meaning of "bad attitude," when they wake up with a snarl and go to bed with a growl, when the day seems to be one long series of disagreements, arguments, and outright fights.
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As much as we'd like to blame it on their age, their friends, their hormones, or the video or music they tune into, it's not just their fault.
A recent research study into the emotions of adolescents also examined the emotional states of their parents. Surprisingly, it discovered the adults studied seemed to go through their own emotional swings independent of the teenagers they were parenting.
Parents in this study were coping with such issues as job changes, marital or relational problems, financial stressors, physical problems, meaning of life questions, and so on. Many of these were life cycle related, that is, they had to do with the stage of life they were moving through in their own lives.
Ironically, these parents seemed to be just as emotionally volatile as the teens studied. Adult or adolescent, enough life-cycle stressors seemed to throw almost anyone off balance.
Now, when you bring together a life-cycle stressed teen and a life-cycle stressed parent, or two in the same household, you are bound to have problems. We all get anxious, discouraged, frustrated, frightened, grouchy. And we inevitably take out these feelings on those around us, whether they're our parents or our kids.
So we can't blame it all on our teenagers. But we parents do have more responsibility than they do to get it under control (that's because we're the parents). There are a few things we can do.
First, we can work on being more tolerant of our adolescent's mood swings. Our life may be just as hard as theirs is, but at least we have more experience living than they do. We ought to be a bit better at handling things than they are simply because we are adults. So let's give them a break; they've got a lot of growing up to do.
Second, we can encourage them to talk about their feelings. A simple "looks like you're having a rough day" can sometimes be enough to get a conversation started. We don't want to try to solve their problems, but just empathize with their emotions.
Third, we might try letting them in on the emotional stress we feel, and why. We don't want to do this in a way that sounds like we are blaming them for our problems, or asking them to help us out. We're just sharing with them the way we'd like them to share with us.
Finally, we do need to set limits on how emotions are expressed in our families. We cannot resort to verbal or physical abuse in dealing with feelings. Emotions need to be shared, but there are constructive and destructive ways to do such sharing. We want to set clear guidelines for ourselves and our children on how we can -- and cannot -- express feelings in our families.
Life isn't easy, whether we're 14 or 40. And when it gets to be too much for us, we can take it out on each other, or share it with each other. We parents have to set the tone.
• Dr. Ken Potts is on the staff of Samaritan Counseling Center in Naperville and Downers Grove. He is the author of "Mix Don't Blend, A Guide to Dating, Engagement and Remarriage With Children."