Teen Minds: What Are They Thinking?

Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005

How can teens and their parents bridge the communication gap that can lie like an abyss between them? One expert recommends setting limits and talking honestly -- early and often.

By Neil Osterweil
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, then teenagers must be from a galaxy far, far, away indeed.

At least it can seem that way when parents and adolescents try to communicate with one another. Sometimes, in the heat of an argument or even a casual how-was-your-day conversation, that kid slouching in the corner can seem like a speck floating in the void millions of light years away.

It's not that parents and their adolescent offspring can't communicate, but that the gulf between them is often difficult to bridge. Dad has enough trouble remembering where he left his car keys or if he's paid the gas bill this month without having to remember what it felt like to be a teenager; Junior may find it impossible to imagine what it's like to walk a mile in the old man's dress oxfords.

By the time kids get to be 17 or 18, "a lot of the battle lines have already been drawn," says David Elkind, PhD, professor and chairman of the Department of Child Development at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. "Boys at that age are sometimes getting into pretty rough confrontations with their fathers, and that may have less to do with communication than with assertiveness and control; girls may be in similar conflict with their mother."

Nonetheless, communication and negotiation may help to cool the heat of battle, and tacticians will tell you that it never hurts to know what your allies -- or your enemies -- are thinking. Here then are five common parent/adolescent scenarios, with commentary on who's thinking what and why, and what they can do about it.

Scene 1: A teenager arrives home one hour past curfew, without having called.

What the parent may be thinking: My God, he could have been in an accident! Why didn't he call? Doesn't he care how his mother and I feel?

What teen may be thinking: So I'm a little late -- I had car trouble and then I gave a friend a ride home and we talked for a while. What's the big deal? Don't they care how I feel?

Of course they care, and so does the teen (although he may not realize it) says Elkind, but if the ground rules aren't well established, there's bound to be trouble. What happens too often is that parents don't anticipate the possibilities and therefore don't set rules, and when the unwritten rules are "broken" they don't have anything to fall back on.

"One of the things that helps in that situation is if guidelines have been set in advance, if the parents says 'If you come home late, this is what's going to happen,' so that it doesn't come out of the blue."

Even though most teens rebel outwardly against limits, "they want them because it means that the parents care enough to risk a confrontation, and that means that they love them," Elkind says.

Scene 2: A teen is thinking about experimenting with marijuana.

What the parent may be thinking: Marijuana can be a "gateway" drug. We don't want her making the same mistakes we made.

What the teen may be thinking: They smoked pot when they were my age. Why can't I?

Honesty is the best policy here, says Elkind. "If parents did smoke, they should say so: 'I did that when I was kid, at a time when we were all experimenting.'"

But parents also have to realize that their children aren't under their guidance all the time, and should not make limits that they can't enforce. They can, however, let the teen know what the consequences will be if they discover it after the fact.

If nothing else, the teen is likely to think, "Well, at least they're being honest with me and aren't trying to deny it." Adolescents have highly refined lie detectors, and are pretty good at sensing when parents are hesitating or beating around the bush, Elkind says.

And if the kid counters with "Well you did it, why can't I?" the parents' best comeback might be, "We all learn from mistakes and we're hoping that you can benefit from ours. We didn't know as much about it then or about how harmful its long-term effects can be as we know now."

Scene 3: A boy wants to go on an overnight bike trip with some friends. The parent is reluctant to grant approval.

What the parent may be thinking: Are there any adults going along? Who are these people? What will they be doing? What if someone gets hurt?

What the teen may be thinking: These are my friends. We know what we're doing. I'm not a baby. Don't they trust me?

Teenagers are on the cusp of adulthood, and they're often torn between wanting to be treated like an adult and not wanting to take on the responsibility that entails. Here the parents' response should be, "It's not that I don't trust you, I just want to make sure that a responsible person will be along in case there's an emergency."

Elkind said that when his son, then 16 or so, wanted to take a bike trip from Massachusetts into New Hampshire, his father first called the organizer to gauge whether he was up to the challenge, found him to be responsible and willing to describe in detail what they intended to do and how they planned to keep in touch. "I let them do it, and they had a great time," he says.

But if the trip is just going to be "a bunch of kids sleeping over with no adult supervision, particularly today I think I'd be hesitant to allow that," Elkind says.

And if, after the parent refuses to grant permission, the kid comes back with something like "What is this, a prison camp?" The parent might say, "Yes, if you need to look at it that way. You'll be free in a few years, but right now you have to live in this house and under these rules."

Scene 4: Mom or Dad tells the kid to clean his/her room, but later finds the teen's stuff shoved into a dark corner of the closet.

What the parents may be thinking: We can't stand the way she keeps her room. Doesn't she care that we like to have a nice, neat house? It's so disrespectful!

What the teen may be thinking: I'm too busy -- I don't have time to clean my room! It's mine anyway, so why should they care?

There are many different approaches to this conflict, Elkind says. One is to tell the kid, "Ok, it's your room. If you want to leave it a mess, that's up to you." Another tactic, which he acknowledges may not work for every parent or child, is to say, "Look, I'll help you clean up your room if you help me clean up mine." That way it at least becomes a joint project and a chance to have a little conversation. "Sometimes that kind of sharing of a task takes some of the onus off of a chore," he says.

Scene 5: A teenager, boy or girl, comes to a parent with a frank question about sex.

What the parent might be thinking: If I give a straight answer, am I condoning sex for teenagers? Just what's going on, anyway? Is there something he/she isn't telling me?

What the teen might be thinking: I really need to know the answer, but I'm embarrassed to ask my friends. Will my parents laugh at me? What do they know about sex anyway?

If a kid feels as if he/she can go to a parent with a sex question in the first place, the folks are already ahead of the game, Elkind says. "My advice to parents is to talk about it early; not just sex education but also about puberty, because many kids at puberty don't know what's happening to their bodies."

He also recommends using films such as "American Beauty" or TV shows as starting points for "the talk." ("But you also have to indicate that you're not going to do that with every movie you watch together, or they'll never want to watch anything with you again," he says).

Talking about sex with kids is very important, he stresses, because sex education in schools is highly variable and "kids have so much bad information that comes from other kids. Kids still believe that you get hair on your hands if you masturbate or that you don't get pregnant if you stand up [during intercourse]. If kids believed it 50 years ago they still believe it today," he says.

Being upfront and open about sex, no matter how difficult it is for parents, is important.

"Tell them, 'It's a wonderful thing, a relationship between two people who love one another, but it's going to be much more meaningful if you wait. It takes a certain level of maturity to fully appreciate it.'"

If their hormones are driving the decision, teens may not listen to their parents anyway, but parents at least have to make their case. "And if kids are sexually active and you find out about it, then you have to help them take the necessary precautions," Elkind says. "You may not be happy about it, but you have to live with the reality of it."

He emphasizes that kids who have good relationships with their parents and can talk openly about sex are less likely to get involved at an early age than kids from families where talk of sex is taboo.

Published Feb. 3, 2003.

©1996-2005 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.

Health Solutions From Our Sponsors