This summer has passed in a blur, as it does every year, and each family is preparing now for the busyness of fall. There are school clothes to buy and perhaps final occasions for short vacations, picnics or other leisure activities. Let me take this opportunity to talk briefly to moms and dads about their adolescent sons and daughters. They will be leaving the nest soon, and these last few years will be very important. We’ll call this letter a “brief refresher course” drawn from my book, Parenting Isn’t for Cowards, which I hope you will find helpful and enjoyable.
Adolescence is a fascinating and crazy time of life. It reminds me in some ways of the very early space probes that blasted off from Cape Canaveral in Florida. I remember my excitement when Colonel John Glenn and the other astronauts embarked on their perilous journeys into space. It was a thrilling time to be an American.
People who lived through those years will recall that a period of maximum danger occurred as each spacecraft was reentering the earth's atmosphere. The astronaut inside was entirely dependent on the heat-shield on the front of the capsule to protect him from temperatures in excess of 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. If the craft descended at the wrong angle, the man would be burned to cinders. At that precise moment of anxiety, negative ions would accumulate around the capsule and prevent all communication with the earth for approximately seven minutes. Finally, after what seems to be an eternity, the reassuring voice of Chris Craft would break in to say, "This is Mission Control. We have made contact with Friendship Seven. Everything is A-Okay. Splashdown is imminent." Cheers and prayers went up in restaurants, banks, airports, and millions of homes across the country.
The analogy to adolescence is not so difficult to understand. After the training and preparation of childhood are over, a pubescent youngster marches out to the launching pad. His parents watch apprehensively as he climbs aboard a capsule called adolescence and waits for his rockets to fire. His father and mother wish they could go with him, but there is room for just one person in the spacecraft. Besides, nobody invited them. Without warning, the mighty rocket engines begin to roar and the "umbilical cord" falls away. "Liftoff! We have Liftoff!" screams the boy's father.
Junior, who was a baby only yesterday, is on his way to unknown territory. A few weeks later, his parents go through the scariest experience of their lives: They suddenly lose all contact with the capsule. "Negative ions" have interfered with communication at a time when they most want to be assured of their son's safety. Why won't he talk to them?
This period of silence does not last a few minutes, as it did with Colonel Glenn and friends. It may continue for years. The same kid who used to talk a mile a minute and ask a million questions has now reduced his vocabulary to nine monosyllabic phrases. They are, "I dunno," "Maybe," "I forget," "Huh?" "No!" "Nope," "Yeah," "Who—me?" and "He did it." Otherwise, only "static" comes through the receivers—groans, grunts, growls and gripes. What an apprehensive time it is for those who wait on the ground!
Years later when “Mission Control” believes the spacecraft to have been lost, a few scratchy signals are picked up unexpectedly from a distant transmitter. The parents are jubilant as they hover near their receivers. Was that really his voice? It is deeper and more mature than they remembered. There it is again. This time the intent is unmistakable. Their spacey son has made a deliberate effort to correspond with them! He was fourteen years old when he blasted into space and now he is nearly twenty. Could it be that the negative environment has been swept away and communication is again possible? Yes. For most families, that is precisely what happens. After years of anxiety, parents learn to their great relief that everything is A-Okay on board the spacecraft. The "splashdown" occurring during the early twenties can then be a wonderful time of life for both generations.
Isn't there some way to avoid this blackout period and the other stresses associated with the adolescent voyage? Not with some teenagers, perhaps the majority. It happens in the most loving and intelligent of families. Why? Because of two powerful forces that overtake and possess boys and girls in the early pubescent years. Let's talk about them.
The first and most important is hormonal in nature. I believe parents and even behavioral scientists have underestimated the impact of the biochemical changes occurring in puberty. We can see the effect of these hormones on the physical body, but something equally dynamic is occurring in the brain. It is assaulted by estrogen in girls and testosterone in boys. The pubescent youngster is reeling from self-doubt, fear and strange desires. How else can we explain why a happy, contented, cooperative twelve-year old suddenly becomes a sullen, angry, depressed thirteen-year-old? Some authorities would contend that social pressure alone accounts for this transformation. I simply don't believe it.
The emotional characteristics of a suddenly rebellious teenager are rather like the symptoms of premenstrual syndrome or severe menopause in women, or perhaps a tumultuous mid-life crisis in men. Obviously, dramatic changes are going on inside! Furthermore, if the upheaval were caused entirely by environmental factors, its onset would not be so predictable in puberty. The emotional changes I have described arrive right on schedule, timed to coincide precisely with the arrival of physical maturation. Both characteristics, I contend, are driven by a common hormonal assault. Human chemistry apparently goes haywire for a few years, affecting mind as much as body.
If that explanation is accurate, then what implications does it have for parents of early adolescents? First, understanding this glandular upheaval makes it easier to tolerate and cope with the emotional reverberations that are occurring. For several years, some kids are not entirely rational! A hormonally depressed teenager may not interpret his world accurately. His social judgment is impaired. Therefore, don't despair when it looks like everything you have tried to teach your kid seems to have been forgotten. He is going through a metamorphosis that has turned everything upside down. But stick around. He'll get his legs under him again!
I indicated that there were two great forces which combine to create havoc during adolescence, the first having a hormonal origin. The other is social in nature, and it interacts with the first. It is common knowledge that a twelve- or thirteen-year-old child suddenly awakens to a brand-new world around him, as though his eyes were opening for the first time. That world is populated by age-mates who scare him out of his wits. His greatest anxiety, far exceeding the fear of death, is the possibility of rejection or humiliation in the eyes of his peers. This ultimate danger will lurk in the background for years, motivating him to do things that make absolutely no sense to the adults who watch. It is impossible to comprehend the adolescent mind without understanding this terror of the peer group.
How do we explain the paralyzing social fear when other kinds of dangers are accepted in stride? Teenagers are known to be risk-takers. They drive their cars like maniacs and their record for bravery in combat ranks among the best. Why, then, can an eighteen-year-old be taught to attack an enemy gun emplacement or run through a minefield, and yet he panics in the noisy company of his peers? What is the source of this great vulnerability?
I believe the answer is to be found in how it influences behavior. Adolescent society is based on the exercise of raw force. It comes in various forms, of course. For girls, there is no greater social dominance than physical beauty. A truly gorgeous young woman is so powerful that even the boys are often terrified of her. She rules in a high-school setting like a queen on her throne. Indeed, she has been called “The Queen Bee.”
Boys derive power from physical attractiveness too, but also from athletic accomplishment in certain prescribed sports, from owning beautiful cars and from learning to be cool under pressure. It is also a function of sheer physical strength.
Do you remember what the world of adolescence was like for you? Do you recall the power games that were played—the highly competitive and hostile environment into which you walked every day? Can you still feel the apprehension you experienced when a popular (powerful) student called you a name or he put his big hand in your face and pushed you out of the way? He wore a football jersey, which reminded you that the entire team would eat you alive if you should be so foolish as to fight back. Does the memory of the junior-senior prom still come to mind occasionally, when you were either turned down by the girl you loved or were not asked by the boy of your dreams? Have you ever had the campus hero make fun of the one flaw you most wanted to hide, and then threaten to mangle you on the way home from school?
Perhaps you never went through these stressful encounters. Maybe you were one of the powerful elite who oppressed the rest of us. But your son or daughter could be on the other end of the continuum. A few years ago I talked to a mother whose seventh-grade daughter was getting bullied at school each day. She said the girl awakened an hour before she had to get up each morning and lay there thinking about how she could get through her day without being humiliated.
Why have I reminded you of the world of adolescent power? Because your teenagers are knee deep in it right now. Often, they are nervous wrecks on the first day of school, or before the team plays its initial game, or any other time when their power base is on the line. The raw nerve, you see, is not really dominance, but self-confidence or personal disdain. One's sense of personhood is dependent on peer acceptance at that age, and that is why the group holds such enormous influence over the individual. If he is mocked, disrespected, ridiculed and excluded—in other words, if he is stripped of power—his delicate self-image is torn to shreds. As we have said, this is a fate worse than death itself. Social panic is the by-product of that system.
Now, what about your sons and daughters? Have you wondered why they come home from school in such a terrible mood? Have you asked them why they are so jumpy and irritable through the evening? They cannot describe their feelings to you, but they may have engaged in a form of combat all day. Even if they haven't had to fight with their fists, it is likely that they are embroiled in a highly competitive, openly hostile environment where emotional danger lurks on every side. Am I overstating the case? Yes, for the kid who is coping well. But for the powerless young man and woman, I haven't begun to tell their stories.
The strong-willed adolescent simply must not be given large quantities of unstructured time. He will probably find destructive ways to use such moments. My advice is to get him involved in the very best church youth program you can find. If you're sitting on a keg of dynamite, you have to find ways to keep the powder dry! Not only can this be done through church activities, but also by involvement with athletics, music, horses or other animals, and part-time jobs. You must keep that strong-willed kid's scrawny legs churning!
Another piece of advice I have for parents of teenagers is: "Get 'em through it." That may not sound like such a stunning idea, but I believe it has merit for most families—especially those with one or more tough-minded kids. The concept is a bit obscure, so I will resort to a couple of pictures to illustrate my point.
When parents of strong-willed children look ahead to the adolescent river, they often perceive it to be like this.
In other words, they expect the early encounter with rapids to give way to swirling currents and life-threatening turbulence. If that doesn't turn over their teenager's boat, they seem destined to drown farther downstream when they plunge over the falls. Fortunately, the typical journey is much safer than anticipated. Most often it flows like this.
What I'm saying is that the river usually descends not into the falls but into smooth water once more. Even though your teenager may be splashing and thrashing and gasping for air, it is not likely that his boat will capsize. It is more buoyant than you might think. Yes, a few individuals do go over the falls, usually because of drug abuse. Even some of them climb back in the canoe and paddle on down the river. In fact, the greatest danger of sinking the boat could come from... you!
I’m reminded of a waitress who recognized me when I came into the restaurant where she worked. She was not busy that day and wanted to talk about her twelve-year-old daughter. As a single mother, she had gone through severe struggles with the girl, whom she identified as being very strong-willed.
“We have fought tooth and nail for this entire year,” she said. “It has been awful! We argue nearly every night, and most of our fights are over the same issue.”
I asked her what had caused the conflict, and she replied, “My daughter is still a little girl but she wants to shave her legs. I feel she’s too young to be doing that and she becomes so angry that she won’t even talk to me. This has been the worst year of our lives together.”
I looked at the waitress and exclaimed, “Lady, buy your daughter a razor!"
You have to pick and choose what is worth fighting for and settle for something less than perfection on issues that don't really matter. Just get them through it!
What does this mean in practical terms? It may indicate a willingness to let her room look like a junkyard for awhile. Does that surprise you? I don't like lazy, sloppy, undisciplined kids any more than you do, but given the possibilities for chaos that this individual might precipitate, spit-shined rooms may not be all that important.
You might also compromise somewhat regarding the music you let him or her hear. I'm not condoning music that is saturated with explicit and illicit sex and violence. But neither can you ask this on-the-go teenager to listen to your "elevator music." Perhaps a compromise can be reached. Unfortunately, the popular music of the day is the rallying cry for rebellious teenagers. If you try to deny it altogether to a strong-willed kid, you just might make it worse. You have to ask yourself this question: "Is it worth risking everything of value to enforce a particular standard upon this son or daughter?" If the issue is important enough to defend at all costs, then brace yourself and make your stand. But think through those intractable matters in advance and plan your defense of them thoroughly.
It is simply not prudent to write off a son or daughter, no matter how foolish, irritating, selfish or insane a child may seem to be. You need to be there, not only while their canoe is bouncing precariously, but after the river runs smooth again. You have the remainder of your life to reconstruct the relationship that is now in jeopardy. Don't let anger fester for too long. Make the first move toward reconciliation. And try hard not to hassle your kids. They hate to be nagged. If you follow them around with one complaint after another, they are almost forced to protect themselves by appearing deaf. And finally, continue to treat them with respect, even when punishment or restrictions are necessary. Occasionally, you may even need to say, "I'm sorry!"
It is stating the obvious, I suppose, to say that fathers of rebellious teenagers are desperately needed at home during those years. In their absence, mothers are left to handle disciplinary problems alone. This is occurring in millions of families headed by single mothers today, and I know how tough their task has become. Not only are they doing a job that should have been shouldered by two; they must also deal with behavioral problems that fathers are more ideally suited to handle. It is generally understood that a man's larger size, deeper voice and masculine demeanor make it easier for him to deal with defiance in the younger generation. Likewise, I believe the exercise of authority is a mantle ascribed to him by the Creator.
Not only are fathers needed to provide leadership and discipline during the adolescent years, but they can be highly influential on their sons during this period of instability. If a dad and his son can develop hobbies together or other common interests, the rebellious years can pass in relative tranquility. What they experience may be remembered for a lifetime.
Let's also talk about fathers and daughters. Most psychologists believe, and I am one of them, that girls need fathers as much as boys do. All future romantic relationships to occur in a girl's life will be influenced positively or negatively by the way she perceives and interacts with her dad. If he is an alcoholic and a bum, she will spend her life trying to replace him in her heart. If he is warm and nurturing, she will look for a lover to equal him. If he thinks she is beautiful, worthy and feminine, she will be inclined to see herself that way. But if he rejects her as unattractive and uninteresting, she is likely to carry self-esteem problems into her adult years.
I have also observed that a woman's willingness to accept the loving leadership of her husband is significantly influenced by the way she perceived the authority of her father. If he was overbearing, uncaring or capricious during her developmental years, she may later play power games with her future husband. But if dad blended love and discipline in a way that conveyed strength, she will be more willing to yield to the confident leadership of her husband.
None of these tendencies or trends is absolute, of course. Individual differences can always produce exceptions and contradictions. But this statement will be hard to refute: a good father will leave his imprint on his daughter for the rest of her life.
Many fathers are also called upon to perform another vitally important role during the adolescent years. It occurs when tension begins to develop between mothers and teenage girls. That conflict is very common among the ladies of the house. Several years may pass when they don't even like each other very much. Something else may be going on. Because women are tending to marry later in life, they are sometimes experiencing the upheaval of menopause at the same time their daughters are going through puberty and PMS. That is a volatile cocktail, to be sure.
In that setting, fathers are desperately needed as peacemakers and mediators. I have found that teenagers who are greatly irritated with one parent will sometimes seek to preserve their relationship with the other. It's like a country at war in search of supportive allies. If fathers are chosen in that triangle, they can use the opportunity to settle their daughters and "interpret" their mothers in a more favorable light. They may also be able to help their wives ventilate their anger and understand their role in perpetuating the conflict. Without this masculine influence, routine skirmishes can turn into World War III.
In conclusion, I have this recurring message for today's fathers—especially to those who have a teenager at home: don't let these years get away from you. Your contributions to your kids could rank as your greatest accomplishments in life—or your most regretted failures.
Getting a young person through this time of transition to adulthood is doable. I hope, moms and dads, that you will be of good courage and stay on your knees in prayer for all your children. Remember that God loves them even more than you do, and He is faithful and good. Someday you will realize it is “A-Okay” again.
Everything is A-Okay at Family Talk, too. Thanks to our friends and God’s blessing, 2014 has been a year of unprecedented growth. Our opportunities to help families are limited only by the resources we receive. With the technology of digital communications, the ministry’s outreach extends not only from coast to coast in America but around the world. We are gearing up for an exciting fall, with the completion of several projects that we have been working on for more than three years. Your prayers and support would be appreciated as we do what we can to strengthen the traditional family and promote righteousness in the culture.
God bless you and your family.
James C. Dobson, Ph.D.
Founder and President
The Dobson Library
Copyright ©2017 Dr. James Dobson's Family Talk All Rights Reserved
Family Talk 540 Elkton Drive, Suite 201 Colorado Springs, CO 80907 (877) 732-6825
Reproduction without explicit permission is prohibited.