The Strong-Willed Adolescent

(Is there any other kind?)
by Dr. James Dobson

Alas, our children quickly arrive at the door of adolescence: that dynamic time of life which comes in with a pimple and goes out with a beard those flirtatious years when girls begin to powder and boys begin to puff. It’s an exciting phase of childhood, I suppose, but to be honest, I wouldn’t want to stumble through it again. I doubt that the reader would either. We adults remember all too clearly the fears and jeers and tears that represented our own tumultuous youth. Perhaps that is why parents begin to quake and tremble when their children approach the adolescent years. (By the way, have you heard of the new wristwatch created exclusively for the anxious parents of teenagers? After 11 p.m. it wrings its hands every fifteen minutes.)

It would be a great mistake to imply that I have immediate answers to every problem faced by the perplexed parents of adolescents. I recognize my own limitations and willingly admit that it is often easier to write about teenage turmoil than it is to cope with it in real life. Whenever I’m tempted to become self-important and authoritative on this or any other subject, I’m reminded of what the mother whale told her baby: “When you get to the top and start to ‘blow,’ that’s when you get harpooned!” With that admonition in mind, let me humbly offer two suggestions which may he helpful in coping with the strong-willed adolescent.

1. A teenager is often desperately in need of respect and dignity. Give him these gifts!

The period of early adolescence is typically a painful time of life, marked by rapid physical and emotional changes. This characteristic difficulty was expressed by a seventh-grade boy who had been asked to recite Patrick Henry’s historic speech at a Bicentennial program in 1976. But when the young man stood nervously before an audience of parents, he became confused and blurted out, “Give me puberty or give me death!” His statement is not as ridiculous as it sounds. Many teens sincerely believe they must choose between those dubious alternatives.

The 13th and 14th years commonly are the most difficult 24 months in life. It is during this time that self-doubt and feelings of inferiority reach an all-time high, amidst the greatest social pressures yet experienced. An adolescent’s worth as a human being hangs precariously on peer group acceptance, which is notoriously fickle. Thus, relatively minor evidences of rejection or ridicule are of major significance to those who already see themselves as fools and failures. It is difficult to over-estimate the impact of having no one to sit with on the school-sponsored bus trip, or of not being invited to an important event, or of being laughed at by the “in” group, or of waking up in the morning to find seven shiny new pimples on your bumpy forehead, or of being slapped by the girl you thought had liked you as much as you liked her. Some boys and girls consistently face this kind of social catastrophe throughout their teen years. They will never forget the experience.

The self-esteem of an early adolescent is also assaulted in the Western culture by his youthful status. All of the highly advertised adult privileges and vices are forbidden to him because he is “too young.” He can’t drive or marry or enlist or drink or smoke or work or leave home. And his sexual desires are denied gratification at a time when they scream for release. The only thing he is permitted to do, it seems, is stay in school and read his dreary textbooks. This is an overstatement, of course, but it is expressed from the viewpoint of the young man or woman who feels disenfranchised and insulted by society. Much of the anger of today’s youth is generated by their perception of this “injustice.”

Dr. Urie Bronfenbrenner, Cornell University’s eminent authority on child development, has also identified the period of early adolescence as the most destructive years of life. He expressed these concerns in a taped interview with Susan Byrne, subsequently published in Psychology Today, May 1977.

In that article, Bronfenbrenner recalled being asked during a U.S. Senate hearing to indicate the most critical years in a child’s development. He knew that the senators expected him to emphasize the importance of preschool experience, reflecting the popular notion that all significant learning takes place during the first six years of life. However, Bronfenbrenner said he had never been able to validate that assumption. He agreed that the preschool years are vital, but so is every other phase of childhood. In fact, he told the Senate committee that the junior high years are probably the most critical to the development of a child’s mental health. It is during this period of self-doubt that the personality is often assaulted and damaged beyond repair. Consequently, said Bronfenbrenner, it is not unusual for healthy, happy children to enter junior high school, but then emerge two years later as broken, discouraged teenagers.

I couldn’t agree more emphatically with Bronfenbrenner’s opinion at this point. Junior high school students are typically brutal to one another, attacking and slashing a weak victim in much the same way a pack of northern wolves kill and devour a deformed caribou. Few events stir my righteous indignation more than seeing a vulnerable child-fresh from the hand of the Creator in the morning of his life-being taught to hate himself and despise his physical body and wish he had never been born. I am determined to give my assistance to those boys and girls who desperately need a friend during this period of intensive self-doubt.

Not only do I remember the emotional conflicts of my own early adolescence, but I have had ample opportunities since then to observe this troubled time of life in others. I was privileged to teach in public schools from 1960 to 1963, and two of those profitable years were spent at the junior high level. I taught science and math to 225 rambunctious troops each day, although I learned much more from them than they did from me. There on the firing line is where my concepts of discipline began to solidify. The workable solutions were validated and took their place in a system I know to be practical. But the lofty theories dreamed up by grandmotherly educators exploded like so much TNT when tested on the battlefield each day.

One of the most important lessons of those years related to the matter of low self-esteem, which we have been discussing. It became clear to me very early that I could impose all manner of discipline and strict behavioral requirements on my students, provided I treated each young person with genuine dignity and respect. I earned their friendship before and after school, during lunch and through classroom encounters. I was tough, especially when challenged, but never discourteous, mean or insulting. I defended the underdog and tenaciously tried to build each child’s confidence and self-respect. However, I never compromised my standards of deportment. Students entered my classroom without talking each day. They did not chew gum, or behave disrespectfully, or curse or stab one another with ball point pens. I was clearly the captain of the ship, and I directed it with military zeal.

The result of this combination of kindness and firm discipline stands as one of the most pleasant memories of my professional life. I loved my students and had every reason to believe that I was loved in return. I actually missed them on weekends (a fact my wife never quite understood). At the end of the final year when I was packing my books and saying goodbye, there were 25 or 30 teary-eyed kids who hung around my gloomy room for several hours and finally stood sobbing in the parking lot as I drove away. And yes, I shed a few tears of my own that day. (Please forgive this self-congratulatory paragraph. I haven’t bothered to tell you about my failures, which are far less interesting.)

One young lady to whom I said “good-bye” in the school parking lot in 1963 called me on the telephone during 1975. I hadn’t seen Julie for more than a decade, and she had become a grown woman in the ensuing years. I remembered her as a seventh-grader whose crisis of confidence was revealed in her sad brown eyes. She seemed embarrassed by her Latin heritage and the fact that she was slightly overweight. She had only one friend, who moved away the following year.

Julie and I talked amiably on the phone about old times at Cedarlane Junior High School, and then she asked me a pointed question: “Where do you go to church?”

I told her where we attended, and she replied, “I wonder if you’d mind my visiting there some Sunday morning?”

I said, “Julie, I’d be delighted.”

The next week, my wife and I met Julie in the vestibule of the sanctuary, and she sat with us during the service. Through a process of growth and guidance in subsequent months, this young woman became a vibrant Christian. She now participates in the choir, and many members of the congregation have commented on the radiant glow she seems to transmit when singing.

I stopped her as we were leaving church a few months later and said,
“Julie, I want to ask you a question. Will you tell me why you went to so much trouble to obtain my unlisted phone number and call me last fall. Why did you want to talk to me after all those years, and why did you ask what church I attended?”

Julie thought for a moment and then paid me the highest compliment anyone has ever sent my way. She said, “Because when I was a seventh grade student in junior high school, you were the only person in my life who acted like you respected and believed in me . . . and I wanted to know your God.”

If you can communicate that kind of dignity to your oppressed and harassed teenagers, then many of the characteristic discipline problems of adolescence can be circumvented. That is, after all, the best way to deal with people of any age.

Let’s look now at the second suggestion which can be, in effect, a means of implementing the first.

2. Verbalize conflicts and re-establish the boundaries.

There is often an irrationality associated with adolescence which can be terribly frustrating to parents. Let me offer an illustration which may explain the problem.

A student graduated from medical school in Los Angeles a few years ago and was required as part of his internship to spend a few weeks working in a psychiatric hospital. However, he was given little orientation to the nature of mental illness, and he mistakenly thought he could “reason” his patients back to a world of reality. One schizophrenic inmate was particularly interesting to him, because the man believed himself to be dead.

“Yeah, it’s true,” the patient would tell anyone who asked. “I’m dead. Been dead for years.”

The intern couldn’t resist trying to “talk” the schizophrenic out of his fantasy. Therefore, he sat down with the patient and said, “I understand you think you’re dead. Is that right?”
“Sure is,” replied the inmate. “I’m deader than a doornail.”
The intern continued, “Well, tell me this, do dead people bleed?”
“No, of course not,” answered the schizophrenic, sounding perfectly sane. The intern then took the patient’s hand in his own and stuck a needle into the fleshy part of his thumb. As the blood oozed from the puncture, the schizophrenic gasped and exclaimed, “Well, what do you know! Dead people do bleed!”

There may be times when the reader will find himself holding similar “conversations” with his uncomprehending adolescent. These moments usually occur while trying to explain why he must be home by a certain hour-or why he should keep his room straight-or why he can’t have the car on Friday night-or why it doesn’t really matter that he wasn’t invited to the smashing party given by the senior sweetheart, Helen High School. These issues defy reason, responding instead to the dynamic emotional, social and chemical forces which propel them.

On the other hand, we can’t afford to abandon our communicative efforts just because parents and teens have difficulty understanding one another. We simply must remain “in touch” during these turbulent years. This is especially true for the pleasant and happy child who seemingly degenerates overnight into a sour and critical 14-year-old anarchist (a common phenomenon). Not only are parents distressed by this radical change but the child is often worried about it too. He may be confused by the resentment and hostility which has become so much a part of hispersonality. He clearly needs the patient reassurance of a loving parent who can explain the “normality” of this agitation and help him ventilate the accumulated tension.

But how can this be accomplished? ‘Tis a difficult question to answer. The task of prying open the door of communication with an angry adolescent can require more tact and skill than any other assignment in parenthood. The typical reaction by mothers and fathers is to be drawn into endless verbal battles that leave them exhausted but without strategic advantage. There has to be a better way of communicating than shouting at one another. Let me propose an alternative that might be workable in this situation.

For purposes of illustration, suppose that “Brian” is 14 years old and has entered a period of rebelliousness and defiance as described above. He is breaking rules right and left, and seems to hate the entire family. He becomes angry when his-parents discipline him, of course, but even during tranquil times he seems to resent them for merely being there. Last Friday night he arrived home an hour beyond his deadline, but refused to explain why he was late or make apologetic noises. What course of action would be best for his parents to take?

Let’s assume that you are Brian’s father. I would recommend that you invite him out to breakfast on a Saturday morning, leaving the rest of the family at home. It would be best if this event could occur during a relatively placid time, certainly not in the midst of a hassle or intergenerational battle. Admit that you have some important matters to discuss with him which can’t be communicated adequately at home, but don’t “tip your hand” before Saturday morning. Then at the appropriate moment during breakfast, convey the following messages (or an adaptation thereof):

(A.) “Brian, I wanted to talk to you this morning because of the changes that are taking place in you and in our home. We both know that the past few weeks have not been very pleasant. You have been angry most of the time and have become disobedient and rude. And your mother and I haven’t done so well either. We’ve become irritable, and we’ve said things that we’ve regretted later. This is not what God wants of us as parents, or of you as our son. There has to be a more creative way of solving our problems. That’s why we’re here.

(B.) “As a place to begin, Brian, I want you to understand what is happening. You have gone into a new period of life known as adolescence. This is the final phase of childhood, and it is often a very stormy and difficult few years. Nearly everyone on earth goes through these rough years during their early teens, and you are right on schedule at this moment. Many of the problems you face today were predictable from the day you were born, simply because growing up has never been an easy thing to do. There are even greater pressures on kids today than when we were young. I’ve said that to tell you this: we understand you and love you as much as we ever did, even though the past few months have been difficult in our home.

(C.) “What is actually taking place, you see, is that you have had a taste of freedom. You are tired of being a little boy who was told what to wear and when to go to bed and what to eat. That is a healthy attitude which will help you grow up. However, now you want to be your own boss and make your own decisions without interference from anyone. Brian, you will get what you want in a very short time. You are 14 now, and you’ll soon be 15 and 17 and 19. You will be grown in a twinkling of an eye, and we will no longer have any responsibility for you. The day is coming when you will marry whomever you wish, go to whatever school you choose, select the profession or job that suits you. Your mother and I will not try to make those decisions for you. We will respect your adulthood. Furthermore, Brian, the closer you get to those days, the more freedom we plan to give you. You have more privileges now than you had last year, and that trend will continue.We will soon set you free, and you will be accountable only to God and yourself.

(D.) “But, Brian, you must understand this message: you are not grown yet. During the past few weeks, you have wanted your mother and me to leave you alone-to let you stay out half the night if you chose-to fail in school-to carry no responsibility at home. And you have ‘blown up’ whenever we have denied even your most extreme demands. The truth of the matter is, you have wanted us to grant you 20-year-old freedom during your l4th year, although you still expect to have your shirts ironed and your meals fixed and your bills paid. You have wanted the best of both worlds with none of the responsibilities. So what are we to do? The easiest thing would be for us to let you have your way. There would be no hassles and no conflict and no more frustration. Many parents of 14-year-old sons and daughters have done just that. But we must not yield to this temptation. You are not ready for that complete independence, and we would be showing hatred for you (instead of love) if we surrendered at this time. We would regret our mistake for the rest of our lives, and you would soon blame us, too. And as you know, you have two younger sisters who are watching you very closely and must be protected from the things you are teaching them.

(E.) “Besides, Brian, God has given us a responsibility as parents to do what is right for you, and He is holding us accountable for the way we do that job. I want to read you an important passage from the Bible which describes a father named Eli who did not discipline and correct his two unruly teenage sons. (Read the dramatic story from the Living Bible, 1 Samuel 2:12-7, 22-25, 27-34, 3:1 1-14; 4:1-3 and 10-22.) 1It is very clear that God was angry at Eli for permitting his sons to be disrespectful and disobedient. Not only did He allow the sons to be killed in battle, but He also punished their father for not accepting his parental responsibilities. This assignment to parents can be found throughout the Bible: mothers and fathers are expected to train their children and discipline them when required. What I’m saying is that God
will not hold us blameless if we let you behave in ways that are harmful to yourself and others.

(F.) “That brings us to the question of where we go from this moment. I want to make a pledge to you, here and now: your mother and I intend to be more sensitive to your needs and feelings than we’ve been in the past. We’re not perfect, as you well know, and it is possible that you will feel we have been unfair at one time or another. If that occurs, you can express your views and we will listen to you. We want to keep the door of communication standing wide open between us. When you seek a new privilege, I’m going to ask myself this question, ‘Is there any way I can grant this request without harming Brian or other people?’ If I can permit what you want in good conscience, I will do so. I will compromise and bend as far as my best judgment will let me.

(G.) “But hear this, Brian. There will be a few matters that cannot be compromised. There will be occasions when I will have to say `no.’ And when those times come, you can expect me to stand like the Rock of Gibraltar. No amount of violence and temper tantrums and door slamming will change a thing. In fact, if you choose to fight me in those remaining rules, then I promise that you will lose dramatically. Admittedly you’re too big and grown up to spank, but I can still make you uncomfortable. And that will be my goal. Believe me, Brian, I’11 lie awake nights figuring how to make you miserable. I have the courage and the determination to do my job during these last few years you are at home, and I intend to use all of my resources for this purpose, if necessary, So it’s up to you. We can have a peaceful time of cooperation at home, or we can spend this last part of your childhood in unpleasantness and struggle. Either way, you will arrive home when you are told, and you will carry your share of responsibility in the family and you will continue to respect your mother and me.

(H.) “Finally, Brian, let me emphasize the message I gave you in the beginning. We love you more than you can imagine, and we’re going to remain friends during this difficult time. There is so much pain in the world today. Life involves disappointment and loss and rejection and aging and sickness and ultimately death. You haven’t felt much of that discomfort yet, but you’ll taste it soon enough. So with all that heartache outside our door, let’s not bring more of it on ourselves. We need each other. We need you, and believe it or not, you still need us occasionally. And that, I suppose, is what we wanted to convey to you this morning. Let’s make it better from now on.

(I.) “Do you have things that need to be said to us?”

The content of this message should be modified to fit individual circumstances and the needs of particular adolescents. Furthermore, the responses of children will vary tremendously from person to person. An “open” boy or girl may reveal his deepest feelings at such a moment of communication, permitting a priceless time of catharsis and ventilation. On the other hand, a stubborn, defiant, proud adolescent may sit immobile with head downward. But even if your teenager remains stoic or hostile, at least the cards have been laid on the table and parental intentions explained.

(The above material was published by FOCUS ON THE FAMILY, 1992)

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