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'90S FAMILY

Yes, Parents Can Survive Their Teens

September 07, 1997|MARY JO KOCHAKIAN | THE HARTFORD COURANT

Mention that you have a teenager, and the eyes roll. Everyone understands perfectly.

But is this inevitable, that parents of teenagers are going to fend off plenty of annoyances, get really, really angry and have to worry?

In the view of Laura S. Kastner, an authority on adolescent psychology: Well, yeah. Pretty much you will.

"There will always be challenges in this developmental period, so that's reasonable to expect," Kastner says. "I guess the big question is, how bad do we have to expect it to be?

"There's a huge range based on life circumstances, the temperament of the kid, the temperament of the parents, the previous childhood," Kastner says. "But teenagers do need to establish their separate identities, to think for themselves, to integrate their new values and so forth. So there is that necessary turmoil."

Kastner, a clinical associate professor at the University of Washington's Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, is author with Jennifer F. Wyatt of "The Seven-Year Stretch: How Families Work Together to Grow Through Adolescence" (Houghton Mifflin, 1997). The book emphasizes developmental issues and is not intended to spell out to parents how to get unruly teenagers under control.

Rather, the authors note, research has found that 80% of kids go through adolescence without having problems of "clinical significance"--problems that warrant a psychiatric diagnosis.

Adolescence, Kastner says, is much like the terrible twos, "because that's the time when they say 'no, no, no.' To make sure they're separate from Mommy, they have to say no to everything. It's actually very similar to that in the teenage time, but they have newer and more elaborate and nasty ways of saying 'no, no, no.' "

The point here is to try to take a broad view of your kid and have realistic expectations about teen behavior, she says. "It helps to see it as a necessary part of creating a self, and, as with a 2-year-old, if you understand that it's necessary and healthy, you can put it in perspective and not necessarily over-judge them as being awful kids."

Yes, but they do seem awful at times. They are ornery and rude. They are mean to younger siblings. They balk. They refuse.

"One of my favorite tips to parents is: Before you start to think that your child is narcissistic and immoral and horrible, consider asking teachers and your friends and the parents of your child's friends--often most of us will hear how delightful our teenager is. And then you have a really good sense that it's about parent-child autonomy rather than the traits of your child."

But a child's adolescence isn't always bad. Kastner speaks of the joys of watching teenagers come into their own, and it's not incessant conflict.

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