Why parents are repeat offenders
Making the same mistakes with your teens as your mum and dad did with you is the default position for most modern parents. That's why many are getting it wrong
Published 19/04/2010 | 05:00
WHAT was your dad like when you were a teenager? Was his word law? Did he and your mum explain their decisions, negotiate with you, and attempt to find a compromise -- or were you expected to receive their ruling, then put up, shut up and swallow your resentment?
It's an important issue to consider because the way your parents behaved towards you during your adolescence has an enormous impact on the way you parent your own teenager.
To make things even more complicated, society has changed immensely, and the expectations and attitudes of today's teenagers bear no resemblance to the world in which you were reared.
This has left many modern parents uncertain about how to handle adolescents, because the old authoritarian methods so often used on them don't work so well with their own kids, says clinical psychologist Dr Patrick Ryan.
"They were brought up in a time when we still had a fairly authoritarian attitude, be it from the state or the church.
"The atmosphere in which children were reared back then," says Ryan, "was strict and authoritarian, not to say rigid."
"Many parents would remember being told 'you're living under my roof so you do as I say,'" he observes.
That was fair enough back then.
For the most part, says Ryan, director of the Doctoral Programme in Clinical Psychology at the University of Limerick, the teenagers of the 1960s and 1970s knew exactly where they stood.
The problem is, however, that this parenting style hasn't equipped that generation with the skills of negotiation and compromise required to bring up adolescents in today's very different society.
Nowadays, neither church or state, nor the education system, wields anything like the power of bygone days. Allied to this, says Ryan, who has just published a new book about parenting teenagers, there's been a huge affirmation of children's rights along with a massive cultural shift in terms of how teenagers are perceived.
So, in a crisis situation, because today's parents don't know how to negotiate with a teenager they tend to revert back to the authoritarian stance of their childhood -- in other words, to laying down the law.
"Parents say, 'I never thought I'd hear myself saying this -- it was what my mother or father said to me," he says. But in many cases, he observes, that approach no longer works.
"Conflict emerges because teenagers' expectations of how they should be treated doesn't match what their parents are delivering.
"Today's teenagers are being reared in a very different, more liberal, rights-oriented entitlement-based environment and parental skill-sets are lagging behind by about 20 or 30 years."
Even if they don't want to behave like their authoritarian parents, many modern parents continue with this pattern -- it's almost inevitable, unless you make an effort to change.
Explains Ryan: "The way you were parented gives you the template for how you will parent and that template will only change if you deliberately decide to change. But you have to work at it, otherwise you'll default to the first position."
If you were reared by authoritarian parents, you will 'default' in one of two ways when it's your turn to parent a teen, explains Orla McHugh, psychotherapist and author of Celtic Cubs: Inside the Mind of the Irish Teenager (Liberties Press).
You may emulate them by being overly authoritarian and regularly "losing the rag", she says.
Alternatively, you can react to the way you were reared by being too lenient, inadvertently giving your children too much power because you felt so powerless as a child yourself.
Yet, she says, as a lenient parent you still retain that powerlessness -- but with your own children.
"In effect, you identify so closely with them that you don't discipline them or put down any boundaries and by the time they hit the teenage years they have all the power."
Teenagers whose parents were overly indulgent, whose lives were governed by few or even no rules in the home can, later in life, react by adopting an authoritarian approach with their own offspring.
Essentially, says McHugh, you either automatically imitate your parents' style or you will do the polar opposite. However, if you become aware of the way you were parented and acknowledge that you were unhappy with it, you can make a conscious decision to change. This will require an examination of your relationship with power.
Carol* (not her real name), a care assistant in Co Dublin, and mother of two teenagers aged 15 and 13, has consciously tried to parent her girls very differently to the way she was reared.
"My Dad was an army sergeant and he was very strict and cold. He was very authoritarian and had a very bleak, black personality.
"He never explained his decisions or his actions; his word was absolute law. I'd have been afraid to challenge my father, even when he was wrong about something.
"He spent a good part of my adolescence not speaking to me. If he didn't want you to do something, he said 'no' and that was the end of the conversation. I know what that feels like to a teenager, so I make a conscious effort to give my daughters an explanation as to why I am not allowing them to do something, so at least they understand where I'm coming from.
"I encourage them to challenge me on things -- within reason -- and we have a very good relationship. I make a conscious effort to show the girls I'm interested in who they are and what they're doing because my father never displayed any interest in me."
Generally the parents who handle adolescents best are those who are able to negotiate and compromise, says Dr Ryan.
"I've met parents whose own parents were able to model these skills and it's obvious that today these parents are emulating how they were brought up. Things are smoother because they don't end up having the big bust-ups to recover from."
Teacher Christine O'Leary, who has two daughters, aged 13 and 11, deliberately 'cherry-picks' the parenting methods that worked with her as a teenager.
"When I was growing up, my parents were loving but also quite firm. I was the fourth of seven children so you knew instinctively what you could and couldn't do. By the time I was a teenager they were ready to trust me -- and most of the time I was fairly well behaved!
"I have the same element of trust in my relationship with my teenage daughter, Claire."
If Christine must refuse a request she will usually explain why -- but like her own parents, she's prepared to be firm.
"I do the sort of parenting that I thought was good when I was a child, such as explaining things and being affectionate, but I wouldn't expect my children to be my friends. You have to keep your distance, to an extent."
If you're angry about something your teenager says, check whether it's really because of that remark or is it an old anger about the way you were treated by your parents when you said something similar?
Sometimes old messages or attitudes which fuelled resentment during our long-ago adolescence can be re-ignited by a chance remark. So check where your response is coming from.
Dr Patrick Ryan is author of You Can't Make Me -- How to Get the Best Out of Your Teenager (Newleaf, Gill & MacMillan)