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Teen Minds: What Are They Thinking?


WebMD Feature

By Neil Osterweil

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

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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.

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