It’s a Thursday night; midnight, in fact. Your almost-fourteen has been in her/his room, door firmly shut, for three hours straight. For a while now, s/he has been acting very strange. Gone is the girl/boy who would pour her/his heart out at the end of each school day, no detail left out. These days s/he spends more time online or on phone with his/her friends than s/he does with her/his own family. Any conversation you initiate is responded to in grunts and monosyllables. You have been getting increasingly anxious, naturally.
Any mention of this, though, has ended up in heated words – even frustrated tears – on both sides. But you are a parent, and you’re not going to give up trying.You decide to give it another shot.
You cautiously open the door and ask, “Not sleepy?”
“Mom! How many times have I told you to knock before opening?” The tone is of pure outrage. A hand reaches out to shut the door.
You wedge your foot between the closing door and the frame, full of righteous anger. “Why should I knock? What’re you trying to hide?”
“Nothing! But I need my privacy. Something you don’t seem to understand!” And the door comes back with force, completely ignoring your foot. Your pull your foot back out of harm’s way, holding back the angry tears from running down your cheeks.
Your mind is racing. Privacy at thirteen-something? What does that mean? At her/his age, you had shared a room with your two sisters and a little brother. And to think of the audacity of banging the door shut on you, the mother! What on earth is wrong with her/him? Why is s/he suddenly so different, so secretive?
A million possibilities occur to you, each more worrisome than the other. Is my child getting into bad company? Company of people online or otherwise who will distract them, urge them to waste money, put them in danger? Are they into substance abuse? What if they start conversations with strangers or share inappropriate images with them? Or are in a relationship which will eventually result in insurmountable problems? The fear is even more when it’s a daughter at the other end. You worry about her safety. You worry that she will enter into a physical relationship before she is ready. But s/he doesn’t understand this, and nothing you do seems to get through.
“A teenager’s need for privacy is real, and it should be respected,” says Jyothika Aggarwal, Clinical Psychologist at LifeWorks Foundation, Dubai. “At this age, they are figuring themselves out, in a sense. Getting to know themselves, their bodies, the changes thereof. And more than anything else, they are becoming independent individuals. This need for personal space is a healthy sign of growing up, and should be accepted.”
Ms Aggarwal advises against prying into your teenager’s life unless there is a real cause for con-cern. If you feel that your child has become withdrawn, doesn’t interact with people as s/he used to, doesn’t go out, and no longer seems to be interested in the things s/he used to be actively involved in, then there is cause for concern. More so when there is a tendency to harm themselves or others around them. These are the times when you need to step in. Otherwise it is best to give them enough leeway so that they don’t feel threatened
“Instead of expecting to have total control over your teenager’s life, establish trust, and open a clear line of communication with them. Listen, respond positively and without undue judgement,” explains Ms Aggarwal. “Be clear about what kind of behaviour is acceptable and what is not, in a matter-of-fact way. There are bound to be instances when the lines between the acceptable and the unacceptable are blurred – the so-called ‘grey’ areas. Let them know that you are open to conversation even then. They should trust you enough to communicate with you.”
Good communication is certainly the key to unlocking your teenager. Share your anxieties with them, but without getting overly emotional. They need to know that you are concerned, but you also trust them. Make sure they know you are available to discuss things, even uncomfortable ones. “And don’t hesitate to apologise when you feel you are in the wrong. This will only improve communication and your relationship with your teenager,” she concludes.