Soon to be 16, Palesa has always been a star achiever, an athlete and an academic. Her mother, Selena, says she was head girl at her co-ed primary school, she had lots of friends and she was a happy, mature child. However, now that she is in high school she is battling.
“She doesn’t make friends, hates her teachers, despises the school, her marks have dropped, and she seems to live in a cloud of gloom. The change came almost immediately she went to high school.”
Mother and daughter have had long talks about what is making her unhappy, but, says Selena, “I don’t even think she knows”.
“She comes up with reasons, but they don’t stand up to scrutiny. She says she hates her new school because they don’t take sport seriously. She says she can’t make friends, but at the same time she doesn’t take any effort to make friends. She has spoken to her school counsellor, who then spoke to me, and we both feel that she is inventing reasons to be unhappy.
“I am at my wits’ end, because I just don’t know what to do. We are a close family, and her moods affect us all. She can be very unpleasant to her younger sisters, and it is awful to witness or have to intervene,” says Selena.
The school principal has suggested that Palesa is struggling with the fact that she is no longer top dog, that she has had to make her way from scratch in the new school, as no one is aware of her previous reputation.
“The principal said it happened quite often with super-achievers who weren’t quite good enough to be absolute top, and were battling to accept second or third place. I think she has a very good point – Palesa is used to everything being easy and perhaps doesn’t like the idea that she is among people who might be smarter or more hard-working than she is,” says Selena.
Acute disappointment is probably one of the strongest emotions Palesa is feeling now, but according to the authoritative South African book The Adolescent Storm, by psychologist Meg Fargher and former school principal Helen Dooley, disappointment is “as normal to living as is breathing”.
“As parents we try desperately to shield our children from disappointment. If managed effectively, however, disappointment can be a valuable teacher,” it says, adding that the lesson in disappointment is developing resilience, a much-needed asset in today’s highly competitive environment.
Acting out over disappointment is, of course, just one of many rash and confusing behaviours that typify the growing adolescent. Yet it is all completely normal.
“The friendly, compliant eager little child sometimes switches into a moody, day-dreaming, stubborn young person with a mind of her own,” says relationship psychologist Wendy Hay. “Everything is questioned and friends become the experts and centre of their world. For many parents, this is frightening, but it is a normal phase of development.”
Acting out is an attempt to recapture the sense of supremacy lost in childhood, explain the authors of The Adolescent Storm, adding that it is to be expected that “adolescents act first rather than think first”.
Faced with this reality, they say, good parents give their kids “appropriate space to challenge them in order to start separating into independent young adults”.
As the “best friend” becomes their biggest confidant, the adolescent will have taken with him “that which the parents have modelled to him since infancy, and it is this understanding of relationships that they are most likely to take into their future relationships”.
Leading by example, then, is critical.
“I noticed among my son’s friends that those who had parents who drank excessively… turned out to be the same as they grew older, while those whose parents drank in moderation likewise drank in moderation once they were of age,” says Gillian Dobson, a mother of two young adults.
Some situations evoke aggression, rudeness or cruelty in teens, which can be particularly trying.
“The other day I told Siphiwe about something nice that happened to me, not big, but nice for me. He said, ‘Really, mom? Woo hoo!’ in a very sarcastic way. Some things he says are really terribly hurtful,” says Mpine, his mother.
The Adolescent Storm advises that parents should try to separate the frustrated emotion from the actual behaviour.
“Debate the emotion (the frustration behind the cruel mimicking of a sibling, say) but be clear that the behaviour is unacceptable… The cruel mocking behaviour can be identified, thus teaching your adolescent that the behaviour helps no one, and if anything, is destructive”.
Hay says calm but firm boundary setting is important in this phase.
“My experience has been that problems often arise between adults and teenagers when they get into power struggles, fighting every battle. In situations where the ‘teenager tail wags the parental dog’, I advise parents to read The Dog Whisperer by Cesar Millan.
“Calm leadership is essential. An hysterical, screaming parent only adds to the problem. The same principles of calm leadership apply in all situations,” she says.
The boundaries that Cindy, mother of a teenage boy, set are similar to the ones her parents did.
“I say: ‘You can’t go to X until you have done Y or received an A for the exam.’”
Kantha has told her daughter Lilly to cut down on sport and socialising and study more this year.
“She says she needs more freedom to do her own thing, but in fact I am pulling the strings tighter as the freedom Lilly had last year did not make her any happier,” she says.
Two of Gillian’s rules is “no sleepovers in homes where we don’t personally know the parents and their lifestyle”, and “let us know if you go somewhere other than where we think you are”.
The experts agree that communication channels should be kept open at all times, whatever boundaries are laid or discipline imposed.
In the book How to Talk So Teens Will Listen and Listen So Teens Will Talk, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, the importance of acknowledging your teen’s feelings, and really listening to their concerns, is stressed over and over.
“It’s much easier to talk to someone who accepts your feelings and gives you a chance to come to your own conclusions,” the authors say, adding that it’s also important to state your feelings, expectations and point of view during interactions, so that boundaries are clear.
But even if communication in the home is fluid, an adolescent might seem lonely. The Adolescent Storm assures that loneliness occurs because the teen is “moving their primary love from their parents to new adult relationships”.
“Parents can mitigate the sense of loss by acknowledging the emotional space their teen is in, but walk alongside your teen rather than try to fill that space, since the emotion represents an important moment of personality growth for the emerging adult”.
Alarm bells should go off, though, if moods are extreme, and there are problems such as loss of appetite or increased appetite, and loss of interest in sport and school, as drugs or alcohol abuse may be the culprits.
“A big concern is missing money and increased secretiveness,” says Hay. “Most adolescents experiment to some extent with alcohol and it is important that the parent be honest about their concerns.
“My greatest fear is the growing incident of date rape due to date rape drugs. Young girls should be made aware of the scourge.”
Depression is another red alert.
“In teenagers depression is sometimes difficult to pick up, but it is a serious condition,” says Hay. “Suicide, or attempted suicide, is a possibility in a severely depressed young person.
“The teenager is more impulsive, not always able to link action and consequence and can be completely overwhelmed by emotion.
Hay says depression is often noted as “loss of interest in most activities, lack of self-care, isolation, sadness, tearfulness. There might be feigning sick to miss school.
“Teenagers can have a very good relationship with their beds, but a depressed youngster can seem like an immovable object. Any severe drop in marks must be investigated as depression causes a loss of concentration, often impacting on subjects like mathematics.”
The good news is that the teenage equivalent of the “terrible twos” passes. Hay says peer group pressure is at its highest in the early teens and lessens as the teen grows older and more confident.
“An older adolescent has a far more developed brain and is capable of greater insight. By the time most teenagers matriculate, they have a well-developed sense of responsibility and are capable of negotiating the adult world,” she says.
And hopefully as a parent you’ll have survived.
Tracey, the mother of two young adults, says: “Where my daughter was concerned, it got bad, very bad. Drugs, underage sex, eating disorders, the works. If it was in the ‘how to drive your mommy mad with worry’ handbook, she did it.
“How did I navigate it? Good wine, good friends. And a grim determination to see the funny side!” - The Star
* Names have been changed to protect the teenagers. - The Star