Magical mystery teens

The bubbly charmer at 10 turns into a sullen cipher by 14. What's a parent to do? Keep talking, advises Dr. Lynn Ponton. Never stop trying to communicate.

By Dr. Lynn Ponton

Published September 27, 2002 7:13PM (EDT)

Dear Dr. Ponton,

My husband and I are parents of an enigmatic 13-year-old boy. Like many, we often feel as though we're flying by the seat of our pants in our parenting. It's so difficult to tell what he's thinking or feeling. It seems to change day-to-day. Do you have any suggestions?

-- Perplexed Parent

My request for comments, questions and advice from and about teenagers apparently struck a chord. Parents wrote. Teens wrote. Young adults wrote.

Many of the e-mails would be valuable to this writer. The letter speaks for so many. Teens -- especially those on the edge of adolescence at 11, 12 or 13 years old -- are enigmas, not only to their parents, but often to themselves. They are deeply involved in a quest to discover who they are and what life is about. For them, much is unexplained and mysterious, and their days are filled with surprises and secrets. So it's not unexpected that teens' internal lives are hidden from their parents.

I believe that the most valuable key to understanding teens is to listen to them. One of the other letters I received was from Kathleen Cushman, an author whose book, "Fires in the Bathroom," is due out for publication next Spring. Cushman works with What Kids Can Do, Inc., a nonprofit organization that enlists children's help in problem solving. Her book features advice from high school students about how to connect with teens.

Many of the students emphasize how important it is for parents not only to listen, but also to truly observe their children. Many teens don't talk to their parents or other adults. A parent's observational powers -- looking at what their teenage children are doing, noticing how it feels to be around them -- may be the only option for hints about what's going on in their lives.

The teens also recommend that parents ask questions. Many parents say they're doing that, but their children aren't responding.

From my own daily experience with teens in my office and at home, I know this doesn't mean adults should stop asking. Questions express an interest. How you ask is also important. Asking in a judgmental or critical way is one of the quickest ways to turn teens off. "Why should I respond if they already know the answer? What's the point?" they think, and shut parents out.

The teens in Cushman's book suggest that parents ask questions with an open mind in order to truly learn about their children. It's also important to acknowledge any response -- a garbled answer, a quick grimace -- because it may represent the beginnings of communication.

Finally, teens counsel adults not to give up. They recognize, too, that our relationships with them are vitally important.

Dear Dr. Ponton,

My 12-year-old daughter has recently decided to become a vegetarian. I don't care one way or the other; I should probably eat less meat myself in order to reduce my weight. However, I am concerned about protein intake for her. I have told her that she's responsible for determining how much protein to ingest daily to remain healthy at her stage of growth.

She is about 5'7", 80 pounds, plays soccer (I'm her coach), and is otherwise in reasonably good health (although her feet have started to hurt at practice). What do you think my next move should be?

-- Questioning Carnivore

I have several responses to this letter. First, your daughter's weight is a serious concern. A 12-year-old girl who is 5'7" and weighs only 80 pounds falls below the bottom 1 percent of the expected growth curve for her stage of development. Her Body Mass Index (generally a good indicator of how a teen is developing physically) is so low that it's off the growth curve.

Many young girls (and some boys) whom I see are struggling with issues related to weight and body image. The vast majority of them, both nationwide and in my practice, are dissatisfied with their bodies, believing that they are too fat. Many spend hours viewing images in magazines, on videos, television, and film that are unhealthy, unrealistic, and for all but the obsessively driven and genetically chosen, impossible to obtain. Hatred for one's body, and its partner, unhealthy eating habits, usually don't happen overnight. It's often a slow, insidious process in which a girl modifies her diet (increasingly restrictive) and her activity level (increasingly frenzied).

I described in my last column the importance of teens trying out new ideas and challenges, many with associated risk. The process is usually healthy, resulting in personal growth and development of a unique identity for the teen. But for this to occur smoothly, a teenager must carefully assess risks. Often, especially with younger teens, parents play a key role in helping their child do that. In this situation, the parent has much to be concerned about.

This 12-year-old would like to try being a vegetarian. For many girls, this can be a healthy decision. Many choose to become vegetarians out of sympathy for animals or ecological concern. Other teens see it as part of a lifestyle that involves making healthier choices. Parents can often support this choice and use it as an opportunity for family discussions about different diets and philosophies. It also provides a doorway into getting teens involved in food preparation. However, a desire to become a vegetarian is sometimes a cover for restrictive eating behaviors and a disguised method for weight loss. Vegetarianism should not be used as a tool for weight reduction by either fathers or daughters (or mothers or sons). It is a lifestyle choice that has to address diet, not dieting.

This father is also coping with two roles here: He is both parent and his daughter's soccer coach. He mentions that his daughter's feet have begun to hurt at soccer practice. Teen soccer players with painful feet are not unusual, and are not always cause for concern. However, the combination of sore feet and abnormally low weight might indicate difficulties with circulation or other serious physical problems that merit an appointment with a physician.

At the University of California where I work, there is an excellent team of doctors that specialize in working with teens. A physical exam by a physician trained to work with teenagers, and more specifically to recognize the signs and symptoms associated with disordered eating, is crucial. This daughter may be using vegetarianism to buttress her campaign for an unhealthy weight. She may even be unaware of her own hidden agenda. A father who understands the possible risks to her health is her best coach.

Both of these letters outline the importance of looking past the surface with teens. They are enigmatic, but asking questions and carefully listening to the answers and paying attention to the unspoken cues are parents' most valuable tools.

Teens can be confusing, but it's important to remember that they often see adults in this way, too. Keeping this in mind, it's vital for adults to share at least part of their thinking with their teenage children. This isn't easy. There are many excuses not to talk honestly with adolescents ("They wouldn't understand" ... "We need to protect them"). For parents of teenagers, taking the risk to honestly communicate with their children, and to persist despite setbacks and frustration, is essential.

Dr. Lynn Ponton

Dr. Lynn Ponton is a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. She is the mother of two teenagers and the author of "The Romance of Risk: Why Teenagers Do the Things They Do" and "The Sex Lives of Teenagers: Revealing the Secret World of Adolescent Boys and Girls."

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