When there is a family crisis like divorce, or death of a family member, teenagers often adopt dangerous coping mechanisms. One of the ‘attention-getting devices’ is open sexual activity, or even pregnancy.
They initiate or allow a sexual relationship when they feel invisible at home, unloved, uncared for, or just ignored by parents who are too engrossed in their own difficulties or interests to spare time for them.
What a better way to grab your attention than leaving evidence of a sexual relationship- a packet of contraceptive pills, a packet of condoms or a diary with explicit entries - lying where you are sure to find it.
They may even deliberately risk pregnancy, seeing it as a way of holding a partner and perhaps starting with them their own, idyllic, family that they imagine will shelter them, or they see a baby as a possible source of unfettered love, and also of status.
You may be tempted to wash your hands of a teenager who is so selfish as to give you one more burden, not understanding that it could well be their difficulty in coming to terms with family problems that has prompted their action in the first place.
On the other hand, young people can suddenly express their anger and confusion in strange behavior, such as stealing, joy-riding, drug taking, vandalism or fighting.
The main challenge for parents is that the crisis itself takes most of their attention and energy, leaving very little time to spend puzzling out their teenager’s complicated responses and how to deal with them.
Young people need predictability and assured continuity, and are certainly going to be hurt by any drastic change in their lifestyle, for instance, getting into a step-family situation if their dad or mum has passed on.
If you try to keep awareness of an impeding change from them as long as possible, you might buy yourself a few months or even a few years of peace - at the cost of their being all the more damaged by the eventual event. The damage will be greater because they had no time to prepare, and will also have to cope with the dreadful realization you have deceived them.
Teenagers want security, consistency of attitude and truth from their parents. No young person, however innocent, is insensitive to the ebb and flow of their parent’s emotions and behavior. Very few are unable to perceive when something in the family is wrong.
Teenagers cope with unpleasant facts when presented in a straightforward fashion, by the people they trust and care for most. You can enlist their help and invite their understanding by telling them what is bothering you, or what might be about to happen to you all, in a round-table discussion.
Once you have explained what is going to happen, why it is gong to happen, and how you feel about this, everyone will have a chance to say how they react, and why. You may then find that not only do you get the result you want more efficiently, but also that everyone is happier and more co-operative about the situation.
Even the most extreme of crises can be weathered if you have given your youngsters two gifts. The first is the knowledge that you love and value them.
Emotional security will keep them afloat even when everything else seems to be falling apart. The second is skill in communication. They will know what is going on and understand each other’s viewpoints, feelings and behavior.
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