Parenting Teens: ATM Vs Attention

What does a teenager need – his parents’ money or their attention? And what can parents do to bring about a balanced situation? Sid Balachandran analyses the common dilemma most parents of teenagers

By Sid Balachandran  • 14 min read

Parenting Teens: ATM Vs Attention

Ah, the teenage years – the short transitional phase during which youngsters age by 5-6 years and their parents by 30 years or so! These are the years of spontaneous emotional outbursts, rolling of eyes and general distrust, and, of course, wanting to time-travel to another decade. And I’m just talking about parents here!

Granted, the teenage years are highly confusing for the youngster but they are as baffling for parents for whom it is like sitting blindfolded on a roller-coaster ride. You may think you are prepared for those sharp dips and turns, but at the end of it all, you really don’t know what to expect.

While the teenage years have always been challenging for both parents and adolescents, it seems to have taken a rather bizarre turn over the past few decades. For instance, I recently happened to catch up with one of my seniors from high school. Since he too is a parent, the standard niceties soon gave way to the one topic that, apparently, we, parents, just cannot get enough of – our children. My friend’s oldest was 14, and he described in great detail the trouble to which he had gone to obtain a gadget for his son that was the latest craze among adolescents.

“Was it his birthday?” I asked, secretly wondering what hoops I’d have to jump through when my 4-year-old entered his teenage years.

“Oh no! He’d been pestering me for ages and I’d been putting it off because I hadn’t had the time to go hunting for it – work pressure and all that. Plus, apart from new clothes, I didn’t really get him anything for Diwali. So, I figured that this was a good time to get him what he wanted. Also, he’ll know that I didn’t forget about him,” he replied.

“So, your getting him this gadget is a sort of materialistic substitute for your not being able to spend enough time with him?” – was what I wanted to ask.

But I didn’t. Instead, I just smiled, nodded and found myself thinking about two things. One, how different parenting a teenager had become in this generation and two, whether I too would one day find it absolutely okay to substitute my inability to spend time with my teenager with expensive gifts. Perhaps I was being a bit too harsh in my analysis of my friend’s approach to parenting. But let’s use this as an example, because I can tell you for certain that he’s not alone in this. Such an approach seems to be adopted by many parents now. Let us try to understand the reasons behind it.

The change in the teenage years

The teenage years are often viewed as a tight-rope walk for both parents and children. It’s a period of mood swings and rapid hormonal and physical changes. And it is we, parents, who keep the balance in this high-wire act. We are like the balancing pole that acrobats carry so they don’t fall off. Perhaps, more than at any other stage, parents play an important role during this time in keeping things in check. But, often, in trying to be protective, we end up treating our teenagers as overgrown children, expecting them to continue to unquestioningly obey our commands. And that’s just where the trouble starts. It is during this stage that children usually begin to think about how they feel about themselves, and figure out how this perception fits in with what others may think of them. They gear up to spread their wings and take trial flights away from their nests, and learn to make their own decisions, even if they make mistakes in the process. They begin to learn to be independent and it is time that we, as parents, realised that we need to start letting go of them and help them embrace the changes.

The evolution of parenting a teenager

Much like everything else in life, in a bid to adapt to changing situations and lifestyles, parenting too, especially when involving a teenager, has gone through its own evolutionary process. There are certain trends that shed light on how teenage behaviour too has changed over the past 50 years or so.

For instance, a briefing paper on Changing Adolescence Programme by the Nuffield Foundation in the UK found there was a drastic increase in behaviour-related incidents among teenagers between 1974 and 2004. While the paper focussed on the likelihood of increased anti-social behaviour among teens, it was ascertained that a lot of the key findings were linked to family-related indicators, such as:

    • The break-up of larger families into smaller nuclear families
    • Both men and women being older at the birth of their first child
    • More instability in family surroundings and higher rates of divorce
    • Increase in households where both parents work in full-time jobs

While these are just trends based on a small sample of surveyed people, they do indicate a change in one key element of parenting. And that is the amount of time that parents these days spend with their children, especially during the teenage years.

Present-day parents vs teenagers: the scenario

  • The major factor remains that in today’s fast-paced world, where we don’t even have time for ourselves, it is easy for us as parents to slip into a cycle of monetary and materialistic gratification as a substitute for time spent with our youngsters. Teenagers are a different kettle of fish altogether from infants or toddlers. Most often, they are able to take care of themselves and don’t really need our constant attention. This reduces the emotional pressure on us. So, we don’t have to feel guilty about not spending as much time with them as we did when they were younger.
  • The trouble with the modern generation of teenagers is that, thanks to the Internet and advances of modern technology, they think that they are adept at dealing with most of their problems on their own, and see no necessity of confiding in their parents. This causes an unspoken rift between the parents and the teens. However, the truth is that no online guidance counsellor or doctor can be expected to be better invested in a teenager’s future than the parents.
  • Perhaps there is also a slight consumerist angle here, where everything today – from gadgets to fashion – seems to have somehow convinced the modern generation of youngsters that parents exist for one purpose – wanting the very best for them and hence stopping at nothing to make them happy. This starts to play on the minds of the parents who get inadvertently ‘guilt-tripped’ into splurging money on their children as a substitute for their not being there physically.
  • I have also heard several parents state that sometimes they feel as if they have little or no influence on their teen’s lives, when compared to their peers. They also confide that there have been times when they felt that their teens were from a different planet altogether, with their bizarre tastes in music and the clothes they wear to the language they speak. And, at these times, they just submit to the thought that their teens sometimes need to figure out life on their own.

So, what do we do now?

The success of parenting a teenager is often achieved by striking a balance between being a firm and calm parent and being their friend and confidante. It is a tricky slope to navigate, and perhaps the biggest commitment that we need to make is to ensure that we continue to make time for our children – especially teenagers, who are on the threshold of adulthood, which can be a very confusing space.

With almost everything available at our fingertips these days, it is all too easy for us to give in to the temptation of using materialistic rewards or gifts as replacements for our time. After all, youngsters do tend to figure out life on their own, thanks to the Internet and to technology. But it is imperative for us to remember that the world that we live in today is markedly different from the one in which we grew up. It’s less friendly, morally unanchored and dangerously worrying. Our youngsters today have easier access to things that we did not, and they learn things sooner. So, sometimes, it is important that we stop in our tracks, discuss things with them as well as constantly reaffirm that we are around for them – something that a gadget or the latest fashion accessory can’t do.

A few steps to reconnect with our teens

It is undeniable that over the course of the past few decades, a parent’s role has changed drastically. But not all change is bad. Often, change simply means that, as parents, we need to look at ways to embrace and adopt it, so we can build and rebuild better relationships based on our understanding of the same.

With that in mind, here are a few tips we can use to connect/reconnect with our modern-day teenager:

  • Just be there: As clichéd as it sounds, the simple fact of being there physically is more helpful than all the gadgets and monetary benefits in the world. It doesn’t have to be an ‘always-in-your-face’ kind of presence, but just repeated subconscious reminders that we are there for them.

  • The art of negotiating and compromising: Adolescence is all about the art of give and take. It is extremely important that, as parents, we are able to find that balance of learning to let go, as well as hold on. This helps in establishing better communication channels as well as better trust between us and our teens.

  • Share a hobby: Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But it’s amazing how little time parents and teenagers spend together on an activity that they both love doing or a sport they enjoy. Of course, we need to let them be free and independent. But, at the same time, we need to find a hobby that we can both share and enjoy doing. It’s a great way to rebuild the relationship and have fun while doing so. And, what’s more, we may even get to learn more about their interests, likes, dislikes and much more.

  • Don’t be afraid to be led by them: As parents, we’re programmed to take the lead and show our children the way. However, a lot of the aggression during the teenage years stems from the fact that, very often, we try to force our decisions on our adolescents. Instead, we should allow them to teach us something for a change. It’s amazing the number of things youngsters excel in these days and they’re a powerhouse of information. This not only helps with better bonding, but also in building their mentoring and leadership skills.

  • Accept that some rules will be broken: Rules are important in every relationship, especially volatile ones like the ones between parents and adolescents. But it is also important that we learn to pick and choose our battles and relax. So, we need to accept that some of the rules we set for them will be broken.

Yes, we’re going to have to exert some tough love at times. But instead of feeling bad about it and trying to win them back with gifts and goods, perhaps it would be easier to make them understand early on that there is no entitlement programme in life. We have to help set realistic expectations that parents aren’t just an ATM machine that they can use to withdraw benefits, but are also life coaches who are realistically invested in their future. And, most of all, we should fulfil our promise to be around when they need us. That will definitely make a world of difference, both to them and to us.  

Sid Balachandran is a writer, stay-at-home dad to a feisty toddler and proprietor of