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My husband is a nationalized bank employee and was posted out of Bangalore in 2010 when our son was a month short of 14. Relocating to my husband's place of work would mean dealing with innumerable problems including lack of good education facilities and the culture shock associated with staying in a tier II town. After considering all the factors, we decided that our son and I would continue at Bangalore.
Concerned relatives and friends told me horror stories of teenagers, especially boys, going astray when the father was not around to deal with them firmly. They also told me about the yelling matches they had with their teens which ended abruptly when the father stepped in. This set me thinking; can't mothers be firm? Why do we still associate discipline among adolescents with a father's authority? Is it because over the years, we women tend to succumb to pressure from our children sending out the message that we are easy game? This is true to some extent—mothers who have to put up with fractious kids for extended periods of time sometimes give way to avoid continuous conflict and the associated stress driving home the message that mom will yield if you 'keep-at-it-long-enough'.
Why should there be a need for authority, I wondered? Isn't a 14-year-old old enough to understand the difference between what is good for him and what is not? Even so, could we not talk things over amicably and arrive at a compromise, especially on matters concerning safety and health? Apparently not, as I found out to my cost.
• My son says he is hungry, but the hunger disappears mysteriously when presented with a wholesome south Indian meal, and reappears equally mysteriously when I suggest a takeaway/delivery. At such times, I have wondered if I should get him checked out for an eating disorder.
• He wants junk food everyday (preferably at every meal). I suggest that weekends are ideal for junk food as it would give me more time to prepare it. He is adamant that at least one meal a day should consist of yummy stuff (read junk).
• He decides to take my advice on physical exercise to heart and picks 9.30 pm as an appropriate time for a jog in the neighbourhood park (the lights go off at 9 pm). Also, he wants to take his house key, wallet, smartphone and headphones. I tell him this will attract the wrong kind of attention but he remains stubborn.
While I don't mind so much about occasionally giving way on the first two, the last one is difficult. Should I opt for a fit teen or an unfit but safe teen? I try in vain to convince him that 9.30 at night is not a safe time to go jogging, especially as the park is dark and deserted at that hour, and there have been a few incidents of people being held up for their valuables on lonely stretches surrounding the park. (At this point, I long for the safety of an apartment complex or a gated community). I am forced to involve my husband (I consider this a personal defeat) who calls my son on his mobile and speaks for all of two minutes. After the call, my son meekly removes his shoes and even eats the meal I have prepared without a squeak. And, I begin to wonder if all the clichés about adolescent boys needing a father's authority are, after all, true!
This is a small sample of the acrimonious battles that have been conspicuous by their repetition over the last three years. There are several others—the long hair battle, clean your room battle, study to a schedule battle, leave for school on time battle, pick up after yourself battle—which I have given up on. Over the last couple of years, I have become a big believer of the dictum, 'Choose your battles wisely'.
Escalating every small and big issue to my husband was something I wanted to avoid as this would send out the signal that I was not in control. An analysis of such incidents gave me some insight into how I should handle things to avert a phone call to my husband or prevent the discussion from deteriorating into a screaming match:
• Define a time: Set a fixed time for discussions; for instance, avoid entering into them in the morning rush hour when you are under stress. If your teen approaches you at this hour, tell them firmly that you would discuss it in the evening after you return from work. Emotions are easily triggered while under stress and dialogues fast degenerate into battles.
• Step out: If you are caught in a screaming match with your teen, withdraw from the argument with a "lets both of us take time to think about this and continue when we are feeling calmer" or an equivalent. Step out for a walk or get involved in some other activity as this will give you time to cool off and plan your response.
• Know your triggers: Know what sets you off; this is very important because, believe me, your teen knows what sets you off, even if you don't. Teens know how to gain control by pushing the right buttons to get you raving.
• Delay decisions: If your teen has sprung something unexpected on you, request them for some time to think about it. Consult your spouse, research and talk to other parents before deciding. Nothing irritates a teen more than a knee jerk reaction.
• Set limits: Let your teen know that there are clear boundaries about what is acceptable and what is not. This could include a 'curfew' for coming home or the kind of friends they hang out with. Explain the reasons for the boundaries, don't issue ultimatums, and be flexible in enforcing them.
This is, by no means, an exhaustive list; but has definitely made interactions with my son more positive and harmonious. And, a big bonus is that he is appreciative of my efforts to improve the quality of our interactions, which has made him more patient in trying to pierce the fog of my denseness when trying to get his viewpoint across!