The 14-year-old complained bitterly that her mother still came into her room to tell her what to wear. The mother, advised to back off because of her own daughter's desire to make her own decisons was a healthy sign of growing up, stayed downstairs while her daughter dressed to go out. Suddenly the girl stormed into the kitchen, wailing that other mothers helped their daughters get ready for a party, why didn't hers.
Adolescence. A condition that baffles, exasperates and infuriates the most patient and loving of parents. Never mind that they were once teen-agers. That doesn't make the roller coaster ride of living with a teen any easier.
Parents of adolescents are apt to find that their once-affectionate son would rather embrace an armidillo than an adult. The bedroom of a formerly fastidous daughter has become a condemned area -- but at least the door is always shut because, she says, she needs "privacy." The boy who used to beg to rake the leaves now accuses his parents of child abuse when asked to remove his sweat socks from the coffee table.And the girl who clung to her mother during "Bambi" now huddles with her friends on the other side of the theater, as though her parents had contracted Legionmaire's disease.
The stage called adolescence -- from age 12 to 20 -- is the passage from childhood to adulthood.
"The major task is coming to grips with balancing dependence and independence," says Dr. Martha Cheschier, who teaches at Catholic University's School of Social Services and counsels teen-agers. "Children are trying to pull away, to separate from their parents."
The transition for some children can be very stormy, for others quite smooth. In any case, it's a period when many parents need support not only in guiding their offspring through those "difficult" years, but in surviving them.
Dr. John Meek, director of medical services for the new Psychiatric Institue of Montgomery County in Gaithersburg, and Judy Lansing, a psychiatric social worker in charge of the institute's community education program, offer just such a service through seminars for parents.
At their most recent session at St. Francis Episcopal Church in Potomac, Meeks assured some 100 mothers and fathers that despite the rebellion of adolescents, "the vast majority grow to be competent if somewhat flawed adults."
Meeks explained that teen-agers try to achieve independence in many ways -- by seeking less advice from adults, by making their own arrangements, by being away from home more often, by moving toward adult sexual expression.
They also try to modify their consciences . . . to develop rules" for themselves, Meeks said. The process of learning to think for themselves, rather than blindly accepting rules laid down by their parents as they did as young children, is part of the teen-ager's struggle to form a "coherent identity," he added.
But the striving for maturity can be frightening for the teen who knows he or she one day must stand on his or her own two feet. The upshot can be that while breaking away, he or she leans on his or her parents more than ever.
"Adolescence stirs up more dependency than any other age except among the very old," Meeks said. Furthermore, there is "a normal regression (such as messy rooms, poor grades or sullenness) . . . that is preparation for progression."
The balancing act can cause conflict and anger in the teen-ager, like the girl who rejected, yet wanted, her mother's advice on clothes.
It can also set off intense, circulararguments that exsasperate parents but are the child's way of asserting his or her individuality and testing new skills in abstract thinking, Meeks said.
The gradual separation from parents means that friends take on new importance among teens. Adolescents feel more comfortable among their peers as "parents are reminders of the law, even in innocence," Meeks explained, "setting off the kids' guilt" over their aggressiveness and sexuality.
"Death occurs if (teen-agers) are separated for 10 minutes," Meeks said, because teens often seek more affection from friends than family during adolescence.
"I was born in Europe and raised in a foreign culture, so it's hard to know exactly what standards to set for my daughter," said a woman at the seminar. An American mother said quietly that when it came to her teen-agers, "I feel like I was raised in a foreign culture, too."
In the discussion group at St. Francis, many parents (who asked that their names not be used) seemed relieved by Meeks' advice that they hold firm in maintaining discipline and standards for their kids.
"Adolescents can create self-doubts in us," said one parent, adding that it was "refreshing" to hear that limits are not only all right, but necessary.
Despite reassurances, parents expressed anxiety over what their children do away from home and how to control them.
"The peer pressure is tremendous," one mother said. "It's hard to be a straight teen-ager" and hard for parents to help kids resist the pressures.
Specialists sympathize. "As the (extended) family fabric weakens, kids are thrust more into peer groups," says Chescheir . "It can be very frightening."
The pressures on adolescents, which can translate into anxiety among parents, especially regarding sex and the use of drugs and alcohol, are intense and even dangerous, according to Georgetown University's Dr. Robert Dupont who is the former head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
"The antidote is for parents to take the ultimate responsibility for their kids -- where they and what they're doing," he says. But after age 18, the teen can and should set his or her own limits, he added.
Lansing of the Psychiatric Institute agrees that parents must "live their values" and stick to their guns in enforcing standards. "There are no easy answers because parenting is risky," she said. "But don't give up."
The parents had some of their own views on handling teens. "You must be willing to listen, to be a sounding board, since just being the authority, the boss, doesn't have as much weight."
One parent urged that adolescent problems be kept in perspective. Not all thoughtless or rowdy behavior among adolescents is rooted in grave social ills such as higher divorce rates, ethnic differences, or fewer good role models, he said. "Sometimes it's just bloody-minded frivolity."
For more information on the community education programs of the Psychiatric Institute of Montgomery County, call 251-4500. Seminars held at St. Francis Church are offered from time to time free of charge.