Our eldest is a young teenager now and prone to sulk and grouch moods, and to picking on his younger siblings. I respect his need to work things out and be himself but he is also negatively affecting our family life and home. How do we balance his need for space and freedom and ours?
It is often confusing for parents and siblings when the oldest child becomes a teenager. Someone who has been a happy family member who enjoys spending time with parents and younger siblings can turn into a miserable, grouchy individual who only feels alive when he’s with his same-age friends, and resents any intrusions by family members. Unfortunately, this is normal! In just a few years, your son will have to leave home and make his way in the adult world, and nature is preparing him for this separation as well as for the new challenges he’ll have to face. Physically, a combination of hormones and brain development propel the young teen into the world outside the home, where he must develop a successful identity, a career, and an ability to handle peer relationships including those with the opposite sex. I have vivid memories of a family holiday when I was fifteen, when I spent all the travelling time sulking because I had to be with these “old people” (my parents) and these “brats” (my four younger siblings) when I wanted to be with “real people” (teenagers, of course.) I also remember hours spent sitting on the garage roof writing in my journal, trying to figure out who I was and what I was going through as my emotions reacted to so many things. My parents didn’t understand at all, as I was the first of their children to go through this change.
It really helps if the family can ease your son’s way, by understanding what he is going through and asking others to respect his space and his new desires. Your phrases “his need to work things out and be himself” and “his need for space and freedom” are key.
Those are exactly what he needs. So give him space. He should definitely have his own room, if he doesn’t already, and it should be his private space into which other family members don’t intrude without permission. Similarly, he is old enough that his time should be his own. He should determine his own bedtime, and (within limits) when he does his homework, goes out, listens to music, or plays computer games.
Often other family members trigger a teen’s grouchiness by trying to get him to relate to them in the old ways. It is hard on younger children when older siblings reach their teens, and reject their company in favour of the company of teenage friends. They “bug” and “bug” their older siblings until the older ones react, and this is often when the parent steps in and comes down hard on the older one. You need to emphasize to the younger ones that their older brother needs his space and privacy, and that they are not to enter his room without asking, or if he says no, and are not to interrupt him when he is obviously busy or with his friends. You may suggest to your teen that he tell the younger ones when he will be available to do things with them, so they do not feel the pressure to keep asking or “bugging” him. If there are conflicts, observe the interactions carefully so that you see what goes on before your teen reacts; it may not be just his fault. Don’t play judge, but instead teach all the children that they can retreat to the privacy of their rooms if someone is upsetting them. Help the younger children develop peer networks of their own, and interests they can pursue by themselves, rather than depending on their older brother for entertainment and company.
You should maintain some family activities, which may have to be different, as they have to interest people at very different stages of development. Some that have worked for me are hiking, and board games which depend more on luck than on skill, so that the younger ones don’t always lose. My best advice for the general grouchiness and sulkiness is to ignore it. Speak pleasantly to your son and don’t let his mood affect your own. As long as no one is not getting hit, and the language is not too foul, don’t make a big deal about it. Allow your son the space he needs. Make a few basic rules and then “don’t sweat the small stuff.” The rules should emphasize personal boundaries which are not to be violated – by intrusions, bugging, nagging, putdowns, or physical combat.
Try to find opportunities to be available for your son to talk about the things that bother him. It won’t work to sit him down and ask him. But it will work to be beside him in the car on the way to school or to hockey practice, or to be in the same room as him doing a different activity. Teenagers prefer to talk when they aren’t face to face. Then just listen. If he talks about his interest, such as music, listen and try to learn from him about the world he lives in. This will maintain your relationship through the rocky years. And as your son becomes more secure about being a teenager and surviving in the teenage world, he will gradually become more pleasant at home.