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Educational psychologist Sonia López Iglesias: ‘During adolescence, parents build the relationship they’ll have with their adult children’

The Spanish teacher and author notes that parents tend to read up extensively on childbirth and the early years of their child’s life, but are entirely unprepared for the teenage period

education teenagers
There are teenagers who are afraid to grow up, who do not feel prepared to face all the changes they are experiencing.Javier Zayas (Getty Images)

Parents perceive and anticipate their children’s teenage years with dread. That’s because they’ve usually heard many negative things about teenagers, including stereotypes that cause incapacity and fear. “This happens because parents have not sufficiently prepared themselves to adequately respond to [their children’s] adolescence. There is a lack of preparation that causes them not to understand their children and to not properly support their needs,” explains Sonia López Iglesias, 47, a Spanish educational psychologist and high school teacher who has written a book on the subject, El privilegio de vivir con un adolescente (The Privilege of Living with a Teenager). In her book, published in Spain in April, Iglesias seeks to offer practical advice for a smooth coexistence with teenage children.

Question: Why do parents approach their children’s teenage years with such fear? Do they forget that they have already lived through that stage themselves?

Answer. Indeed, we forget that, not so long ago, we were teenagers too, and we were asking for exactly the same things that our children are asking for today, which is nothing more than freedom, autonomy and trust. This is a paradox. When my children [15 and 18 years old] became teenagers, I always remembered the nurse who was with me during the birth of my first child. I couldn’t stop crying and she, very seriously, told me: “This is nothing, wait until they’re teenagers.” It stuck with me.

Q. So, the fear isn’t unfounded? Do all parents feel that way?

A. Yes, because we have not prepared ourselves. When we get pregnant, we are obsessed and we devour books on childbirth and pregnancy, and we do it until our child is four years old. We absorb a lot of information, and we do that because we are interested in many issues, like knowing when they have to eat solid food or purees; when they should walk, when they should talk… And then we stop. We forget. And then we get to adolescence, and we haven’t read anything about it. This causes parents to react to adolescence, rather than coexist with it, because they don’t have the resources to support their children adequately.

Teacher and educational psychologist Sonia López Iglesias.
Teacher and educational psychologist Sonia López Iglesias.Destino

Q. If children are properly supported from a very young age, will it help them experience a better adolescence?

A. This is something that I always say in the talks I give. In order to properly support teenagers, we have to have properly supported them as small children. If I have created a bond of trust, a secure attachment, it will be much easier to continue supporting my child throughout his or her life, just as I did when he or she was two years old, four, eight... But it is also very important to know that if it has not been done correctly until now, it is never too late to change and start doing it.

Q. What is proper support?

A. It’s doing fundamental things like understanding why my child has difficulty managing frustration or why he or she is rebellious, or knowing whether or not he or she is interested in sharing what he or she feels with you. If parents understand these things, everything rebuilds quickly.

Q. Do parents experience adolescence as a mourning period, as a loss of their child, who now ignores them?

A. What happens is that both the teenager and the parents go through a mourning [process]. We all think that boys and girls are happy to be [teenagers]. On the one hand, that’s true, but they also go through the grief of leaving childhood [behind]’ they lose the privileges of [childhood]. Moreover, this grief is difficult because it generates many physical and personality changes. Parents also feel this void, as their children begin to take flight. If these grievances are not dealt with, the relationship becomes entrenched. Parents need to be aware of this. There are fathers and mothers who do not let their children grow up, who do not give them the freedom and autonomy they need. And there are teenagers who are afraid to grow up, who do not feel prepared to face all the changes they are experiencing.

Q. So, what’s the best way to move forward?

A. We have to accept that our children still need us a lot in adolescence, but in a different way. They need to take some distance and their peer group becomes their pillar because that’s where they build their new identity, where they feel good and understood. They seek to feel accepted and to share and understand what they are experiencing with their peers. It is necessary to give them adequate space, to accept that it is a phase and that there is an intimate space that has to be respected.

Q. What are some of the myths surrounding adolescence?

A. Everyone says that it is a turbulent, very complicated stage, and there’s the belief that you have to get through it quickly, as soon as possible. And that’s a mistake. The teenage years are right when I am creating the reasons for my children to want to come back after they leave the nest. This is the stage when I am building the relationship that I am going to have with them as adults. If they have felt that I have responded to their needs, when they leave home — which I think is a wonderful thing — they will want to come back.

Q. Does society treat teenagers well?

A. I have thought a lot about this. For example, if you were to publish an article in EL PAÍS tomorrow criticizing octogenarians, I’m sure there would be a huge outcry all over the country. But many articles are published that badmouth teenagers…and nothing happens because we have normalized [the fact] that we can criticize them. Do teenagers do many bad things? Of course they do. But they also do very good things. In the end, they are the future of our society. So, we have to take care of them and make them feel understood so that they will want to take the initiative, work, make an effort. Because a teenager who only hears that s/he is a disaster, that s/he does everything wrong, will not have any reason to persevere and work for what s/he wants. As a teacher and with my [own]children, I realize that there is free rein to speak ill of them.

Q. Do parents understand today’s teenagers?

A. Not at all, and they need to know how today’s society works, because the society in which we were teenagers no longer exists. Nowadays, society is very demanding; it goes too fast, and it is ultra-connected. And, in addition, we often don’t understand the needs of teenagers, which makes them feel that no one ever understands them.

Q. Discussing teenagers’ cellphone use always opens a Pandora’s box. People have very different opinions on the subject. What is your view on the matter?

A. We have clear rules at home about the use of cellphones. They aren’t used during meals or when the four of us are together. We have also established a time for turning it off, 10 p.m., and we have made it clear that when we are studying, we leave [the phone] outside. If you have worked and established some rules with them, it will be much easier for them to use the phone correctly. In addition, you have to explain to them all the dangers that exist on the internet, talk about the importance of not giving out personal information and not messing around with anyone on social media, among other things. In the end, it is based on education. Demonizing [cellphones] is absurd because the reality is that the cellphone is the lifeline that teenagers have with their peer group, with almost the [entire] world, I would say.

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