The Young And Humilated

Teens think their parents do and say the most embarrassing things. But could it be that today's never-say-old parents are making the self-conscious years even harder?

March 25, 2001|By PETER JENSEN | PETER JENSEN,SUN STAFF

Friends Joanne Armstrong, Jessica Rambo and Margee Cronin have a lot in common.

They're all juniors at Notre Dame Preparatory School in Towson. They share the same homeroom, listen to a lot of the same music and watch many of the same TV programs.

And one more thing: They all find their parents soooo embarrassing.

"My dad doesn't do anything unless he knows it will get a reaction out of me," says Jessica, 16, of Towson.

Joanne, a 17-year-old Cockeysville resident, says her parents still show friends a video of her first bath with her father's breathless play-by-play narration.

Margee remembers the night her stepfather pretended to ballroom dance with an invisible partner in the middle of dinner at the Cheesecake Factory.

"And then he sat down right next to me," recalls the 17-year-old Ruxton resident. "Oh! My! God!"

To hear Joanne, Jessica and Margee talk about their parents, one can only assume that there has never been a more embarrassing time to be a teen.

The funny thing is, they may be right.

Brace yourselves for this bit of news, baby boomers: Teens say what distresses them most are your attempts to be cool, to act as though you're a teen yourself and think you're not as square as you remember your own parents.

Child development experts say teen embarrassment is rooted in the very nature of adolescence. By the middle-school years, teens develop a need to draw distinctions between themselves and their parents.

Parents who try to act like a peer or too strongly identify with teens actually make it harder for their kids, the experts warn. In other words, it's a lot easier for a teen to be a rebellious rock-and-roller when his parents are listening to Lawrence Welk.

"A teen's sense of identity is so superficial, so transient and so fragile they have to keep certain people at arm's length," says Dr. Michael A. Bogrov, a child psychiatrist at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital. "It's risky for a parent to try to overly identify with the adolescent."

For Jessica, the problem was never more in evidence than when she invited friends over recently. Her father pulled out a toy drum and started tapping out a tune - singing some improvised lyrics and dancing to try to amuse the group.

Naturally, Jessica was mortified.

"I don't know what possessed him," she says. "He tries to be cool. He tries so hard. It made me sooo mad."

Joanne sympathizes. Her father is in a weekend rock band, the Kahuna Brothers, that plays at local dances (albeit usually to the middle-aged crowd). He plays electric guitar - sometimes so loud that the floors vibrate.

Recently, when the family was driving across Florida, her father started singing loudly to a rock song on the radio - her favorite song. And he knew the lyrics!

"My God, Dad, you can't like this song," she remembers telling him. "You can't like it."

Experts in child behavior have long known that teen embarrassment is a normal part of childhood development - usually peaking in early to mid-adolescence, at about age 10 to 16. Parents recognize it as the moment their children stop idolizing them and start wanting to walk about three steps in front of them at the mall.

"Teens think everyone is looking at them and judging them," says Dr. Barbara Howard, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and specialist in child development. "That's because they're doing that to everyone else."

It can be a taxing time for a parent's ego. Dan Rambo, Jessica's father, confesses that he sort of gets a kick out of seeing his daughter get a little red-faced and sees it as a father-daughter moment that they can laugh about later.

"My parents never tried to be hip," admits Rambo, 47, an executive at a Towson furniture store. "I think her friends think I'm a cool guy, but she can't accept that idea because I'm her father."

Joanne's parents are equally puzzled by their daughter's embarrassment. They think she overreacts.

Still, Leticia Armstrong whispers that her husband, Bill, is probably oblivious to his daughter's embarrassment. He was, she notes, a talented musician at Dulaney High School (class of '74) with blond hair to his shoulders.

"All he has to say is, `We've got a gig coming up,' or `We have to jam,' and she's ready to die," she says. "I guess we're trying to preserve our youth a little. That's embarrassing."

New Yorkers Travis Goldman and Zack Elias were so frustrated by their parents' behavior they wrote a humor book about it, "How Not To Embarrass Your Kids" (Warner Books, $9.95). It includes such tips as "Don't change into a bathing suit on the beach," and "Don't ask the [clothing store] salesperson for something `cool.' "

"Every kid thinks their parents are the worst," says Goldman, 20, now a sophomore at Boston University.

When Goldman first started gathering the book's "250 Don'ts for Parents of Teens," four years ago, he had little trouble finding source material. Mostly, they were things his parents did - like the time they brought walkie-talkies to his high school's Parents Night.

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