Last time I wrote a bit about how challenging it seems to be a teen in Happy Days, Freaks and Geeks and True Life. These challenges also bring some wrinkles (a.k.a. the temptation to whack your head or someone else’s) to parenting. It can be helpful to re-frame this phase of development where the learning curve is steep, the terrain is rocky and riddled with unexpected twists, crevasses, vistas and bumps. There’s a lot of maturating struggling to unfold as tweens are driving toward independence as they prepare for full independence.
I see many similarities between this phase in life and toddler life. This realization brings some much-needed levity into the picture and often occupies my mind while I bite my tongue. Here’s part one of a series on teens, toddlerhood and navigating the road to independence together.
Teens are pushing boundaries and testing the water to see where and what they can control. They are looking for the gray areas in which they can explore. They need just enough leeway while you’re still playing gatekeeper to test the waters. It can be tempting to let conflicts escalate or to surrender your parental power rather than to truly listen, collaborate, compromise or to stand your ground. They’ve got to learn how to follow the rules, what level of risk they are comfortable with and more importantly, how to make solid choices, live with the consequences, and fix problems. When they see there are times they allowed to make choices and share power, they learn the real give-and-take of respectful, caring relationships. They need to know they are loved and cared for, but yet, we are still the parents.
There will be times teens naturally strive to exert their autonomy, just as they did when they were learning to interact with their environment. I remember the temptation to scoop up my toddler when she tumbled and how held my breath just long enough to give her time to stand up on her own let both of us feel more confident. No cooing and coddling allowed on my part. She learned that every scratch doesn’t mean a river of blood, but when she was really hurt, we were there.
As teens, kids may be managing a month’s worth of lunch money, coordinating schedules and driving habits, juggling work, school, friends and occasionally, some household chores. They need to learn to assert themselves to talk to a teacher when assignments are unclear or they feel an assignment was unfairly graded or to speak up respectfully when they see injustice. Maybe they need to practice this at home with you, but it needs to be their work and words in real-time. Just like with toddler, no coddling, just coaching.
Often teens simply get sucked into the drama of the life or death matters than come with this age. You know what I mean – the teacher that dropped a pop quiz (“it was actually totally unfair!“), the squabbles over social dynamics, the exhaustion that means the lawn CANNOT be cut after school today. These are the times when less is more strategy should be employed. Simple discussion (“It’s your job to cut the lawn on Thursdays.”) and move on. Let kids see that conflicts and problems arise and can be solved sans the drama and discussion.
There’s a lot of power in making choices. There is also a lot of power in waiting, which is especially hard on the teen brain, as sitting with uncomfortable or negative emotions is tough on all of us. It’s human nature to fix problems, avoid or suppress uncomfortable feelings, but usually when we sit with these feelings, the intensity diminishes and/or we find the strength to forge ahead more clearly and with less reactivity. Model this yourself and let your child see what happens when they have to feel a bit uncomfortable. Chances are, they’ll figure it out. Or they’ll come to you with a clear-er idea of why or how they need help.
Forge Ahead on a Slightly Different Path:
Teens need to – and will – mess up. Let them. Allow them to take safe risks and learn from fruitful mistakes. While the rest of their life may be in flux, keep things as consistent as possible at home. Chores, routines, conversations – the details may shift, but keep the framework steady. Set clear boundaries and expectations so that you can turn over the reigns and let them ride their own horse. Corral them when need be, but let them ride away on their own a bit. And keep talking to them – inviting them to talk when they are ready, without interrogation or judgement. Let them know you view them as capable and learning to make independent choices, but you’re here to help them think things through.
I love it when my 14 year-old does his own wash and sometimes, even other people’s wash. It’s never folded the way I’d fold it, but it’s done . He did it, not me. I have to do the hard work of holding back on commenting, so we can forge ahead. Whether our urge is to fight like mama bear when a paper is graded “unfairly” or the OCD in you wants to re-fold all those pesky sheets, sometimes there’s a lot more to be gained by turning over the power and autonomy to your teens so we can all grow.
P.S. I admit that when the sheets are really messed up, I might just secretly re-fold them once he’s off to school…