As our children change, we parents have to too. We diligently track our children’s maturation, but forget that our children’s growth calls for compensatory adjustments to our parenting approach, as their principle partners and guides in development.
When we don’t evolve with our children, we impair their maturation by treating them as younger, less capable than they truly are, holding them back by our own wistful reluctance to see them grow up (and to see ourselves grow old, truth be told).
Nowhere is that more in evidence than in parenting teens, when we fall prey to one or two extreme mistakes:
1) We get too “hands on,” adopting a drill-sergeant severity to our oversight, getting ever more authoritarian, shrill or bombastic with our teens’ inevitable defiance. Our harsh rigidity only drives our teens into greater oppositionalism, lying and hostility;
2) We get too “hands off,” mistaking gratifying indulgence for love and disappointing restrictions for deprivation. We go into problem-avoidance mode when we sense trouble brewing, preferring to believe that whatever they “get into” they’ll “grow out of.” This passivity can be a grievous breed of neglect, enabling dangerous risk-taking activities to take root and flourish undetected.
-It truly is the case that “as the twig is bent, so grows the tree,” and there is more “tree-growing” in this phase than in any other period of life, save infancy.
How do we position ourselves differently as parents to optimize our teens’ growth and freedom while preserving their safety? We need to be BOTH steely firm AND elastically flexible. Why? We have to be strong enough to be defied and pushed against without collapsing, in our teens’ quest to define themselves as 180 degrees at odds with us. But we ALSO have to be flexible enough to adapt our approach to their behavior, to show them that, far from the arbitrary or tyrannical authority figures they like to think we are, we remain attuned to their growth. We show them we’re responsive enough to adjust our limits and privileges to reflect the maturity (or immaturity) of their judgment as evidenced in their choices and behaviors.
How to Achieve Steely Strength and Elastic Flexibility;
Five Shifts to Evolve with your Teen
1) Stay anchored in your own adult center of gravity when besieged by your teen’s storms. Try not to get yanked off balance from your essential equanimity. Parental agitation contaminates the very air teens breathe, as surely as germ-ridden sneezes infect passengers on air-tight airplane cabins. Of course, our teen’s communications are notoriously provocative; their capacity to “push our buttons” is masterful indeed. But when we reactively retaliate, we defeat ourselves by inciting further angry oppositionalism, which comes right back at us like boomerangs every time. Even when our words are deliberately restrained (“I am NOT angry), our emotional state of unspoken gritted-teeth tension trumps the content every time. Given a discrepancy between our words and our tone, our perceptive kids will discern the truth of the nonverbal over the verbal every time. We are far better heard and received when we speak out of a place of firm, clear calm. How do we do this? By developing a physiological dimmer switch on our tension level: by practicing deep-breathing and stress reduction techniques that we can call up during challenging encounters with our teens. Like the flight attendant’s oxygen mask instructions (to address your oxygen needs first so that you can attend to your child’s), we assure optimal outcome when we tend to our own distress state so that we can tend to theirs. (For systematic instructions, see parent-child-problems-doctor.org. “Deep Breathing and Visualization Stress-Reduction Techniques.”)
2) Make the emotional shift from angry reactivity to benign detachment, which you should be better equipped to do once you’ve reduced your “idling speed” through tension reduction techniques. In the face of their appalling provocations, it’s a challenge to not lash out back at them. But our teens “can dish it out but they can’t take it.” And our task as parents is to not dish it out AND not take it; i.e. be the grown-up, modeling reflective restraint. That may mean not engaging at all rather than participating in verbal sparring (e.g. “I really think talking now will get us nowhere; let’s plan to talk about this later when we’ve calmed down and have some distance.” Or “I need time to think about all this before I tell you where I am on all this. I’ll let you know when I’m ready to discuss it.” )
3) Make the cognitive shift of presuming your teen is competent rather than utterly inept. (I know that can feel like a stretch at times…) The more our teens mature, the more we parents have to get comfortable stepping back, refraining from functioning for them and letting them beaccountable for the consequences of their own choices. They cannot learn how to pull themselves up from a fall if they’re prevented from falling in the first place. And we cannot convey faith in their resources if we prevent them from using them by functioning for them. This is not to say we don’t remain available to advise and support them when stakes are high. But it is ONLY when we parents refrain from doing what teens are capable of doing themselves, that teens best cultivate their self-responsibility and innate competencies. Along with limit-setting, I maintain that our hardest parenting challenge is refraining from doing for our kids what they’re capable of doing for themselves.
4) Make the parenting-style shift from authoritarian to partnering consultant. Teens’ cognitive and moral development calls for their being actively included in establishing guidelines of behavior. Not only does engaging our teens in setting reasonable expectations promote “buy-in”so as to minimize their defiance, but it also enhances their resources, a la “teaching them how to fish rather than giving them the fish.” Irresistible as it is to bestow our gems of brilliant wisdom upon our disciples/offspring, we cultivate more nimble problem-solving capacities when we refrain from solving their dilemmas and instead, invite them to brainstorm about possibilities themselves. E.g. “wow,-yes that’s a tough one; hmmm: so tell me how have you thought about it so far…”
5) Shift how you relate to your teen: commit to weekly, agenda-free, non-interrogative fun one-on-one time with your teen. You cannot love your teen well if you don’t know your teen well; and by the way, your teen is changing at warp speed these days. You cannot know your teen in any meaningful and intimate way if your engagements are limited to fleeting task-related check-ins on homework/chores/extracurriculars/test-prep/ “how was school today” empty superficialities. Their eyes glaze over, fingers go to texting, and thoughts turn to swiftly fleeing from you and your “21 questions” unilateral assault. But if you spend weekly one on one time that is agenda-free, senseless, playful, devoid of interrogation, you will grow to know your teen far better than you do now. This is the single greatest loving act a parent can do. Teens may not admit it, but they feel deeply touched when we parents want to spend time with them just because we miss them, and want to know them better these days. Find a means that your child enjoys on a weekly basis for at least an hour. Take them on in a game of basketball (hilarious as that will be); go for a walk, go to NYC, go out for a meal, watch a program together, go to a movie or a sports event- whatever they have a hankering for—invite them to brainstorm ideas. Then dedicate your two greatest resources—your undivided self and time —and I promise you, these will yield the memories you cherish above all in the arc of your life as a parent. You will also both remember and discover why you love your insufferable teen, thereby replenishing the reservoir of good will, drained dry by discord. (For more, see blog parent-child-problems-doctor.org for post: “How Do We Love Our children Well: Step One…)) Even if your teen remains impenetrably hostile, and fends off your efforts to be with him or her in a personable and meaningful way, don’t give up. Limit your efforts to the most minimal slices of space and time-sharing you can arrange; watch their favorite program with them, learn about their taste in music, send them amusing clips from youtube or stumbled-upon. Any small attempt to engage teens in ways that amuse or relax them is an attempt to lovingly know them for who they really are, not for what and how they are performing. They’ll "get it" and feel “gotten,” which is to say, they’ll feel known and therefore loved, which is, after all, our highest goal.