By Susan Parmelee
A newly independent nation’s struggle to differentiate from its former rulers and the challenges that teens face, as they practice the adult skills they need to liberate from their parents, are very similar. Just like a newly formed government, teens are trying to figure out who they are and where they fit in the world.
As parents, you have helped build a solid foundation through infancy, toddlerhood and the elementary-school years. Now comes the fine tuning and subtle guidance that can be very tricky to navigate, especially when many adolescents believe they already know far more than most adults. Whether we are parents of teens or community members, it is our role to foster independence while helping youth navigate the ups and downs of this phase of life.
Helping teens gain independence is a fine balance between healthy exploration and engaging in risk-taking behaviors with negative consequences. One of the most difficult aspects of parenting is allowing our children to make mistakes. We all learn from the natural consequences of our mistakes, and it is possible to let teens make mistakes while providing a safety net that helps them recover and learn from the fall.
A few things that I have learned from my own teens and from working with teens and their families:
Try to take an adolescent’s opinions and ideas seriously. Often, the idealism and passion are very refreshing. You may not agree with them, but you are a safe person to try these ideas out on. It sometimes is an opportune time to present other perspectives that you have encountered and to explain that different points of view are key to informed discussion.
Teens value their privacy and personal space. Many parents call me in dismay when their teen starts spending most of their time at home in their bedroom. If they are engaging with their social circle outside of school, showing up for family meals and participating in required family activities, this is very normal. The privacy of their bedrooms is the next step toward independent living.
Most teens want to be heard, not lectured. Try to value the moments that your teen engages you in their life. It often occurs when you are ready to climb into bed, so slap some cold water on your face and settle in for a chat. A teen may need to “think out loud” and look to you to listen and nod. Some helpful prompts may include: What are some of your options? What do you think a friend would say? How have you dealt with this in the past? What do you hope happens? Often your best response is silence—this almost always prompts a teen to keep speaking.
Finally, remember there are times an adolescent is practically begging for you to say “no.” So, go with your gut and say “no.” Clear and consistent family rules are a gift to your children. When your son or daughter walks in and asks to attend a weekend at a friend’s house in the desert with no adults attending, follow your family rules. Most likely your child was not comfortable with the idea themselves.
Susan Parmelee is a mental health social worker and one of the founders of the Wellness & Prevention Center, San Clemente. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.