Question: What are some tips on parenting teenagers?
Answer: Perhaps the only thing more difficult than being a teenager is parenting one.
While hormones, the struggle for independence, peer pressure, and an emerging identity wreak havoc in the soul of the adolescent, issues of how much autonomy to grant, how much "attitude" to take, what kind of discipline is effective, which issues are worth fighting about, and how to talk to offspring-turned-alien challenge parental creativity, patience, and courage.
If adolescence can be conceptualized as a journey from childhood to adulthood, parenting adolescents can also be thought of as a journey.
To guide a child to adulthood, to ingrain values, to help negotiate social relationships, and to see new ideas, ideals, goals, and independence emerge in a child can be the adventure of a lifetime. Like any adventure, the thrill is in the journey.
Challenges conquered sweeten success, and while failure is in part unavoidable, no one can know how the balance of success and failure measures out until the journey is complete. As long as the journey continues, there is hope: a chance to turn failures into success, weaknesses to strengths.
Like any adventure, the challenges are unique to each traveler. Even the same parent will experience different challenges as each child is guided through adolescence. Because each journey is unique, there is no way to smooth all the bumps, anticipate all the challenges, or detonate all the land mines beforehand. However, there are aspects of the journey that appear to be universal.
Although teenagers will make their own choices, a good home life can increase the odds that kids will avoid many of the pitfalls of adolescence. Particularly, a kind, warm, solid relationship with parents who demonstrate respect for their children, an interest in their children's activities, and set firm boundaries for those activities may directly or indirectly deter criminal activity, illegal drug and alcohol use, negative peer pressure, delinquency, sexual promiscuity, and low self-esteem.
There is not only growing consensus that some parenting techniques are better than others, but also contribute to the development of emotional stability and social responsibility in children.
There are three major areas that are crucial to the parent-adolescent relationship – connection, monitoring, and psychological autonomy.
- A sense of connection between a teenager and parent provides a backdrop against which all other interaction takes place. If the parent-child connection is consistent, positive, and characterized by warmth, kindness, love, and stability, children are more likely to flourish socially. Adolescents who describe their relationship with their parents as warm, kind, and consistent are more likely to initiate social interaction with other adolescents and with other adults. They are more likely to respond to others positively and with greater empathy. They are more likely to be self-confident in their relationships with others, and to be more cooperative with others. Also, teens with these kinds of positive relationships with their parents on the whole struggle less with depression, and have higher self-esteem. Relationships characterized by kindness and devoid of unkind words or acts appear to be important to healthy adolescent development.
- The Monitoring Process is crucial to successful parenting. Teenagers who report that their parents take a genuine interest in their activities are more likely to avoid trouble. Teens whose parents know who their friends are and what they do in their free time are less likely to get into trouble than their peers. In the context of a warm, kind relationship, parental monitoring of teen activities comes across as caring rather than intrusive. Teenagers whose parents monitor them are more likely to avoid activities like lying, cheating, stealing, and using alcohol and illegal drugs. Parental monitoring of adolescent behavior inhibits not only the opportunity for delinquent activity, but negative peer pressure to be involved in such activity as well.
- Parental encouragement of psychological autonomy development. Psychological autonomy is nurtured in children when parents genuinely respect their teen's ideas, even when the ideas are contrary to their own.
Encouraging independent thinking and the expression of original ideas and beliefs, validating feelings, and expressing unconditional love are ways to nurture psychological autonomy. The opposite of psychological autonomy is psychological control, which is characterized by changing the subject, making personal attacks, withdrawing love, or inducing guilt to constrain intellectual, emotional, or psychological expression by the adolescent that is incongruent with the parent's way of thinking. Adolescents who report that their parents are likely to use techniques associated with psychological control are more apt to struggle with depression and to exhibit anti-social behavior.
The combination of connection, monitoring, and psychological autonomy may sound simple, but the simplicity of the directions can be frustrating to navigators when they are lost. Translating general ideas into specific behaviors, and then into patterns of interaction can be a challenge, especially if one or both parties are already entrenched in less productive patterns of interaction. The task of establishing a warm, caring, positive, relationship characterized by kindness with a teenager whose favourite phrases are "you just don't understand" and "leave me alone" can be daunting.
While it is true that one of the main developmental tasks of adolescence is to separate from parents, and that peer influence takes on greater and greater importance during teen years, there is still no substitute for the parent-teen relationship.
It is important to spend time with teenagers.
Parents who wish to enhance their connection with their teenager often find that choosing leisure activities wisely can do much to further the cause. In addition to the opportunity to spend time together amiably, engaging teenagers in fun activities that foster sportsmanship, service, creativity, intellectual development, etiquette, honesty, and respect for each other brings all of those aspects into the parent-child relationship, providing an enjoyable forum for both teenagers and parents to practice those skills with one another.
Engaging in recreational activities with teenagers is a way to connect regularly in a pleasant setting. Regular, positive interaction is crucial if discipline is to be effective. When the parent/child relationship is built on a foundation of warmth and kindness, it can withstand the unpleasantness of discipline. Parties to relationships void of such a foundation often either disengage or become conflicted in the face of the uncomfortable consequences imposed by discipline.
Spending leisure time together also gives parents a leg-up on the monitoring process. First, it cuts down on the amount of free time kids spend without supervision. Second, discussions about friends and other leisure activities tend to come up easily, and can be discussed in a relaxed atmosphere. Often, parents get a chance to know their teenager's friends through recreational activities, either by attending school or team performances in which their child is involved with friends, or by allowing a child to invite a friend along on a family outing.
Perhaps the most difficult thing about the monitoring process is that it is a delicate balance between too much and too little, and it requires the energy to set firm limits when it would just be easier to let things slide. It requires continued vigilance on the part of parents to ensure that they know where children are and what they are doing. It also requires that parents enforce consequences when family rules are broken. Although discipline is genuinely unpleasant for all involved, attention to monitoring activities and providing consequences for inappropriate behavior on a daily basis will alleviate major heartache later.
Parents should remember that the prime directive of adolescence ("independence or bust") prohibits teenagers from admitting that having parents set firm boundaries is actually reassuring.
Adolescence is a time of change and upheaval.
Family rules and boundaries can provide a sense of stability to teens that are struggling to decipher relationships, roles, and even their own personalities. Although they may protest loudly against being required to live up to certain standards, when they have a hand in crafting those standards, and when those standards are demanding but fair, teenagers will flourish. Having something steady, firm, and predictable in a head-spinning world is like being handed a map, with NORTH plainly marked. Clear boundaries and standards are the gauge by which all other information is measured.
Disciplining teenagers is difficult, but it is critical if teens are to learn that their behavior has consequences.
Engaging children in the process of setting the rules can eliminate some of the odiousness of enforcing rules and assigning consequences before the rules are broken.
When parents include teenagers in establishing clear rules about appropriate behavior and consequences, the arguments over rules and punishment can be brought to an end. Children can no longer claim that punishments or expectations are unfair, and parents can take on the role of calmly enforcing the pre-arranged consequences instead of having to impress upon the child the seriousness of the problem and scramble to find an appropriate punishment.
The temptation to react emotionally when children break rules is alleviated because a breach of the rules is no longer perceived as an assault on parental authority, since it is by the authority of the family, not the authority of the parents, that the rules were established. Helping to set the rules may not dissuade teenagers from breaking them sometimes, but it can help parents to avoid a power struggle with their teenagers.
Another big trap in parent-teen relationships is the confusion of psychological control (the opposite of psychological autonomy) with discipline. Demanding a certain level of behavior of children does not exclude allowing, or even encouraging them to think and express opinions different than one's own.
Too many parents get caught up in focusing on controlling their child, believing that controlling the way their child thinks will translate into controlling what their child does. By using guilt, withdrawing love, or invalidating feelings or beliefs, the parent hopes to make the child see things the parent's way, ensuring compliance with parental expectations.
There is a fine line here; one of the roles of parents is to help children make sense of the world by offering explanations or interpretations of events. It is when these parental offerings take on the tone of exclusiveness – when parents cannot respectfully consider and discuss a teenager's interpretation of his or her own experience – that psychological control has taken over.
Parents should also be aware that it is the teenager's perspective on the forcefulness of the suggestion that counts. Psychological control is damaging if the teenager, regardless of parental intention, perceives it as excessive. While a parent may feel that a discussion has taken on the tone of a healthy debate, to a teenager the same interchange can feel absolutely crushing.
Interestingly, boys are more likely to report that their parents squelch their psychological autonomy than are girls. Whether this is a difference in the way parents actually relate to teenage boys versus teenage girls, or whether it is a difference in perception of boys versus girls is unclear.
When discipline becomes a matter of calmly enforcing family rules about behavior, many of the problems associated with psychological control are alleviated.
When children have a problem with delinquency, parents generally tend to respond to it with less behavioral control, and more psychological control as time goes by. This appears to set up a vicious cycle, as teenagers respond to both lack of monitoring and the presence of psychological control by acting out or becoming more delinquent.
If parents can break this cycle by treating delinquent behavior with increased monitoring rather than attempting to control it by inducing guilt, withdrawing love, or other means of psychological control, teenagers are more likely to respond with better behavior.
In short, parents who concentrate on trying to control their child's behavior rather than trying to control their child are going to have much more success and a lot less grief.
Parents, who expect that children will sometimes act in ways that are inappropriate or undesirable, but prepare for such behavior by involving their children in the formulation of rules and consequences, may discover that the joy is in the journey, and heaven is found along the way.
Parents would do well to concentrate on a three-pronged approach to managing the journey.
First, a positive relationship with their child is essential to success. When parent-child interactions are characterized by warmth, kindness, consistency, respect, and love, the relationship will flourish, as will self-esteem, mental health, spirituality, and social skills.
Second, being genuinely interested in children's activities allows parents to monitor behavior, which is crucial in keeping teens out of trouble. When misbehavior does occur, parents who have involved their children in setting family rules and consequences can expect less flack from their children as they calmly enforce the rules. Parents who, together with their children, set firm boundaries and high expectations may find that their children's abilities to live up to those expectations grow.
Third, parents who encourage independent thought and expression in their children may find that they are raising children who have a healthy sense of self and an enhanced ability to resist peer pressure.
Parents who give their teenagers their love, time, boundaries, and encouragement to think for themselves may find that they actually enjoy their children's adventure through adolescence.
As they watch their sons and daughters grow in independence, make decisions, and develop into young adults, they may find that the child they have reared is, like the breathtaking view of the newborn they held for the first time, even better than they could have imagined.