THREE WAYS TO CHANGE YOUR PARENTING IN THE TEENAGE YEARS

  • 29 Jun - 05 Jul, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • PARENTING

YOUNG CHILDREN AND TEENAGERS HAVE VERY DIFFERENT NEEDS
Many teenagers tend to be either terribly disorganized, requiring constant nagging, or tightly wound, perfectionistic, and in need of constant therapy. There’s also all that new neuroscience showing, unfortunately, that the brain regions that help humans make wise choices don’t mature until kids are in their mid 20s, and that many potentially life-threatening risks become more appealing during adolescence while the normal fear of danger is temporarily suppressed. Knowing these things can make it hard for us parents to relax. For this to be the case, however, our parenting needs to shift. Here are the three big shifts that parents of teenagers need to make to survive their kids’ adolescence.

We step down as primary decision makers and step up our coaching
When our kids are little, we have to manage pretty much every aspect of their lives. We set bedtimes, plan meals, and make doctor’s appointments. We arrange carpools and make all major decisions: where they will go to school, if they will go to camp, and where we’ll go on vacation. And when our kids are little, for the most part, they appreciate having involved and loving parents. It’s great having someone else manage your calendar and get you to your activities (mostly) on time.

But once kids reach adolescence, they need to start managing their own lives, and they do tend to fire us as their managers. By adolescence, we parents need to (take a deep breath and) let them make their own decisions about their lives. It’s not that we never say no anymore. Nor do we stop enforcing our family rules. It’s that we start to involve teens more in creating the rules, and we let them make their own decisions – which they are going to do anyway.

Letting our kids become the primary decision makers does not mean that we become permissive, indulgent, or disengaged. It does mean that the quality – if not the quantity – of our support shifts. We give up our role as their chief of staff and become more like life coaches. We ask questions, and provide emotional support.

We influence them differently
It’d be great if we parents could just download information to our teens – say, about sex and drugs – and know that they were going to use that information to make good decisions.

But giving teenagers a lot of information isn’t an effective way to influence them anymore. Interesting research on this topic shows that what is effective for elementary school children – giving them information about their health or well-being that they can act on – tends to be mostly ineffective for teenagers.

This is because adolescents are much more sensitive to whether or not they are being treated with respect. The hormonal changes that come with puberty conspire with adolescent social dynamics to make teenagers much more attuned to social status. More specifically, they become super touchy about whether or not they are being treated as though they are high status.

When it’s time to bring up the topic you want to influence your teen about, speak as you would to someone with the highest possible social status – someone you really, really respect. (I have to literally imagine that person in my head, and then imagine both the tone and the words I would use with that person.) Remember, if your teen feels disrespected, nagged, spoken down to, pressed upon, or infantilized, all bets are off.

We have a lot of hard conversations
Remember what you used to talk about with your kids before they hit puberty? There are days when I’d give anything to just be able to talk again about favorite foods and favorite colors and the tooth fairy. It isn’t that every conversation was easy when they were young, but I rarely felt the kind of discomfort I now feel while talking to my kids about things like sex – or even their college applications. What starts as a casual conversation can quickly become an emotional minefield. It’s hard not to let our own agendas creep in. And it can be really hard to manage our own big feelings about things.

Talking with teenagers about their lives can be stressful. But teenagers today are dealing with some really hard stuff, and we parents need to create safe spaces for our teens to talk about the hard things.

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