Parenting through the teen years, now that’s an interesting adventure! How does a parent make sense of the unpredictable swings in emotions and behavior and deal with all the crazy?!
Here’s a typical look at my life. This picture from a couple years ago is of my middle son, youngest daughter holding our grandson, and my oldest daughter sitting by her husband. My life is full of lots of ages and life stages all at once and I’ve traversed the hills and valleys of the teenage years many times over.
The most frequent questions I receive from parents are regarding the teen years. That’s no surprise because this stage can be a bit scary for parents. Adolescence marks the beginning of the important God-given process of a child becoming their own unique, independent adult. And we do want to raise capable, independent adults, right? So, we might as well just embrace this transition time! If only it were SIMPLE to embrace it, celebrate it, and hang on for the wild ride. But, for many parents and teens, as with any other NEW adventure in life- it’s usually riddled with mistakes – by both the teen and the parent. Mistakes are often misinterpreted, and feelings become strong as the clashes increase and wounds grow. Parenting mistakes are one thing I really am an expert at. I’ve made plenty, but I’ve also learned from each one.
If I had to narrow down my advice for Intentional PARENTS of TEENAGERS, I’d say:
1. LISTEN MUCH BUT REACT LITTLE. ASK MORE QUESTIONS before you LEAP into a lecture or a rant or even just an assumption. When you start to feel frustrated, stop and remind yourself that if you come across as being emotional, your teen will NOT hear you and the issue will likely escalate. Boy, have I learned that lesson the hard way – about six hundred times. (Hey, cut me some slack, I’m raising my 6th teenager right now, so that’s really only an average of about a hundred times per teen that I’ve made this specific mistake). Many times I’ve regretted making an assumption about a behavior or attitude in my emerging adult. Often, in the end, I’ve found they were thinking COMPLETELY different than what their actions seemed to be saying. So, try to see past the action of your teen to their heart and thoughts to get to the root of the issue. And you can only get to the heart of your teen if you have bypassed becoming emotional. Nothing shuts teens down faster than a parent with emotions. It’s not fair, but it is reality.
The other day I was frustrated as I felt my son was sleeping really late. Yes, it was summer, but I knew he had many pressing responsibilities that needed his attention. Several times I thought about going up and waking him and fussing at him, but I didn’t do it. When he finally came down stairs from his room, the first thing he said was, “Boy, my allergies were terrible last night so I took a Benadryl and it knocked me out. I could not get up this morning.” I was so glad I hadn’t gone up all emotional and full of lectures. I should have known that this wasn’t characteristic of him, so I needed to collect more information before passing judgement.
2. SHOW RESPECT TO YOUR TEEN. A teen really calms down when they get the sense that you’re not trying to “catch” them in wrong doing but that you VALUE their opinions, ideas, solutions, etc. Seek their expertise on things, and you will be pleasantly surprised by the “protective walls” that start coming down that your teen may have built between the two of you. Let your soon-to-be adult hear you recounting times in the past when you’ve seen them make a quality decision or overcome a difficult situation. Remind them, and yourself, that you are hopeful in their ability to handle the difficulties of life. They’re wrestling with a lot of self-doubt right now, wondering if they have what it takes to be an adult in this world. You must speak some truth into their worries. A caution, though: Your teen will see right through your words if you’re not being sincere or if you’re in the habit of “buttering them up.” Make sure your words are always based on truth. Otherwise, they’ll lose respect in your words and that means your relationship will lose too.
3. A STRONG BACKBONE and SOFT HEART is the BEST COMBO for a Parent of a Teen. Have a STRONG BACKBONE about your family rules. They don’t have to like or agree with the rules, but they do have to live by them. However, you also don’t have to be cold-hearted while enforcing them. Be soft in your attitude, not soft in the rules. Don’t be afraid of giving consequences. In fact, consequences with a gentle spirit can be a bonding experience. I know that must seem hard to believe, but it’s true. I’ve done it wrong many times – having a strong backbone with a cold heart or a soft heart and soft rules – and teens just don’t respect either of those parent-styles. If you’ve made the boundaries clear in the past and they cross the line, then you want to take the approach of, “Son, the last thing I WANT to do right now is to enforce a consequence about this boundary because I really do prefer your happiness, but God gave me the job of being the discipline when you aren’t having self-discipline, so I really have no choice but to follow through even though I don’t want to. As parents we have determined that this is a necessary boundary so when it’s crossed, results have to follow.
So here’s the consequence for this time… “ A SOFT HEART preserves the relationship and is necessary to see passed their temporarily rough exterior to the masterpiece that lies beneath, the masterpiece that might be currently hidden behind some walls of insecurity, confusion, testing, and searching. God designed them with hidden talents and complex thoughts that the world needs. One of your roles as parent is to help them trudge through the muck and confusion and to seek out God’s design in them. A STRONG BACKBONE and SOFT HEART is a challenging combination for parents to attain, but the Intentional Parent of TEENS will be so glad to have made the effort to acquire the parental characteristics that teenagers need during this monumental life transition.
A side note, here: make sure your boundaries and expectations are clear. For example, write them out and have you both sign them, then the paper gets to “be the bad guy” in the future instead of you, leaving you free to have a compassionate tone when the consequences must follow. Another favorite of mine is to leave a sticky note or text or email reminder instead of my mouth being used for nagging. Just a few days ago I emailed my college-age son (who was in the next room as he’s home for the summer) a list of paperwork-type stuff that he needed to be working on, such as filling out a HIPAA , FERPA, POA, searching for the best deal on a plane ticket, changing banks – you know, all those adulting things that no one enjoys doing and that teenagers tend to think, “Oh, I’ve got plenty of time; I”ll do it at the last minute and everything will go fine.” I told him in the email, “please give me an update on how these are coming so I won’t worry. You can give the update verbally or just reply to this email.” After he read it, he said, “Hey, Mom, thanks for that list. It’s really helpful.” I could have said all those items to him in person and his eyes would have glazed over or he would have felt attacked, but I chose to reserve my verbal interactions with him to be positive as much as possible, so I found a different way to remind him and he actually appreciated it! (Que singing angels, here, for it felt like a miracle).
Yes, the metamorphosis of your teen becoming an adult is a monumental process and it comes with lots of “trying to figure it out” for both teen and parent. It’s not going to go perfectly but no great accomplishment ever came about without effort and obstacles. Do your best to maintain an atmosphere in your relationship of grace and trust and listening and respect and firm boundaries while you lead them in seeking God’s design in each step of the journey.
While it is certain that you and your teen are bound to have some skirmishes, offenses, misunderstandings, and regrets, your relationship with each other can emerge strong and deep on the other side and your teen will reach adulthood knowing that they have a parent they can trust with future obstacles as well. Hang in there, my parent friend!
This is a picture of my four favorite Christian parenting books about the teen years. I’m a firm believer in reading multiple books about each stage of our children’s lives because no one author is going to have a perfect perspective on parenting every child. Prayerfully read the differing ideas and ask God to direct you to the solutions that will be best for your child.
Post Script: Raising our children to adulthood and getting a front row seat at the passages of their life is a tremendous privilege. I have so much more I want to share on this topic of parenting teens, such as how to gradually turn over the reigns and what boundaries should and shouldn’t remain during high school and beyond, but I really wanted to keep this to the top three things parents can quickly change to foster a strong relationship during the teen transition to adulthood. I’d love to hear your questions so that I can do a follow up post on this topic with issues that are relevant to your needs. I’m looking forward to hearing from you!