Understanding your teenager is not an easy task.
Most people would agree that the teenage years are the hardest for a parent. After all, up until now, you’ve been the manager of your child’s life. Picking out clothes for them, buying the food that they eat (and cooking it for them), driving them around, and keeping them away from places, people, or ideas that you feel might be harmful to them.
Now that they’re a teenager, no more training wheels!
Now they’re free to make mistakes, free to fail, fall, and get back up again.
Scary, isn’t it?
It’s scary to think that this person who you’ve taken care of, watched and fretted over will be on their own to make decisions. Decisions that don’t involve you. A lot of parents have a hard time letting go of the control they have over their children’s lives for that reason: they’re scared of what might happen.
The older your child gets, the more autonomy they’re going to want, and in fact, need. A need that you can only supply by…letting go. Opening the doors and watching them walk their own path can be really painful (or maybe not), depending on the kind of parent you are.
But for a lot of parents, it is really, really hard.
Now that they’re teenagers, that need for independence is only going to get bigger, and the amount of control you have over the decisions they make is going to disappear.
Let’s face it: you’re not always going to like these decisions.
Up until now, you’ve been a primary source of information for them about life, the universe, and everything. The views you hold about the world have also been your child’s views. As their independence grows, that’s going to change, and you’re going to have to allow them to be autonomous of mind and critical thought.
Your teenager is in a unique position. S/he is growing up in a world that gives them nearly unlimited access to the sum of all human knowledge, instantly. A good deal of that will be pictures of cats (thanks internet).
But what about the other stuff? What if they bring home political or religious views that you don’t agree with? Or friends you don’t like?
When you give them freedom to do new things, they’re going to end up doing things that you personally wouldn’t choose to do. It is imperative that you understand why you find these things unacceptable… And also tell your kids why you find them unacceptable, in a way that’s respectful of their ability to think and make determinations for themselves. And honestly, unless they are disrespectful, hurting other people, or sabotaging themselves, the ability of your child to critically think, make decisions, and have well-formed ideas, is something you should value. Otherwise, your life will probably become a little rough. You’re going to stop having a relationship with your teen, and start dealing with your teen.
At a time in their life where they are screaming to be recognized as a person—and individual with a mind and opinions and views that are entirely their own—it’s inevitable that you’re going to occasionally see them as a problem. As something, not someone, to be dealt with.
And that’s the road to ruin!
There are a couple of paths that parents go down when they figure out their teen is making choices they don’t like. The first is the authoritarian path.
They’re going to try and use their authority as parents to make decisions that they think their child should be making. As we all know, when you try ordering your kid around, they’re going to ask for reasons.
And when you don’t give your kids good reasons (or any), that’s when they start acting out and becoming rebellious. Maybe they’ll do something dangerous that they wouldn’t have done otherwise, just to prove a point. They no longer see you as partners in navigating their life and developing life-skills, they instead see you as a hindrance.
Take a deep breath, and read this to yourself slowly: The truth is you can’t prevent them from making bad decisions, by controlling their lives.
If you try, your teenager is going to go behind your back. They will learn to evade you.
Any kind of control you try to use will be met with resistance. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t assert your authority in important matters. What it means is that the more petty you become about controlling your child, the more your child will resist you. Eventually your teenager will shut you out… and understanding a teenager who doesn’t want to talk to you is anything but easy.
If you’ve already taken steps down the path of Authority, it’s not too late to loosen your grip and step back. The biggest realization for most parents, is when they understand that dealing with your teenager is really about dealing with your own fears and emotions.
You can’t prevent them from doing things that are self-destructive if you don’t give them the freedom, the choice, to do those things. Give them the freedom to make their own mistakes and learn from them. Teach them how to manage their life through conversations and give them good reason to act in their best self interest, which in turn helps you feel more comfortable with their choices. This is the biggest learning curve of their lives! After they leave the house, it is imperative that your teen is able to cope in a world of young adult choices. Hanging a big “Don’t do this!” over something you don’t approve of is like waving a red flag in front of a bull.
If you’re open and honest with them in a conversational and friendly manner (rather than just disciplining and lecturing), your teenager will learn to trust you. You’ll watch as simply being a healthy guide to your child, rather than the micromanager of his/her life, will head off most of those self-destructive choices before they even have a chance to occur.
You’ll be able to give them the benefit of your experience, and you know what? They will listen to you. And you’ll suddenly find that understanding your teen isn’t the labyrinth you once thought it was!
To have a healthy relationship with your teen, you need to step into his/her reality. Remember what it was like when you were a teenager and use that experience to help you. Sometimes your kids can’t fully tell you what’s going on in their lives. They lack the experience that living brings, the context, the insight. It’s your job as a parent to ask questions, and listen to their answers, without judgement. (If you’re not sure how to do that I recommend my series on How to Talk to Your Teen).
Once you free them to make their own mistakes, you’re giving them the chance to learn how to deal with life when you’re not there.
In the end, none of us want to have to deal with our teenager. That’s a very painful personal chore. What we want instead is to have a relationship with them. One where mistakes are met with empathy and understanding from both of you. Because this is a two way street.
Once you’ve taken the steps to truly try and understand your teenager, you can help them understand that you, the parent, aren’t just a parent. You’re not a category, a job title, that you’re a human being just as capable of making mistakes as they are.
Let me tell you a little secret: they don’t want to have to deal with you, either! The next part of this process is helping them step into your shoes. Which I’ll cover in my next post Understanding Your Teenager, Part 2: Helping Them Understand You.
Need to talk to someone about your teen? Take a moment to speak with me personally on a 100% FREE Personal Discovery Session. I’ve spent over 20 years mentoring parents and teens, so take this opportunity to join me today!
Debra Beck is a devoted mother, sought-after presenter, author, and has spent over 20 years working with teens and their parents. She’s helped thousands of teen girls develop their self-esteem through her blog, one-on-one mentoring sessions, and mother-daughter retreats.
Her award-winning book My Feet Aren’t Ugly: A Girl’s Guide to Loving Herself was revised and updated for re-release in September 2011 with Beaufort Books.