As a parent, you probably know more about your child than anyone else. You remember, cherish, and are grateful for each new stage your child went through, regardless of the challenges that came with each development. But so often, the parents I work with find themselves stuck with their teenagers in ways they have not been stuck before. This series is devoted to helping parents connect with their teens.
Learn more about the value of embracing your imperfection in front of your teen in my previous blog post.
Tip: Let Them Grow Up (And Support The Growth of Skills Needed for Adulthood)
On first read, I’m sure this tip seems incredibly easy to follow, if not downright silly. Of course you cannot stop a human being from growing older, so why would you ever consider attempting to halt natural progression? I don’t think most parents tell themselves that they are doing all in their parental power to stop the growth of their beloved child. The tangible thoughts tend to look more like this:
“I know what I was doing at their age, so there is NO way I’m letting them hang out with their friends.” “How will I know if my teen is safe? There are so many scary things that happen in this world!” “Teenagers don’t have the whole picture of what life entails. I wasn’t able to make decisions at their age that bettered my future, so I’m going to spare them the pain and make those decisions for them.”
Parental Experiences of Fear, Loss, and Control
If this is sometimes you, some of your motivation is undoubtedly out of a genuine concern of safety for your child because you love them so very much. Of course they are the most precious person to you, and you would do anything in your power to keep them safe. But then part of the fear often comes out of parents’ anxiety and possibly even their own experiences of trauma. As I spoke about in the first blog in this series, there can be genuine loss in experiencing your child’s transition into an emerging adult in his or her teen years. For some, it is the recognition that their child is growing up and preparing to leave, which prompts sadness surrounding an upcoming loss. For others, the need-to-be-needed has been satiated for a long time in being a parent, and as their teen becomes more and more independent, the parent feels more loss in this area. These are very common experiences and deserve to be felt and processed with partners, adult family members, and friends.
Complications can occur, however, when parents do not acknowledge these experiences and instead attempt to exert control, insist that they know best and need to continue driving their teen’s life, and do whatever possible to sustain the feelings of “being needed.” This rarely goes well, and as a teen gets older, there’s more likelihood of detrimental responses and effects. If your teen is more passive, he or she might continue to follow your lead but is more likely to struggle with self esteem, a sense of competence, and making big decisions (including into adulthood.) On the other extreme, teenage anger and rebellion is a common response to feeling over-controlled. You can have the best motives in the world, but neither option is desirable for your teen and for your relationship.
Does My Trauma Affect My Parenting?
If your teen years involved trauma, abuse, or other other forms of danger (risky sexual behaviors, teenage substance abuse), you might have anxiety surrounding your teen undergoing similar experiences. Similar to the above example of a parent exerting control, responding out of deep anxiety will either instill fear and possibly trigger your own teen’s anxiety or lead to your teen writing you off and being more at risk. However, you can also have beautiful, vulnerable connections with your teen surrounding your past experiences and what you learned when anxiety is not the driver. Different families will have different comfort levels surrounding how much a parent should disclose to their teen, but revealing your own humanness to your teen, along with sharing what you learned (in the form of natural consequences, not fear-filled, harsh conclusions) can be both relationship-building AND an opportunity for learning for your teen.
I cannot emphasize this enough, but being a parent is one of the most beautiful, transformative, AND difficult roles a person can take, and the majority of (if not all) parents would benefit from receiving their own therapy and support at some point during the wild path of parenthood. If any of what I am speaking about resonates with you, please consider seeking your own support. I have seen this to be especially beneficial for parents with trauma histories either when their children reach adolescence or when their children reach the age the parent was at when the trauma occurred. Therapy is a great space to explore how your experiences impacted you then and how they continue to impact you as a parent, all for the purpose of moving toward being the parent you want to be in a way that aligns with your values and beliefs. Therapy won’t only be a good thing in your life — it will also benefit your child. I promise.
How Do I Keep My Teen Safe While Supporting Independence?
Determining how to promote safety while not being over-controlling will almost always be something parents struggle with, even when they fully understand the role that their own fears, loss, and historical experiences can play in their parenting. I want to validate that very real, very scary things do happen in our world and that our news is ridden with them. I am not advocating that parents should let their teens do whatever they want and take a backseat — far from it! Handheld digital technology and consistently shifting social media forms put teens at risk for cyberbullying (either being a victim of or participating in it), commercial sexual exploitation, or pornography addiction. When teens “sext” or exchange nude photos, they are (usually unknowingly) participating in child pornography and can receive criminal charges, even when the photos being exchanged are of themselves. Since teens have limited dating history and are figuring out what healthy teenage relationships are, they are more prone to finding themselves in unhealthy or even abusive relationships, but not being able to recognize the warning signs. The news will confirm that teens get shot, raped, kidnapped, and murdered on a regular basis. Need I go on?
I’m pretty sure that no parent needed the reminder that they can never keep their teens safe from everything. So how can you encourage your teen’s growing independence as they near adulthood without being a nervous wreck about all that can go wrong? I propose a balance of setting boundaries and controls where necessary that gradually decrease in intensity as the teen gets older (i.e. your teen should have much more freedom at 17 than at 14), while also helping them develop and strengthen teen problem-solving and discernment skills. Be mindful in how you decrease the intensity of your rules over time and the skills you want your teen to be building and developing at each step.
Set Boundaries and Gradually Increase Your Teen's Freedom
If your teen shows a lack of control or maturity in a particular area, continue to set firm boundaries and make it clear that once he or she has mastered this area, he or she will have more freedom. For instance, if your 14-year-old daughter continues to vape or smoke whenever she spends time outside of school with friends, you might need to completely eliminate her privilege of spending time with friends outside of school except for at your house or under your supervision because you cannot trust her to not vape or smoke. You can either set a direct timeframe or just have a broad expectation of needing to not receive reports from school of any vaping or smoking for some time prior to allowing her to hang out with friends outside of school or home. Once this is established, take gradual steps. Let her hang out with particular friends who you believe are positive influences for just a few hours during the day in safe settings. As she continues to show that she is trustworthy, slowly expand where she can spend time with friends, for how long, and with whom.
Especially when you have a strict time limit on how much longer they are in your home and you have eyes on them (for instance, if your teen is leaving for college in one year outside of your community), back off on the intensity of your rules surrounding their freedom but increase the intensity of your focus on building your relationship and having deep conversations that promote your teen’s thoughtfulness on various issues. Listen and ask questions more often than sharing your own opinion unless if they specifically ask for it. Be curious about their thoughts and the solutions they identify. This will help them feel respected and trusted, which will result in them being more likely to be open with you about the hard situations and interactions they experience. You then get to continue to support and explore your teen in navigating difficult scenarios prior to them being fully on their own. You might even be fortunate enough to establish a relationship that leads to your teen continuing to call you and discuss such issues once they are living on their own.
Underlying Message To Communicate To Your Teen: I love seeing you grow up, I'm excited for your future, and I'm here to walk alongside you and support you in these years before you launch.
My Message To You: Value both your teen’s safety and growing independence, and gradually give them more and more opportunities to make their own decisions and to prove their trustworthiness and solid decision-making skills. If you are feeling stuck or experiencing painful emotions in particular areas, don't be afraid to seek your own help and therapy. Good parenting is hard!
Stay tuned for the follow-up article later this week on how to keep your teen safe while also promoting independence in five specific areas!