“Remember that they are people too and have their own opinions and feelings. Level with them. Don’t be above them.” -Dart Luce-Edwards
I asked my husband for advice on how to talk to teenagers as he is a high school swim coach. The above was his response; strangely, he concisely said what I want to talk about in this blog post.
I’ve had the privilege of working with numerous teenagers and also have one of my own. I accept that they are all different and present differently just as us adults are unique. If you don’t think this approach will work for your child, consider looking into yourself and how your beliefs impact your perspective. What is holding you back if you haven’t tried this approach? Be willing to try something new if your current method isn’t working. Also, if you have tried this approach and it hasn’t worked for you, consider getting additional counseling to develop a more helpful strategy. By no means am I saying this is the only way. With that, let’s dive in!
Ahhhh, the teen years. People often compare the “terrible two’s” and the teen years by saying, “Oh, you think a toddler is bad? Just wait until they’re a teen!” There really are some similarities that we need to consider. A toddler has so many big emotions and such a tiny body that is not quite equipped to handle all those feelings. As humans, we must co-regulate before we can self-regulate. That means we must teach that toddler how to cope with their feelings before they can do it themselves. Not my topic for today, but there is a neat time in toolkit you can find HERE.
So that’s toddlers. How does that relate to teens?? Teens= puberty. So many hormones that affect mood are coming into play, so once again they are using those skills learned early on, whether good or bad. On top of that, they are now expected to use logic and reasoning. Unfortunately, the frontal cortex doesn’t fully develop until later in life, which means they sometimes act impulsively. This totally explains why insurance rates are insane for teens! You can read more about teen brain development HERE.
A few points to remember when parenting teens:
1.) They will use the coping skills they learned as toddlers to deal with emotions as teens.
2.) The part of the brain responsible for higher reasoning isn’t fully developed and needs to be nurtured.
3.) As my husband stated they have their own feelings. Sometimes we expect kids to be robots with no bad days or attitudes when we as adults have both… often!
Teens are like baby birds trying to fly. One nature show I watched had this giant baby bird tumbling down a cliff as it attempted to flap its wings. It was incredibly sad! The narrator reported that its body was built to withstand the fall and by golly that little bird hopped up at the end and kept trying! Points to take away: it learned by trial and error, & it was equipped with what it needed to withstand those blows. While it would be extremely wise for teens to learn from our mistakes, it often takes them learning on their own. Sometimes, the prices are higher than others. Parenting teens is a delicate dance between giving freedom to form individuality and protecting from the extremes that our fully formed brains know will end poorly (meanwhile, you are so terrible for not allowing them to go to that party where no parents are home and you know alcohol will be present).
Here’s the secret to parenting teens: listening. You know why that’s so hard for us? We are used to doing the talking. Listening is the biggest part of giving freedom to form individuality. It is a HUGE deal in helping teens feel heard, to feel their opinions have value. Not feeling heard is a major theme I’ve noticed in my work. If you allow them to feel heard, they have a tendency to be more open to hearing your perspectives. What does this look like in a conversation?
Child: Hey, can I go to this party?
Parent: I don’t know their parents, so no.
Child: Storms off, secretly plans to go & will likely risk driving driving drunk at 3am to avoid being caught by you, the dictator.
Child: Can I go to this party?
Parent: Will Bob’s parents be home?
Parent: Let’s chat some more about details, but know that I will speak with Bob’s parents about their plans for supervision.
Child: Oh, well they might not be there the whole time.
Parent: Ahhh okay (remain calm). Then let’s talk about a few situations that may come up if you went to this party. How would you handle ________? *Fill in scenario that concerns you whether that’s drinking, drugs, sex, peer pressure, etc. Keep asking how they would handle each situation. Ask them situations they think would come up! Ask them about their fears. This is the equivalent of that baby bird having the equipment it needed as it tumbled down the cliff.
Child: *responds with how they would handle situations*
Parent (at the end of questions): I’d like to take some time to think and/or talk to partner about the decision. *get back to child in timely fashion*
At this point, there are so many options. Yes, no, or an alternative. Set up a code word in case they need picked up early. Briefly explain why they can’t go and ask them if they understand & how they feel about it. Offer an alternative, “while I’m not comfortable with you going there, we could host something here?” It is still a possibility that they will sneak out and go, but the important part is that you had the conversation and now they are better equipped to handle those situations that might arise. You can encourage them to call you or set up another person they could call if they were too scared to contact you. I know it’s super scary to think about them going out, especially without permission, but the alternative is that you rarely, if ever, say yes & at 18, they go buck wild because they’re finally free. Sometimes, you have to watch your child tumble down the mountain and trust that you’ve equipped them to survive the fall, as scary as that is.
I mentioned this is a delicate dance between giving freedom to form individuality and protecting from extremes. We covered freedom but let’s look at protecting. Protecting begins with the same communication pattern I discussed above. Give them the opportunity to feel heard. Avoid criticizing how they would handle different situations. Try to avoid inserting your opinions on their responses- LISTEN. Then share your perspective as to why you are choosing protection rather than independence. We recently had to explain to our son that we would not allow something for his safety; however, once he turns 18, that “something” would be completely his choice. We hope he will be more mature to handle that at that point. Also, we will be there to walk with him through that “something” should he choose to pursue it.
LISTEN. LISTEN. LISTEN. Even if you already know you will say no, listen. You have no idea how often I have teens say they would respond more positively to parent lectures if they had an opportunity to speak too. It’s just respectful dude. They are coming into adulthood- promote their voice, don’t silence them into compliance. I will avoid stating times you should say no because that boundary will look different for each family. I believe protecting is fostered through numerous conversations, not just when a child asks to do something.
Having trouble figuring out how to have those difficult conversations? Of course, you can try counseling. I also have an incredible free program I want to mention! I’m partnering with the Appalachian Replication Project out of James Madison University to promote a program called Draw the Line Respect the Line. It has lessons on these important topics like consent, sexual health, peer pressure, and boundaries. There are lessons for 6-8 grades, and the cool part is that it can be done online! They also have a module for parents to complete! Check out their site here: https://www.sexedva.org/arp
Feel free to reach out to us if you have additional questions on how to develop your child’s independence. We hope this blog has been helpful in guiding your teen toward an independent and successful future!