How to Keep Teens Close While Letting Them Go
Q: As the father of a 14-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter, I often feel confused. I am a stay-at-home dad. Dealing with my son’s and daughter’s adolescence and mood changes has me stumped. I miss the times when we were buddies and able to work things out together. As I look at my two teenagers, what suggestions do you have so I can stay connected to them as they seem to be drifting away?
A: Remember you have been through many developmental stages with your kids. You probably have seen other times when they tried things out on their own only to cycle back to you for support, comfort or guidance. Your question shows that you have a sense of the relationship with them changing and evolving. As you learn from this stage, don’t forget the past and what each of your children has taught you about how they handle problems, friends, and changes as you go through the teen years. You are entering a new phase that will challenge all of you and add to your shared history in the future.
The good news is that most teens get through adolescence successfully. However, you cannot ignore the fact that decision-making skills, peer influences and risk-taking behaviors increase during this time. You have every right not only to miss the times when things were more familiar, but also to worry. Remember, you can handle this stage as you have handled the past by keeping your focus on your relationship with each of your children.
You already have some traditions that can continue. Those might include shopping and cooking; running errands; participating in school events, sports or scouting; and planning trips. Although there may be less interaction with them, don’t forget that as you live your life, they will continue to include you and learn from you. Adapt activities that you currently do to their new-found independence. For example, you may want to suggest that they take a larger role in planning a vacation. Give them a budget and time line and see what they do. If you have often had a special “family night,” see if there are some ways to keep it, while updating it to fit their current interests.
It is critical at this time to learn the skill of supporting your children without rescuing them. Recent research shows that hope is a learned behavior that comes from solving one’s own problems, even after serious setbacks. As parents, our natural desire to help our children can often harm their own view of themselves being able to succeed in the world. It is hard for us to watch our children struggle. This is a time when we might see them struggle, but we must be prepared to step back and let them learn from that struggle on their own. This is far more difficult than solving a problem they might have, and far more important.
It might help you to think about what is going on with each of them physiologically, intellectually, emotionally, and socially in adolescence. Here are some things to watch for as they grow and develop. Your daughter may have reached full physical development. She may have shifted away from being overly concerned with outside appearances and become more interested in how her friends think and act. However, she may be vulnerable to cultural pressures surrounding weight. Make sure you maintain a non-judgmental approach. While many parents were raised in a time of parents teasing and using guilt as motivators, these practices can lead to children feeling shamed.
Your son is a few years away from completing his physical growth, and you probably notice changes. Hormones will continue to influence both your children, whether it is part of a monthly cycle for your daughter or rush of testosterone for your son. Again, your role is to help them navigate understanding these changes whenever you see an opening for conversation to happen.
Intellectually, your children will be using problem-solving skills inconsistently. You may notice one day great forethought, and almost thoughtlessness the next. This is part of their learning process. Socially and emotionally both of your children are changing. The older they get, the easier it might be for them to set their own limits with friends. You may see this as they also set limits with how much time they spend with you.
Be prepared for them to be overwhelmed by the choices ahead. If they initially struggle with dealing with peer pressure, know that with experience they may grow more confident in trusting themselves with their choices. This is a time when teens may become sexually active and may start experimenting with alcohol and drugs. Your role is to listen to them as they sort out all these aspects of being an adolescent.
As you watch your kids grow more into themselves, don’t be afraid to engage with them and set limits when necessary:
- Use logical consequences for lapses in judgment;
- Create new opportunities for trust building;
- Continue to share your values around drugs, smoking, and sexual activity;
- Support them, especially if they are dealing with issues around their sexual identity;
- Pay attention to any warning signs of eating disorders or mental health problems;
- Make sure your teen knows that you will not punish him or her for being honest.
The challenge of parenting teenagers is staying connected while letting them go at the same time. We do this as we listen more and advise less. We stay curious and accepting as we discover what our teens want for themselves. We make sure that we keep sending a clear message: we love you and will be there for you. We may not take care of the problems in your life, but your choices will not keep us from loving and caring for you.
Keep a big picture of how the choices you make as a parent now set a framework for staying engaged in your teen’s future. Good luck!
Daring Greatly by Brene Brown (especially Chapters 3 & 7)
Parenting Teens with Love and Logic: Preparing Adolescents for Responsible Adulthood, Updated and Expanded Edition by Jim Fay
Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me & Cheryl to the Mall: A Parent’s Guide to the New Teenager by Anthony E. Wolf Ph.D.