Your teenage years were confusing, oscillating and full of mystery. Mystery abut who you were, what the world wanted from you and how to be cool. Your teenager’s experience is much the same, but these are not your teenage years, they are theirs. Things have changed. What I have seen clearly in my work as a teacher, coach, mentor and volunteer with this population is that they very desperately need some things from you that will make a world of difference. Here’s what they would ask you for if they could:
1. Consistency. As much as they may huff, sigh and seem irritated, they need consistency: consistent effort, consistent rules, consistent schedules. They are swimming in an overwhelming sea of information, emotions, potentials, pressures and everything pulls them in a different direction. The rules, tools and resources you have identified for your child may not work consistently, but with consistency they will indeed have a lasting impact. Let me say that again: your consistency may not work consistently but it will ultimately have lasting impact. While everything else changes and tugs at them to go here and there, being able to count on you to honor your word, your ideas and your rules, helps them feel safe while they test the waters of life (and yes, your patience at times, but it will be an investment in your greatest creation).
2. Clear Boundaries. Not just boundaries, clear boundaries. You see, teens are learning their own personal boundaries and it’s a very tricky and gray space for them. They may decide they’ve got a boundary today but can’t find the confidence or courage to voice it tomorrow when it matters. As a result, they second guess or doubt that they even have the RIGHT to claim their boundaries in the first place.Your clear limits and respect of their boundaries teach them how to build and reinforce their own firm parameters in life. Being able to say “NO” when you are not around is hard. Every time they find themselves in a situation where they have to choose between right and wrong, or to honor and speak their truth, they are challenged by social pressures to ACT in a way that is often not congruent with h0w they FEEL. If you are not modeling clear boundary setting or if you are not demonstrating respect for theirs, they slip further into self-doubt in critical moments which call for them to be clear, confident and make an authentic choice. In the teen mind, there is a need to conform and please others in social settings. A clear example from you gives them a lightening rod in the storm where they can grab on and make a good decision in a tense and difficult moment. Confusion about boundaries erodes delicately forming self-confidence.
Modeling clear boundaries (and respecting theirs) leads to your teen making healthy choices when they matter most.
3. To Know You Know. Let me start right off the bat by saying this does not mean ignoring your teen’s need for privacy and boundaries. Absolutely have conversations and pay attention to what they say their boundaries are. Honor those: doing so not only helps them set their own, but it may be one of your wisest investments in developing trust with your son or daughter. That said, This can be a tricky one. This is about being aware enough of their lives – and smart enough to show just a few of your cards. It helps them to develop their own version of respect for you. Of course they authentically respect you (have faith, the hugs and affection will return). But they want to know that you know their world too. Find a way to speak their language on occasion (not the slang, but repeat something they spoke of a while ago – not in an “I told you so” way, rather in a “I really respect your judgement, it sounds like that decision you made to do a certain thing a certain way paid off, go you” kind of way). There is no single way to do this. You must trust yourself, be authentic and find a way to show them that you are there, but giving them the space they are asking for. They need to know that you have their back, so be sure to know what they are up against when their back is to the wall. Not sure exactly how to do this? Listen. Don’t nag, don’t be disingenuous. If they don’t want to talk, there is a reason. Listen for clues and illustrate in the best way you can that you are still there.
4. Radical Right Action. This is about making a choice or taking action on their behalf when they ask for it any way but clearly. If your teen is checking out of activities, events, homework, friend groups or the like, something is definitely going on. And no, they are not necessarily going to tell you about it, or even acknowledge that something is going on when you ask about it. They are giving you the warning signs because you are the only person it is safe to fall apart in front of. Now, it is important that you learn your own teenager’s unique language (see number three, above). You may not know exactly what is going on (and if you do, give yourself a gold star), just know that it is important that you stay aware (not invasive) and take some mental notes. Your Radical Right Action need only fit one criteria: an act and/or an illustration of unconditional love – one your teen will benefit from. The action is neither positive or negative, rather it should come from your heart, from a place of love, not from a place of anger, frustration or exhaustion. This could mean celebrating their efforts in an unexpected and totally un-parent way, enforcing a rule about screen time, taking your daughter away for a spa weekend or bringing your son to a psychologist specializing in teen development. Nothing is guaranteed to work, and some actions may start a battle, but a show of love and support is essential. Only you know what is right – and check in with your gut before you act. Ask yourself questions like this:
- Is this coming from my heart? (If it is coming from anywhere else, pause and ask yourself what your agenda is. There is a better solution to be found.)
- Is this in her best interest right now? in the long run?
- Will this help her de-stress?
- Will this provide an opening for us to communicate in a new way or a different environment?
- How would my teenage self feel about my parent taking this action?
- What are some similar actions I could take? (weigh and compare them)
Your Radical Right Action will be one of those moments that your teen looks back on and knows without a shadow of a doubt that you were paying attention and you were there for her. She may not get it or appreciate it in the moment, but raising your son or daughter is a marathon, not a sprint.
5. Space & Structure. These two absolutely go together. They need space because they are learning, feeling, and experiencing so much. Most of the time they are overwhelmed and they need downtime (alone) to rest, process and begin to understand what is going on. There are external and internal changes happening constantly in a teenager’s world, and to grow healthy brains, they need this space to become familiar with what is coming up. Please, give your teenagers space. They are not the same beings they were just a few years ago. The are literally in the very confusing space between childhood and adulthood, and they are both oscillating between and integrating the two in completely unpredictable ways. In fact, I’m sure you are familiar with the way your teen can seem more like a 12-year-old one day, and a full-blown adult the next. [Sidebar: this is precisely why middle school teachers are at the front of the line at the pearly gates].
On the flip side of the Space coin is Structure. May I begin here by recommending daily family dinners together for starters? In their worlds, almost nothing is certain, but knowing ahead of time that they will sit down with you at the dinner table every single night provides a much needed ballast in the storm. Structured phone and screen time is also important – and you can enforce this by participating. How about a charging station inside a kitchen drawer? Your phone goes in too, no exceptions. And ask for your teen’s input on structure. Whatever their idea, implement it to communicate that her ideas are just as valuable and respected as yours. She wants to volunteer at the animal shelter every weekend? Great! The family that volunteers to pet orphan animals at the shelter *every Saturday at 11am* together not only stays together, but invests in the empowerment of their child’s decision making, authority, self confidence and personal empowerment. That’s structure worth building.
One last thought: I know that you are picking your battles, and kudos to you for walking that long and crooked path. Just remember that while yes, it is hard to see your teenager go through what they are going through (and be directly in the wake of it all), these years are not about you. They are about helping someone you love become the greatest version of themselves and guess who the coach is? You. Yes, you are the parent and the rule setter and the authority. And yes, these are not easy years for you. Remember always that what they need from you first and always is a gentle, understanding and forgiving love, not a hard line. They will disrespect you, they will probably break your heart and make you question yourself constantly. But they are helping you to grow as a person too. You are walking the journey of the wise elder. Ask yourself if those feelings you’re having about your teen can teach you anything about yourself. And know that you are doing it right if you are there, and if you are loving them and learning the myriad ever changing ways they need you to love them.
See you at the pearly gates, you teenage years surviving peace warrior, you!
About the Author:
Amy L. Carrier has been building new solutions in education since 2000. She is known for empowering teens to become entrepreneurs teaching them how to create their own unique solutions to problems in their communities. Amy has been interviewed on CNN about teaching business and entrepreneurship in schools.