Small children, small problems, big children, big problems.
The only thing harder than being a teenager is parenting a teenager!
Parenting a teen is HARD!! Your teenager is starting to explore the world for the first time, and at the same time, you need to figure out how you can give them just enough independence to do this safely, but not so much independence that they can find themselves in potentially dangerous situations. If you’re feeling anxious about them going out into the big wide world, how do you give them the confidence to get out there and explore, without communicating your own anxiety?
One of the things that’s hardest to accept is the knowledge that as teenagers, they are completely autonomous individuals, capable of making their own friendships and decisions (and sometimes – bad decisions, or ones that you disagree with, or that are misaligned with your values and beliefs). But they’re making these decisions with a limited set of skills and information, and as a result, they’re not always able to make fully informed decisions. So how can you help them to make good decisions on their own?
Boundaries: One way you can help them to feel safe is by creating really firm boundaries. Knowing where the boundaries are, and being consistent with them allows your child to understand where the lines are that they can and can’t cross, and to trust that they are safe within this space. Think about all the different types of boundaries that you might have with your child and how rigid or porous each boundary is. Physical boundaries are about personal space and touch, and boundaries might be violated if someone tries to hug or kiss you if you don’t want to be touched, or going into someone’s personal space, like their bedroom, without permission. Intellectual boundaries are also really important – giving your teenager the space to have their own world view and opinions, no matter how different from your own. Try to be interested and curious, to debate with them but not to argue or shut them down. Emotional boundaries are also really important, knowing when (and when not) to share personal information. If your feelings are being constantly ignored or criticised, your emotional boundaries might not be strong enough.
Throughout their time at high school, your teen will inevitably make some mistakes. By having open conversations, providing firm boundaries and being consistent, you can help them to navigate these mistakes safely, and grow from them.
Don’t be afraid to discuss the big issues with them. Your teen is ready to have a grown-up conversation about all sorts of topics that you might find uncomfortable, including sex, sexuality, gender and drugs. Once they’re fully informed, they have the tools and knowledge to make better decisions. Try to keep things age appropriate, and try to really listen to what they’re telling you, not just guess. How much do they already know, and how much can you add? Try not to benchmark everything against what you did at their age. They’re different people with different experiences, different likes and dislikes – just because you did something at 14 – or waited until you were 18 – doesn’t mean that they should too.
Keep calm and be consistent. Your teen will experience huge anxiety if they can’t predict how you’re going to react to different situations. They’re less likely to tell you something if they don’t trust you to react in a certain way. By responding consistently, your teenager can come to you with anything, safe in the knowledge that you’ll react in a way that’s calm, considered and helps them to navigate their world.
Keep showing up for them. Even if they’re really trying your patience, they need to know that you’ll be there for them. It can be exasperating if they keep doing the same thing over and over again, but they still need to trust that you will be there for you, and that you won’t let them down.
Try not to ask WHY. Asking why can demand an answer or justification, and force us into a defensive position. Your teen might struggle to come up with an answer that isn’t self-justifying in some way. Instead, try to be curious – maybe even start on a slightly different theme and slowly come round to what you want to ask them. Try sentences like ‘I notice that…’, or I wonder how you felt when…’.
Have fun. Sometimes, the day-to-day drudgery of parenting teens can suck all the joy out of life. Try to find fun things to do – take them ice skating, or bake a cake together. Invite friends over to take the spotlight off of you. Get them to make a bucket list of things that they want to do and pick some things to do together. Go out for supper or dessert
Show empathy. Empathy is about understanding something from someone else’s perspective – walking in their shoes. The easiest way to understand their experience is to ask them about it rather than try and guess, or use your own experiences as a reference point.
Dealing with lying. I think that one of the hardest things to deal with is lying. In my experience, if you don’t give teens the freedom and independence that they feel is appropriate to them, if you’re lucky, they might be compliant and do what they’re told, but you might also find that they lie in order to do something anyway. The biggest problem that this creates is that if they do get into trouble or difficulty, they might be reluctant to tell you, making things worse rather than better. The way around this seems to be to give them the independence that they crave – which might also mean dealing with your own anxieties rather than theirs. If you feel really strongly about something, explain the reasons why and also maybe let them know what they can do, and what might happen in order for them to do the thing that they want to do.
Give yourself some space! Sometimes, when you’re right in the thick of it, it can feel like it’s exhausting, and without end. At least you can walk away from a job, leave at 5pm, hand your notice in and resign. As parents, we don’t have that choice. Try and give yourself some space to think, process, strategise. Go for a walk in nature, see friends, find a great therapist who’ll give you the space to work it out for yourself. As parents, we might need to draw on five key things – perspective, patience, persistence, playfulness and presence. Taking some time out to regroup can enable you to focus on these things.